On the Sidewalk: Towards an Ethopoetics of the Streets

By | 1 November 2016

Like Hongo’s poem, Li Young-lee’s ‘The Cleaving’ also takes place in Chicago and also uses race boldly in its engagement with the complexities of Asian American migrant culture and experience. A first-generation Chinese migrant, Lee’s work is informed by an attempt to graft his familial and cultural heritage onto his American self. A key underpinning theme is the memorialisation of the past, particularly his father, and weaving its narrative of exile and mourning into the body of the present. Another is the exploration of the complexity, the irreducible hybridity and vibrant diversity of Asian America. In his collection The City in Which I Love You the streets of Chicago constitute a contact zone, to use the fraught anthropological term, where the lyric self becomes exposed to the shifting, ineffable presence of the Other. Here, Lee practices a pedestrian ethno-and-ethopoetics, the urban walk creating the space in which the underlying themes of diasporic displacement, home, culture, nation, and identity can be negotiated. In the fifth poem of the suite ‘Furious Versions,’ Lee and his father are walking the Chicago streets when a blind man touches his father’s arm and calls out his name. He is a revenant from the past; Lee’s father had helped bury the blind man’s wife during the Japanese siege of Nanjing.

Here was a man who remembered
the sound of another’s footfalls
so well as to call to him
after twenty years 
on a sidewalk in America.

America, where, in Chicago, Little Chinatown,
who should I see
on the corner of Argyle and Broadway
but Li Bai and Du Fu, those two
poets of the wander’s heart.
Folding paper boats
they sent them swirling
down little rivers of gutter water.
Gold-toothed, cigarettes rolled in their sleeves,
they noted my dumb surprise:
What did you expect? Where else should we be? (23-4)

In transplanting the two famous Tang Dynasty poets to the Chicago streets, Lee is affirming the richness and complexity of his inheritance and make-up, reconciling his American and Chinese selves in a conjunctive re-visioning of space and place; the poem, like so much of Lee’s work, is galvanised by this dialectic between the two strands of his being, and between the self and the Other. The street is no longer an alien space, as it is transformed by the bodies of the two poets into a place that is home-in-exile. It is ironic that the blind man should be the instigator of this new way of seeing and being; his appearance and that of the two poets constitute a resistance to and re-visioning of the dominant culture, their alien-ness or otherness challenging racial stereotypes and any monolithic sense of American identity. By invoking Li Bai and Du Fu, quintessential Chinese poets of exile and displacement, Lee also finds sponsoring fathers or patron saints of Chinese diaspora, exemplars who can assuage and illuminate his own condition. Also, by giving them an American voice, and making them at home in an urban space that is liminal and public, Lee is at the same time reinventing or rewriting his heritage in the light of contemporary Chinese diaspora in America.

In her landmark study of Asian American poetry The Ethics and Poetics of Alterity in Asian American Poetry, Zhou Xiaojing observes that Asian American poets like Li-Young Lee ‘explore a politics of otherness that transforms, rather than simply resists, the homogenising dominant culture’ (19). In the chapter on Lee, Zhou argues that the ‘‘lyric I’ in Lee’s poetry articulates a self whose subjectivity is embodied and constituted by its relationship with the other’ and that ‘Lee’s poetics can be better understood in terms of Levinas’s philosophy of an ethical self-other relation which is grounded in the embodied subject’s language response to the other’ (29). The central tenet of Levinas’s philosophy is that the self-Other encounter constitutes an ethical event; as Levinas puts it: ‘The strangeness of the Other, his irreducibility to the I, to my thoughts and my possessions, is precisely accomplished as a calling into question of my spontaneity, as ethics’ (Totality and Infinity 43). Levinas’s idea is useful in understanding the unmediated ethical event or moment when the photographer trains his lens on a street scene or when a poet includes in the gaze of his poem a human subject. The diasporic trajectory in Lee’s poems is often a journey through otherness, a sounding out of the self’s limits and possibilities through a dialogic engagement with the Other. In ‘The Cleaving,’ set in Chicago’s Chinatown, the poet observes the butcher of Hon Kee Grocery as he wields his cleaver on a roast duck:

Such a sorrowful Chinese face, 
nomad, Gobi, Northern 
in its boniness 
clear from the high
warlike forehead 
to the sheer edge of the jaw. 
He could be my brother, but finer, 
and, except for his left forearm, which is engorged, 
sinewy from his daily grip and 
wield of a two-pound tool, 
he’s delicate, narrow-
waisted, his frame
so slight a lover, some
rough other
might break it down
its smooth, oily length.
In his light-handed calligraphy 
on receipts and in his 
moodiness, he is 
A Southerner from a river-province; 
suited for scholarship, his face poised 
above an open book, he’d mumble 
his favorite passages. 
He could be my grandfather; 
come to America to get a Western education 
in 1917, but too homesick to study, 
he sits in the park all day, reading poems 
and writing letters to his mother. (77-8)

The visual contemplation is a sort of combined ethnopoetics and ethopoetics in action; reading the face triggers in the poet a succession of familial and ancestral memories; rather than fixing on a single ethnic marker or a dominant feature of Chineseness or a homogenous definition of Asianness, Lee evokes an uncontainable diversity that reflects the plurality of the lyric ‘I.’ Resisting the urge to label and categorise the Other, the ‘I’ explores and embraces its mystery and elusive difference. The butcher’s trade too provides an analogue for ethopoetics, the double meanings of ‘cleaving’ – to sever and to cling to – reflect the ambivalent nature of Lee’s poetics vis-à-vis the Other – a simultaneous identification and separation. The cleaving action prompts the question ‘Was it me in the Other / I prayed to when I prayed?’ The gustatory motif, the food preparation and its ingestion, all involves violence, and embodies what Zhou calls Lee’s ‘corporeal aesthetics,’ which ‘renders universal the body marked for exclusion, exploitation, and subjugation, redefining universal humanity monopolised by the white body and white male subject’ (25). The poet’s etho-ethnopoetics is similar to the butcher’s craft, and becomes an agency of change and transformation: ‘He coaxes, cleaves, brings change / before our very eyes, and at every / moment of our being. / As we eat we’re eaten’ (85). Devouring and being devoured suggest both vulnerability to the Other and hunger for otherness. This passive / active state captures the paradoxical condition of being a migrant vividly; diaspora means separation, displacement and death of the old self, but it also brings about transformation, rebirth, and an awakening to a new life.

‘The Cleaving’ concludes by resuming its ethnopoetic reading and steering it to a polyphonic, multicultural vision:

What then may I do 
but cleave to what cleaves me. 
I kiss the blade and eat my meat. 
I thank the wielder and receive, 
while terror spirits 
my change, sorrow also. 
The terror the butcher
 scripts in the unhealed 
air, the sorrow of his Shang 
dynasty face, 
African face with slit eyes. He is 
my sister, this beautiful Bedouin, this Shulamite, 
keeper of sabbaths, diviner 
of holy texts, this dark 
dancer, this Jew, this Asian, this one 
with the Cambodian face, Vietnamese face, this Chinese 
I daily face, 
this immigrant, 
this man with my own face. (86-7)

Earlier in the poem, Chineseness was shown to be fluid, multifarious, or to use Ien Ang’s words, ‘an open and indeterminate signifier whose meanings are constantly renegotiated and rearticulated in various sections of the Chinese diaspora’ (225). Here a parade of other racial, ethnic and cultural markers complement and complicate it, embodying multicultural America, a body politic that cannot be confined or reduced to a monolithic entity. Even gender / sexual boundaries are transcended as the butcher shape-shifts into the poet’s sister. The street, a quotidian setting, becomes a liminal site where a cross-cultural montage enables a profound moment of self-discovery, as the lyric / narrative ‘I’ arrives at a moment of recognition of the self in the Other through an embrace of its deep, ineffable and irreducible alterity.

In Lee’s work the street becomes a social space that is transformed from an alienating and excluding site to a place of encounter and inclusion. It is a threshold space, a limen, which, as Victor Turner envisions, is a threshold and transformative space through which a liminal being passes, in crossing from one state of existence to a higher plane of consciousness and being. The street poem allows a state of openness and receptivity that is essential to this transformative ethical encounter. Streets also run through Philip Levine’s work, his poems habitually patrolling the streets of his native Detroit and other American cities, looking unflinchingly at the struggles of the working and under classes, noting the poverty and depredation of the body and spirit, but also attentive to the dignity and beauty of everyday life. ‘The Poem of Chalk’ is a walk or street poem written during a period when he lived on Bleecker Street and ‘would walk for entertainment, not for exercise but for entertainment’ and ‘stare into the – into the variety and beauty of faces and gestures and to hear people talking, sometimes in Russian, sometimes in French, often in Spanish, in Polish, in every language, in Arabic … ’ (‘A Reading’). The poem begins mid-stride, the pedestrian trope and street location setting the scene for the ethical threshold moment:

On the way to lower Broadway
this morning I faced a tall man
speaking to a piece of chalk
held in his right hand. The left
was open, and it kept the beat,
for his speech had a rhythm,
was a chant or dance, perhaps
even a poem in French, for he
was from Senegal and spoke French
so slowly and precisely that I
could understand as though
hurled back fifty years to my
high school classroom. A slender man,
elegant in his manner, neatly dressed
in the remnants of two blue suits,
his tie fixed squarely, his white shirt
spotless though unironed. He knew
the whole history of chalk, not only
of this particular piece, but also
the chalk with which I wrote
my name the day they welcomed
me back to school after the death
of my father. He knew feldspar.
he knew calcium, oyster shells, he
knew what creatures had given
their spines to become the dust time
pressed into these perfect cones,
he knew the sadness of classrooms
in December when the light fails
early and the words on the blackboard
abandon their grammar and sense
and then even their shapes so that
each letter points in every direction
at once and means nothing at all.
At first I thought his short beard
was frosted with chalk; as we stood
face to face, no more than a foot
apart, I saw the hairs were white,
for though youthful in his gestures
he was, like me, an aging man, though
far nobler in appearance with his high
carved cheekbones, his broad shoulders,
and clear dark eyes. He had the bearing
of a king of lower Broadway, someone
out of the mind of Shakespeare or
Garcia Lorca, someone for whom loss
had sweetened into charity. We stood
for that one long minute, the two
of us sharing the final poem of chalk
while the great city raged around
us, and then the poem ended, as all
poems do, and his left hand dropped
to his side abruptly and he handed
me the piece of chalk. I bowed,
knowing how large a gift this was
and wrote my thanks on the air
where it might be heard forever
below the sea shell’s stiffening cry. (132-3)

The poem engages in an ethnographic reading of the street-artist’s performance; his appearance, dress, his gestures and ethnicity are reconstructed in detail, as though his entire person were an embodied text. The details of the man’s voice and his oral poetic rendition of the history of chalk articulate an ethnopoetics, in the two meanings of the term as conveyed by Rothenberg’s original formulation and Lim’s redefinition. The accretive visual details compose a corporeal aesthetics in which the materiality of the body becomes the basis of the self-Other dialectic. Almost imperceptibly, the poem slips into the past, the man and his chalk triggering a flashback to ‘the high school classroom’ in the poet’s childhood and the death of the poet’s father. With its lack of stanza breaks and its use of enjambment of short flowing lines, the poem erases the boundary between past and present; the childhood vignettes are woven into the present narrative and its lyrical descriptions of the Senegalese street artist, the autobiographical turns segueing seamlessly into the oral history of chalk. This has the effect of making the stranger an integral part of the poet’s story, blurring the lines between past and present, self and Other.

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