Careen by Grace Shuyi Liew
Noemi Press, 2019. 87 pages
Reviewed by Maya Marshall
This debut full-length collection of poems follows Grace Shuyi Liew’s chapbooks, Prop (Noemi Press, 2016) and Book of Interludes (Noemi Press, 2016).
As poets often do, Liew writes of love and trouble. The topics troubled here are race, statelessness, sex, and motherhood. Liew includes sex and bondage—the brick and mortar of the family—and offers us the glint of the thin steel cord figuratively linking the mother and daughter throughout the first three sections of Careen. The book opens with mortality—to be durational (read: mortal) means we run from our mother’s bodies into the lack of our own:
“We learn bodily ire from
our mothers—how to run
out of our own flesh.” (12)
Via geographic movement (as is so beautifully handled in the latter section of the book where we follow the speaker through multiple cities, mostly exceptionally, Berlin), line, structure, figurative navigation of game play, and other structural elements, the speaker careens through meditations from life to death.
The book is voice-driven and guided by fury, grief, and desire. We hear the insistent declaration of the intent to survive coming from a person who believes that mutability is a fortification against abandonment. From the first page through the last the reader is tasked to keep up with the dash.
The title word careen means: (v.) 1. turn a ship on its side for cleaning, caulking, or repair. 2. move swiftly in an uncontrolled way in a specified direction. In this book’s section dedicated to the cities in which the speaker has lived or visited, the means of transit and the practical concern of keeping up the body and other locomotives, the first definition fits. However, the second definition makes the most sense given the thrust of Careen’s narrative arc from tumultuous childhood to the adult speaker’s elegy for a lost love.
Liew’s language is sometimes diaristic, sometimes associative and strategic. In her growth the poet stretches, pulls lines from literary forebears to build around and build out her own poems. This tension between her full and desperate diction and the borrowed text indicates intense emotion in what is a fairly heady, well-researched, poet’s-poet collection (one that nods to Rosemarie Waldrop, Frida Kahlo, Jeanette Winterson, Mary Ruefle and others).
Sex is a battle between alien and client. The outsider acknowledges white partners’ desire and concedes if the sex can be transactional, performative, invulnerable, and played with the threat of violence:
heat of stricken tongue
“...I keep waking keep turning
turn over to catch your spit’s arc...” (65)
“You only want me when I
(“In Event of a Plunge, Give Over to Your Body”)
The tone is admonishing until the fourth section of the book, when the tone softens and turns elegiac, which is to say, it turns towards love.
In the universe of this collection, eventually, every color will careen into its own lack; all colors together are white light—an absence of color—a dominance of white light. Liew asks that those in in-between spaces see what she sees: “a head-hearted era.” she cautions them to “see white widen” and declares that “anger is never private” then asks, “if we refuse white space as instituted home” will we become lonesome? The notion that mutability—adaptability—protects suggests the answer: even if we become lonesome, it is a temporary state we can use anger, lust, and intimacy to fight.
The poet’s stride is surest and most controlled in the latter sections of the book where the emotional energy shifts from fury to reflection and the language becomes more tied first to place and then to a beloved’s lost body. Looking forward to the poet’s second collection, I wonder what she will develop of the language-as-object lineage notion she inherits from Waldrop and the somatic sensuality of Winterson and Kahlo. This debut is a catalogue of the poet’s key obsessions. Maybe her forthcoming collection will be less gloss of vital topics and a deeper dive into one of the index’s (which she has chosen over a table of contents) entries.
Maya Marshall is a writer and an editor. She is co-founder of underbellymag.com a website focused on the art and magic of poetry revision. Marshall has earned fellowships from MacDowell, Vermont Studio Center, Callaloo, and Cave Canem, and the Community of Writers. She serves as a senior editor for [PANK] and works as a manuscript editor for Haymarket Books. Her poems have appeared in RHINO, Potomac Review, Blackbird, Muzzle Magazine, and elsewhere.