Friday, June 19, 2009

Defying etymology: Intertexts and adoption in Dobbs, Shin, Ashbery

While composing my last post, I was struck by Stephen Collis's link (via his imagined collaborators, Alfred Noyes and Ramon Fernandez) between the commons and intertextuality, between social fact and literary trope. Let me repeat what Andrew Sullivan would call the "money quote": "In so far as a literature takes on a practice of quotation, collage, allusion and intertextuality it holds out a sort of commons--a page on which any may write with the common resources of the poetic past" (139). For several years now I have wanted to make a similar link between quotation and adoption. Each time I try, I come up short. Nice analogy, I think, but where does it lead? Not much beyond Harold Bloom (whose work on influence I still love, even though I don't believe a word of it) or beyond the theorists of intertextuality themselves. The analogy threatens to remain mere ornament, a link meaningful only to me for reasons of my own as adoptive mother and critic, but not to anyone else. So why go there, especially when words like "adoption," to say nothing of "poetry," offer such unstable ground on which to think through the comparison? Google (verb!) resources on adoption and you'll find everything from Christian adoption agencies to "transracial abduction"; search the library and you'll find Elizabeth Bartholet's defenses of adoption as a tool for creating tolerance, and The Primal Wound. There's a middle ground, too, though sometimes hard to see for all the strong arguments one way or another. Discussions of international adoption necessarily involve fraught questions of ethics, race, gender, money, power, language, and so on. So to use the term "adoption" alongside the term "poetry" (and I'm not going to draw out arguments over that word!) threatens a proliferation of meanings rather than a theoretical frame to help us read poetry or think about adoption. I've written before in these blog pages about uses of the term "adoption" for everything from highway clean-up to course books. Other words have an uncanny way of saying too much: when I looked up the (adopted) poet Sun Yung Shin on Wikipedia, I was told that the article about her was an "orphan." "This article is an orphan, as few or no other articles link to it. Please introduce links to this page from other articles related to it." In other words, please "adopt" this link by giving it a "family" of references.

But I've returned to my desire to make this connection, as I've been reading two books by Korean adoptees, Jennifer Kwon Dobbs's Paper Pavilion (White Pine Press, 2007) and Sun Yung Shin's Skirt Full of Black (Coffee House Press, 2006). These books are strikingly different in many ways. Dobbs's poems are lyrical, centered on an "I" who closely resembles the poet. They are sometimes narrative, and more or less straightforward (though I love those occasions where her rhetoric takes flight, threatens to leave the ordinary conversational tone of contemporary poetry). Shin's poems are collaged, among her sources a guide to Korean, a book about the Korean language, a State Department document, a Hans Christian Andersen fairy tale. Shin's poems are more overtly political, and take on the adoption industry (to call it an "industry" is to suggest her point of view about it). Dobb's poems come closer to personal witness about the effects of adoption for her and many other Korean adoptees. As she told some of my students this past April, she does not begin her thinking from a point of stability, but from a cloud (my word, adopted from the mystics) of unknowing. "I do not trust stories. / I resist them''" (43); "Even in Korea, / I long for Korea" (49); and the tongue in cheek comment that may well sum up the book, a comment on a book about Korea:

Copyright 1956. The truth is purchased
from Pittsburgh's Caliban Bookshop in '99,

because the girl on the cover wore a striped hanbok.
She is me/is not me. (I'm learning

how to manage paradox.) (87)

To manage paradox. To purchase truth. Copyright 1956
. 1956 was the year Harry Holt, founder of Holt International Adoption Agency, began his work in Korea. Adoption papers resemble copyrighted material as much or more than they do birth certificates. Who has the "right" to the child "copy" is part of what's at stake in any birth, or adoption. Words mirror adoptions in the way the girl on the cover mirrors the poet, flickering in and out of meaning(s). Words, like images, are loaded things. Sun Yung Shin:

My life stood as a loaded (weight laden with warrant
My life stood as a wild (wood abundant with beasts and the nail trimmings of angels
My life stood as He (hunger Aeipartheons, Semper Virgo
Satisfy me (beneath (tomb of meter and pitch
Bough break (breath frost onto thy crown of twelve stars
"Flower I, Stamen and Pollen" (30)

Shin references Susan Howe channeling Emily Dickinson, even as she collages/collapses Hans Christian Andersen's The Wild Swans into a poem about femininity (the good girl vs. the witch), about travel, about lineage, and above all about silence.

You must not speak. You must not. You must.You. The first word will
pierce their hearts.
Your last wod will pierce your own. Seven swords a flam on seven sorrows,
Son and brothers. A historical inheritance. If only your tongue were
large enough
for all of them, the size of their lives. This task, this colossal silence.
Flesh, tissue, you gorge throbbing on the words. (32)

In Andersen's tale, the girl Eliza is told that in order to save her swan brothers and render them human again, she must weave armor for them out of nettles and--above all--she must not speak to anyone. Hans Andersen aside, the issue of silence is significant in Asian American / Canadian literature, from Joy Kogawa's in Obasan to Maxine Hong Kingston and many others. One is silenced, and then one "breaks silence." Eliza's silence is broken as she is about to be executed--she finishes the last coat of armor, almost, leaving her last brother with the wing of a swan, but she saves them and is saved by the King, who marries her. It's a lovely story, but it also involves a girl who loses her home and family and is taken far away to be saved by a patriarchal system that was about to kill her off. (I'm reminded, by way of the swan, of an adoption story I bought for my son when he was very young, a book written in Korean and English. In it a stork is transformed into a jet plane, so that he can take babies on international trips and drop them safely in the United States.)

But to cut to the chase, Shin is using a "fairy tale" as a tool against the "fairy tale" notion of adoption as easy and happy "transformation." We think of fairy tales as being for children. Shin argues that we (the culture at large) think of adoptees as children, too: "In terms of linguistics and social history, the word "adoptee" denotes a state of childhood (as an adult cannot be adopted) and connotes, sometimes, indigence and certainly dependence." (New York Times, 2007) Just look at the link to Holt International (above) and you'll see the "savior" narrative writ large. Shin's poem "Speed" offers a more direct critique of western adoption practices in the "developing" or "decolonizing" world. Here she collages voices in a way similar to Mark Nowak's in Shut Up, Shut Down, building her poem out of quotations that are cited at the back of the book, but not directly. (Making links between the Works Cited and the poems is another kind of poem, one the reader composes.)

Dobbs comes closest to Shin's method in a poem like "Face Sheet," which plays off the more expected "fact sheet." This poem uses language from the "Livingstone Adoption Agency" (Livingston, I presume?), and involves a check list of a child's birth status ("legitimate, illegitimate, foundling"), his or her "distinguishing marks, features" and how well he or she controls her neck and bowel movements. (This poem brought back memories from the other side of adoption for me, remembering as I do the paltry few facts we received about our children, and how often the facts proved wrong. I also remember taking a blown-up picture of my son, the only evidence we had of his existence, to a pediatrician and asking her what to expect. Oedipus was only the most famous sleuth in the larger story of adoption.) But most of Dobbs's references are literary and musical, both eastern and western in origin. Her "Notes" at the end of the book point to work by Korean and American poets and writers, and to a poetic form, sijo, in which Dobbs composes several of her poems. Dobbs's central concern is less with "facts" than with the imagination--artistic and personal. There are many imagined birth mothers in this book; stories of her/them proliferate in poem after poem until the (unadopted?) reader does not trust the stories, but begins to appreciate their power.

And it's here I'd like to turn back to my idea about texts and adoption. While one could argue that, according to my description of intertextuality as a form of textual adoption, 20th century American poetry is largely an adopted art, I think it's no mistake that these two adopted poets use such a range of texts in their work. Theirs is not a regurgitated modernism (no latter day Eliots or Pounds are Dobbs and Shin); instead, their accumulations of texts from traditions of the fairy tale, journalism, lyric and collaged poetry, speak to artistic and political imaginations that spring from a sense of writing that has very little to do with ownership. Janet Beizer wrote a wonderful essay on adoption and ownership in a Tulsa Studies issue on adoption that I've misplaced (alas). In it, as I recall, she talks about the ways in which we refer to children as "ours." As an adoptive mother, I have come to realize that the question, "are these children yours?" is loaded. That "yours" means genetic, means I would be the origin of that child's life, not its guide. The MFA school, or what is left of the 1970s version, put its emphasis on "finding your voice," where "yours" meant that you owned it. (That so many of the poems sound alike is part of "managing the paradox" of contemporary poetry, I suppose.)

If I write in "my" voice, "my" poem is like "my" child, "genetically" linked to me by some word made flesh process. If I am adopted, or if I adopt, "my" poem is shared (Collis is right about the Commons, I think); it's an unstable creation, like a mirror that does and does not reflect one's self. Our notion of poetry, like our notion of family, is disrupted. Just as it's sometimes unclear whether Dobbs is writing about her adoptive or her birth family, the poet who "adopts" different texts and traditions finds variousness in the family model. It's not nuclear, it's not national, it's something that words often fail to describe "faithfully." And it can be abused, whether through appropriation of cultures or through plagiarism, the act of taking a text without asking.

Another test of the analogy would be ask related (ah, relation again) questions about other texts, those in which language is "adopted," but not by adopted poets. In other words, is there are a distinctly textual version of "adoption" that is not tied into the poet's identity position? Timothy Yu writes about Theresa Hak Kyung Cha as being sometimes an experimental writer, sometimes an Asian American one. I love the risk he takes there, even if I don't really like the division itself. So which non-adopted poets adopted texts in ways similar to Dobbs and Shin? One can surely look to poetry about de-colonization and immigration for instances; on the Tinfish list I find books by Craig Santos Perez and Barbara Jane Reyes. Just the tip of a tropical iceberg. These poets use languages and texts from "east" and "west," from islands to continents, from oral and written cultures; their use of textual adoption is as a technique of de-colonization, rather than poetic empire (which way does Ezra Pound go on that one? Probably both.) Beyond the reach of Tinfish's anti-empire, among recent publications, I can think of Rachel Loden's book about (by!) Richard Nixon. Among unpublished books, there is Joseph Harrington's amneoir, a documentary poem about his mother's death and Richard Nixon's demise.

I end with one of my favorite John Ashbery poems from April Galleons. Ashbery is not a documentary poet, except perhaps in The Vermont Notebook; nor does he "adopt" texts in the ways I've been suggesting up until now. So let me end by complicating the matter (mater?) further, with the opening to "Forgotten Song":

O Mary, go and call the cattle home

For I'm sick in my heart and fain would lie down.

As if that wasn't enough, I find this bundle of pain
Left on my doorstep, with a note: "Please raise it as your own."

I don't know. When it grows up will it be like the others,
Able to join in their games, or is it the new person,

As yet indescribable, though existing here and there? (AG 12)

The poem begins with lyrics to two folk songs whose words he simply notes down; the second couplet (another word that "rhymes" with family) comments on the way he has found these lyrics and taken them into his poem. The poem is about textual adoption, and it uses the metaphor of actual adoption. The poem is not the poet's own, but a found thing, a "foundling." Nor does it belong to the reader, though we too may "raise it as our own." That may be the central lesson to poets, as to families, adoptive and not. We may feel that we belong, but none of us belongs to another. We must adopt our texts carefully.

[Note: the first line in Shin's book reads, "Sometimes the surface forms defy etymology." Already a quotation, I have triply quoted it in my title.]


Ross Brighton said...

Wow - from this I feel I must check out Shin's work - the passages you cite here are beautiful.

Anonymous said...
TRACK: Truth and Reconciliation for the Adoption Community of Korea
Bold exercise of the politics underlying the poetry.

Lee Herrick said...

Susan, a belated comment on how much I enjoyed and appreciated this ---they're remarkable books, indeed.