Bad Naturalisations

By | 1 December 2022

If there is a key to a self-enclosed poem such as ‘FAQ’, it is in the way it displaces the question of its content on to the question of its form. Indeed, the poem’s final line (‘These methods … are not recommend if wanting to retain the wholeness of either part’) also contains a moral for poetry criticism too keen on the detachability of content from form. The word ‘content’ itself has undergone some telltale changes recently. In an age of data, content is no longer dialectically opposed to form – it is totally indifferent to it. Terms like ‘content creator’ or the substantive uses of ‘creative’ point to an atmospheric absence of medium specificity that is, arguably, one of the hallmarks of a neoliberal ethos of fungibility without end.

What are we to make, then, of the second term in the title of Eric Jiang’s poem, ‘Diasporic Content’? Is ‘content’ being used to signpost a thematic synthesis or is it being offered here in a spirit of mock-consumer advice (‘the following poem has been classified D and contains migrant themes and diasporic content’)? Whatever ‘content’ there is has been attenuated by a seemingly haphazard program of dispersal (returning us to the etymological roots of diaspora, Greek for ‘scattering’) across word, image, and the audio-visual.

Yet this feeling of the haphazard comes off as an achieved effect, as forecast in the first section: ‘It’s a conflict between what’s practical, valuable and sentimental.’ This is a poem invested in the volatile affects of seriality, in the pathos and bathos of lists as equipment for living and as chronicles of need and desire. At the level of its own form, there is an engagement with the listicle – that epitome of ‘snackable content’ in its minimisation of formal complexity for the sake of streamlining consumption. The very ‘burning house’ trope with which the poem begins initiates the reader into a kind of listicalisation of everyday life under the pressure of emergencies, real and imagined. Here, perhaps, forced migration meets lifestyle questionnaire.

But this is to get ahead of ourselves. The verbal scaffolding of the poem appears as follows:

[Diasporic Content]
As burning house: [...]
As mourning: [...]
As dusk: [...]
As malfunctioning microwave: [...]
As goodbye: [...]
As father’s words you’ll always remember: [...]
As broken clock: [...]
As pedagogy: [...]
As the sun and the moon: [...]
As seance: [...]
As plans: [...]
As online search to confirm name: [...]
As the physics of waves: [...]
As grandma’s conversational skills: [...]
As memory: [...]
As Google-translated title: [...]
As intention: [...]
As response to fast-approaching deadline: [...]
As grandma’s conversational skills five minutes later: [...]
As what happened to the blueprint: [...]
As family memoir postponement: [...]
As what might come after: [...]
As three further questions: [...]
As how I felt about it before: [...]
As zoom call: [...]
As paternal love: [...]
As transition from container to possibility: [...]
As unfathomable loss: [...]
As response to whoever left the door
ajar: [...]

The poem-as-listicle affords very little to hold onto, the intimations of narrative continuity in, say, the passages about the hapless character ‘David’ or the repeated encounter with grandma, refuse to set, appearing only to disappear into its minimal (or, rather, maximally paratactic) syntax. The most identifiable verbal structural feature is the ‘as’, but what kind of ‘as’ is this? It seems to be the ‘as’ of a construction like ‘A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man’, one which yokes together a necessary essence with a contingent appearance. That is to say, the ‘as’ is a fulcrum in a grammar of (self-) realisation about which the poet remains noticeably undecided: is each exemplary moment (each ‘as’-episode) a ‘container’ or some horizon of ‘possibility’, a closed room or a door left ajar?

As Forrest-Thomson shows in Poetic Artifice, poems so syntactically underdetermined are ripe for ‘bad naturalisations’ sanctioned by what the critic Yvor Winters called ‘the fallacy of imitative form’. A poem with the disjointed imagery of, say, The Waste Land is ‘about’ the disjointedness of the modern world. Similarly, a poem like ‘Diasporic Content’ which flits from ‘15 rules you must follow when saying goodbye at a party’ to a Youtube clip of the lyrics to Teresa Teng’s Tian Mi Mi to a screenshot of a Messenger conversation would seem to be ‘about’ millennial ennui and a generation driven to distraction by the ‘content’ economy. What else remains for us to say?

The poem opens up a little more, perhaps, if we shift our attention from the syntactical to the rhythmic elements established spatially and typographically. The prosaic and tragi-comic travails of David are presented uniformly in Georgia, size 12, while the lyric (or aphoristic) outbursts are confined, almost sotto voce, to Times New Roman, size 11. Indeed, the father’s commandment to ‘“Be the master of the events”’ is severely undermined not just by the following section, featuring the screenshot of the image search results for ‘even a broken clock is right twice a day’, but also and a fortiori the generalised sense of being overrun by the passage of time in such moments as: the clip from Before Midnight, the poem beginning ‘to be swimming in tomorrow’s pool’, the ‘fast-approaching deadline’, and the blank following ‘as what might come after’. A resistance to temporal progression (perhaps even chronophobia) characterises its inconclusive conclusion: ‘See above’. In the endless cycle of mediation and remediation (‘Later, he is unsure if it was a memory of the event or a memory of seeing a family video of the event’), there is no vantage point from which to synthesise the poem’s litany of minor catastrophes – malfunctioning microwaves, a laptop lost to soup, blueprints lost to the rain, a visit to ED, ‘Video unavailable’. If the poem can be said to dramatise anything, it is less the synaptic slurry of the millennial psyche experiencing diasporic dysphoria than the ever-widening gap between ‘content’ and meaning.

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