Living Quarters review

No Place Like Home


by Adrienne Su

Manic D Press, 93 pp., $14.95

In order to gain a sense of order and existential clarity, people often look for comfort and certainty by putting themselves in exotic or geographical distances. Traveling, for example, is one of those activities that cultivates and educates, and it seems that everyone wants to do it. The speaker in Living Quarters wants the opposite. In this emotionally substantive collection of lush poems, Adrienne Su takes us back to that place of domesticity and keeps us there, showing us that there is much to explore in our own backyard and behind our own front door, that it takes just as much courage, if not more, to face our own lives. The collection meditates on the beauty of staying still against an environment that demands speed and mobility. The speaker, like a realtor, takes us for a tour of the quotidian. But this realtor turns out to be more of a museum guide than real estate agent. In this tour, we slow our pace to hers and find ourselves in a world of surprising beauty and depth offered by everyday objects and actions generally unexamined and therefore taken for granted.

The book, as its title tells us, is separated into four. The speaker lives in all four parts of this space, but before we start the tour, the guide gives us an overview of what we’re about to see. The first poem, “”Earthbound,” instructs us to keep to the parameters in order for the imagination to work its magic, that while others extoll the excitement of travel, the test of one’s ability to grasp life is through staying home and standing still.

The imagination, of course, resides in the mind, and it is fed by daily physical life. Part I, then, is all about nourishment – the gathering of food, and the cooking of it in the kitchen. Here, Su’s kitchen is an extension of the mind and its creations.  The poem “Kitchen” asserts as much in the lines, “Kingdom of creative potential,/ it has drained creative potential/ for centuries. Now stocked/ with life source that, neglected,/ turns sickness source,/ it has no proprietor,/ only guest chefs who double/ as guests…” The speaker warns of the delicate nature of what the cook/artist needs and how neglect can easily rot potential.

Mostly, book one offers a meditation on the speaker’s relationship to the food and the light that her cultural past recast on that relationship. In “Sunday Dinner” and “Asian Shrimp,” we read about an American ritual rubbing up against an inherited Asian sensibility. There is a declaration of that duality in the first line of “Rosemary” : “Its name, compound of two,…” and the subsequent stanzas that reveals “while living like halfa citizen;/ …It also carried/ odors of memory, loyalty.” At the end, the only thing to do is wait for that “magical day” when she can move from “story to myth,” and become“renter to owner” of her heritage and citizenship.

Then there are the poems “Supermarket Fruits,” “When More Is Better,” and “In Late November,” when the speaker offers the almost abashed acknowledgement that there is so much food – that America is the land of plenty – and the implicit question of “what to do with so much?” Well, part of the answer may be in the speaker’s charmingly sly poem “At the Checkout,” when the checkout clerk can only identify broccoli rabe by its label, then misreads it as “broccoli babe” and calls it “baby broccoli.” It is a little joke to suggest that perhaps we learn to know what we have.

The second part of the collection starts off with the line “Part centering of gravity” in “Turning in Early.” That gravity moves us from the kitchen to the bedroom and the bath. In this part of the house, the speaker gets to eschew company, to nurse her wounds. The poems here explore all the different reasons one would need the stability a home can provide. Much of what keeps the speaker in the room is ailment, or as Su names it in her poem, “Affliction.” The speaker is afflicted with different disorders – insomnia (“Insomnia”), illness (“Bronchitis”), inequality (“Affliction”), memory and guilt (“Practice” and “Bathtime”), but mostly, she is afflicted by not being at home in all sense of the word. The condition of permanence is what she’s after, and staying put is to experience the suffering of that permanence. This extends to writing, as she tells us –  that “A writer could remain aboard/ the ship of grief and thrive, never/ approaching the shores of rapture.” In response to pain, the yogic pose of choice is the Rock: “Become the ultimate burrower./ Let all be refusal,/ not just the center.”

This reach for permanence brings us, literally, to the earthbound life. In Part III, we are brought to the backyard where herbs and berries are indeed rooted in earth. In the beautifully rendered poem “On Being Criticized for Coming from Suburbia,” the speaker inverts conventional judgment and defends the commonly maligned suburbia by giving her criticizer paradisiacal images of “benevolent dogwoods” and “the fallen blossoms of the tulip poplar” that “might have been rose petals.”

These poems contemplate a life with attachments, be these attachments roots or chains. The flora, being held down by their roots, needs tending and care. Yet, the speaker fails to keep them alive or in one place. She is having a hard time controlling the weather, which is swelling up the raspberries and tomatoes. We read in the rosemary’s own elegiac words about the gardener’s callous neglect. Inside, the gardener is on the couch with her “novels and tea.” Outside, nature runs wild, doesn’t stay put and doesn’t stay alive, and the seasons move on.

Fauna, in this case, are dogs. The first is a pet dog, held by a leash, who like flora, also needs saving and care and gets it. Then, there is the stray dog who, while needing a bit of attention, would not be domesticated nor leashed. “It would rather imagine a warmer, softer/ life than live one, because then/ there’d be nowhere left to travel.” The dog touches that part of the speaker who is living a warm, soft life. This poem is entitled “Grief” in which grief is the dog as an “animal not to be controlled,” and she allows those uncontrolled feelings to hover on the periphery of her psyche as she allows the dog to come and go around the periphery of her house.

And despite the speaker’s insistent on stillness, domesticity, she cannot control the wild weeds of her life from invading her sanctuary. As she already hints in “Weeding,” earlier in Part III, “The decisive twist and give/ augur transformation/ ragged to tended, anarchic/ to formed, almost ruined/ to almost beautiful.” The chaos of the uncontrollable pops up and invades the space of Part IV. Here, the ailments are revisited in the poems “Procrastination” and “Radiology.” Memories are redefined through a bifurcated cultural lens in “The Land of Plenty.” The yoga pose is now the “Downward Dog,” and death sneaks through in “To A Student Dying Young.” Some of the poems in Part IV practically brim with sorrow, and we can’t help but feel that finally, the speaker will relax her control. Even as she does, however, it doesn’t mean that she gives up her authority or her power to keep the poems in shape. She can do both, as in the sonnet “Learning Cursive,” which talks all about the tools she uses (“a pen” but “no gel, no felt”) to keep the idea of “running” in its place. Thus this “running” becomes a dance of the “hand and brain,” which gives way to a type of compromise between running and staying still.

In this collection, the emotional tenor of each subject is fitted into the appropriate form. Su’s masterful control of poetic form is mindful and deliberate. In “Achievement,” for example, by using the sonnet to shape the idea of having arrived at some place without having to travel, she enhances the gravitas of that conceit by drawing on the elegance of that traditional structure.  Similarly, in “Adaption,” the recursive lines of the villanelle imitates the recurring cycle of time so that the line begins with “Each day begins with the unwise thought” and ends with the speaker concluding penultimately that “Thus I begin with the unwise thought.” The repetition highlights the infinite nature of time through poetic discipline.

Yet, rather than completely constricting the poet’s voice to the form, Su’s manipulation of the form can also free the poem for unknown possibilities. In the sestina “Downward Dog,” even though the speaker applauses the form’s virtue in the first line: “Through the changes, the forms persist,” she also leaves out the envoi of a conventional sestina because there is no ending. She leaves the door open, just as she allows the stray dog to hover around her house. Perhaps it is to allow for whatever that is worth our love and contemplation to come to where we live, if only we would stay put and wait for it.