Monsters I Have Been: Poems by Kenji C. Liu
Alice James Books, April 2019. 100 pp.
Reviewed by DM O’Connor
I hand Monsters I Have Been: Poems by Kenji C. Liu to my 96-year old Irish grandmother and ask her what she thinks. Her magnifying glass scans the cover, the table of contents, the first page. She lands randomly on “Footnotes to a murder in the third degree” and reads aloud:
1. We are our glasses of anxiety. Our night cravings slam you into a terrible dream America.
2. Yes the clutching, rough bent shove. We mourn our history, groaning, misshapen. We pull flowers, console each other’s dusky daggers. We broken brothers, tackling each other with belonging.
“Well, it’s unusual isn’t it, from what I understand.” She turns up the volume on her Bizet CD, and flips the pages, “Look there is a musical score! And what language is that? Why does he write all over the page? Why waste so much paper? I don’t think I would want to ever go to America. Frankenpo? Is that a new word? Would you just look at that moon?” She stares out the window and soon falls asleep. Liu’s book tumbles lightly to the floor and I wonder about accessibility and the poet’s role in hiding messages and if by using a mash-up, responsibility is somehow avoided like a DJ mixing melodies that they could never play.
Liu has created an idiosyncratic language called frankenpo (Frankenstein poetry) which is well explained in a concluding essay entitled “The Monstrosity: Notes Towards a Frankenpo.” These notes are key in understanding the method behind Liu’s madness, if meaning is crucial. Before reading these explicatory notes, Monsters I Have Been is discombobulating, cryptic, and frustrating if narrative is the expectation, like attempting a crossword puzzle when you know there is no key. The themes of masculinity, violence, gender diversity, and America all swirl and bobble and no stylistic, tonal or narrative leverage can be purchased. After reading Liu’s endnotes, oh-this-is-what-the-writer-wanted comes looming off the page into eureka and all the feeling or duplicity and rage transform into a coded knowledge: oh-this-is-what-experimental-poetry-can-do! Liu explains:
In response, drawing on Japanese grammar, I experiment with minimalizing the western, hyper-individualized self—not to efface the hand that writes, but to contextualize it in all that produces it as a cultural point of view. The subject is not solid, but a construction—of history, race, class, gender, religion, and more.
In employing these solipsistic, superimposed rules, Liu’s writing gives tools to deconstruct what the “western” world considers poetry. At first the page may look academic and obtuse, yet after the key is revealed, a seemingly infinite revolutionary set of tools are placed on the workbench of deconstruction: Foucault, Walter Benjamin, Godzilla, online I-Ching consultations, presidential addresses, musical scores, foreign language symbols, concrete poetry, font games, celebrity gossip, manifestos, Judith Butler, non sequitur . . . and these are the ones I can name.
Monsters I Have Been dismantles a canon with tools that the majority of western experimental poets didn’t know existed. These monsters are rocking the foundation and teaching the rubble how to fall. The opening of “Stomach me, delicious world” is one of the more conservative examples of what frankenpo can do:
Their government ugly makes our colony drunk.
It’s a fuck-wad victorian-era fight. The slaughterhouse follows us,
sleep-eating. Asking for más meat.
And my soap voice husband. Turning over, he says—in immaculate parenthesis—
We deserve beautiful between wars. A love body, a dumpling. At least
a lovely face, some pretty piedra enclosed jungle. For my sticky birthday
let’s go unfilial. Go national shit line.
Liu is doing stuff I have never seen before. These pages are a “three-for-one special” reading. On the first pass, each page blitzes with (wtf?) confusion, the second pass, after reading the key, wow—beyond what poor old dead white man Marshall McLuhan could ever have imagined. Then, the third reading reveals a pulsating erotic heart full of intelligence, insight, and constitutional empathy.
This morning, February howling outside, I find my grandmother sitting by the fire with her magnifying glass. She has slipped into my room while I was sleeping and appropriated my copy of Liu’s, Monsters I Have Been. As if startled from hypnosis, she looks up and says, “I don’t know which direction to read the page, but I think I would like to be reading this forever.” A better compliment I have not yet known.
DAVID MORGAN O'CONNOR is from a small Canadian village on Lake Huron. After many nomadic years, he's based in Albuquerque, where stories and poems progress daily. His writing has appeared in more than 50 print or online publications. He reviews, interviews and blogs monthly.