Lately, things do what they shouldn’t,
like a house in Kansas that remains intact
inside a tornado, or a clock in Fort Greene
missing a hand
This passage from Joanna Sit’s new poetry collection Track Works applies to the volume as a whole, which is marked by stylistic versatility and playful defiance of expectations. From poem to poem, and even within a single poem, Sit shifts diction registers from heightened and formal to colloquial and even vulgar. She intersperses poetic arias with very short pieces that seem like they belong in another world-- at least in some other book. But this work is all about uniting worlds.
Sit was born in Canton, China, and now lives in New York City. The cover image of Track Works is a painting that depicts the Great Wall of China laced like stitches through a vast plane of teal hills. In the foreground is a small human figure in blood-red raiment, bearing a cross over the wall. The viewer has to search for the Christ figure; it is the vibrant, viridian landscape, with its visible brushstrokes, which is most likely to draw the eye.
Being Jewish, I would not have not known that Track Works is based on the Stations of Cross had Ms. Sit not told me herself. (In truth, I had to go and Google the term. For anyone else who might be in the dark, the Stations of the Cross is a Catholic devotion in 14 steps, which pays homage to the last earthly day of Jesus Christ. Each of the 14 stations is dedicated to a specific event from Jesus’s last day, taking the individual on a pilgrimage from station to station.)
The cover image, a martyr in a beautiful country, appropriately captures the essence of the book. And yet, like a good piece of music, Track Works contains several motifs that appear to run on parallel tracks, primary of which are the “Timescape” sequence and the “Mad Dog Bar Fly” sequence. These threads are antithetical to one another; they could have been written by two different poets. But Joanna Sit is interested in the holy and the dirty, the cosmic and the trivial.
The “Timescapes” are her legato poems, and my favorites. They are the site of some of her richest imagery and most resonant turns of phrase. Their structure is associative, almost oneiric. They leap like memory. The vocabulary in these poems is precise, and at times abstruse. (I am always partial to writers who to send me to the dictionary.)
Perhaps the most striking passage of the book comes at the end of “Timescape: Bye Bye Birdie.”
Your knowledge is no good here,
says the worm in the apple.
What you’ve learned can’t be proven.
Your money is no good here,
says the gambler. What you’ve earned
can’t be spent. And the two move on,
Side by side, satisfied by
truce, leaving the flower
to bear this burden, to carry
their truth in its stamen
like cards up sleeves of green gone mad
letting it rot in its stigma,
in that condemned station
of an abandoned line, last stop
before the ice comes in.
A reading of this passage is enriched with the Stations of the Cross in mind. The word “stigma,” being both a botanical term and a religious term, has dual-meaning here. The stigma refers to the part of a flower’s reproductive organ: the tip of the pistil where it receives pollen and where the pollen germinates. The word “stigma” is also the singular form of “stigmata” which refers to the marks of crucifixion wounds. Finally, the word can also indicate a behavior that has been stigmatized or shunned, a meaning which would apply to the gamber and the eater of the apple invoked early on in the passage. What this passage succeeds so well in doing, beyond its word play, is drawing a parallel between the ancient sin of knowledge and the contemporary sin of gambling; the ancient symbol of the flower and the contemporary symbol of the train.
The “Timescapes” are replete with floral and celestial imagery. The “Mad Dog Bar Fly” poems, on the other hand, have more to do with stars in the Hollywood sense. In her Notes at the end of the book, Ms. Sit informs the reader that these poems are “rondelets recast based on quotes by Mickey Rourke from www.imdb.com.” (For those who are once again in the dark, Mickey Rourke is an actor, screenwriter, and retired boxer, and a rondelet is a short form of French poetry.)
“Mad Dog Bar Fly I” reads as follows:
I lost the house,
the wife, the credibility,
I lost the house,
I lost my soul, I was alone…
the only thing I could afford
was a shrink to help me know that
I lost the house.
I called and asked
a guy who used to hang with me
I called and asked him about some construction work
he brushed me off, said he didn’t
have time for my shit, pissed off that
I called and asked.
To dress language like this in metrical form is like putting a prom dress on a subway rat. This language, given title and form, placed opposite a sincere aria-poem called “Ephemeral” just makes us laugh. And this is a pattern throughout the book. These bizarre rondelets are, without explanations, used as bridges between the stations of beauty.