Kenji C. Liu’s new collection, Monsters I Have Been, is the product of a manifesto: at once a call to disarm toxic masculinity and a theory of how to lyrically explore the state of our society through a practice of found poetry assemblage that Liu calls frankenpo.
More than a form, Liu is interested in a function, which he details comprehensively in the final piece in the book called “The Monstrosity: Notes Towards a Frankenpo”: an ideal primer for those who prefer reading artist statements prior to seeing the work. In these notes the reader is privy to seeing what exactly these poems are after well beyond, say, the surprise a craftsman is beholden to in glazing and firing raku pottery. Certainly, that kind of practiced intuition to allow for serendipity within rigor is present in his juxtaposing of found texts, but Liu also intentionally borrows from Japanese grammar to attempt de-gendered language and the resistance to the Western confessional “I”. He analyzes the aesthetic parallels between wreckage, rogue taxidermy, mutation and monsters with oppressive structures, and their theoretical opponents, “Because capitalism, white supremacy, heteropatriarchy is so monstrous, perhaps only a Godzilla can counter it” (p. 88).
Similar to the Black Panther’s vibranium suit which absorbs the energy levied upon it to be used against his assailants, many of Liu’s poems take the words of weaponized language and combines them with something healing to launch new work seeking to challenge the original toxic language. Repurposing the actual words of what a poem seeks to critique to build that very poem helps ensure that his poetry “already knew it was political, and didn’t have to be convinced” (p. 89). This is clear in his first piece and example of frankenpo titled “Visa,” which draws from three texts: Octavia Butler’s Book of the Living, verses 1-66, Reflection on the Repulsiveness of the Body from the Satipatthana Sutta, and Presidential Executive Orders 13769 and 13780 aka Protecting the Nation from Foreign Terrorist Entry into the United States, signed by Donald Trump. Liu states in his “Notes” that he is actively grappling with both Buddhism and Confucianism, so this poem at the onset seemingly combines the literary ingredients of life, partial contention, and direct opposition. It begins:
I have arrived in
the national hair.
The reader encountering the first fruits of his experiment will find how effectively concise it is: epistolary thus immediately relational, imagistically already monstrous, and (given the context of the title) clearly political. The poem continues to build this vision:
Already, my prey nerves
are in the burn of growth
The ongoing build
multiple acts of teeth.
Our love in a time
of malicious inadmissibility.
Partly what is presented here is a portrait of a voice determined to love while reckoning with and through oppressive state language. The language of nationalist jargon, aggressively angular and Latinate, seems at stark odds with not only the idea of love or lungs, but also their very sounds. The images and sonic shapes of the poem feel unruly and irregular, apt for the speaker who seems like a kind of collective migrant voice trying to make sense of the invasiveness and horror of the society it has become entangled in.
Not every poem is written in the frankenpo form, though all benefit from Liu’s curatorial eye. “What I Like About You 1” catalogues the events in a video by the artist Kenneth Tam, known for his taped performances frequently dealing with masculinity. Tam’s “Breakfast in Bed” features a number of middle aged, mostly Caucasian men gathered in a small room, asked to perform various bonding exercises simulating a mock men’s social club. Liu forgoes analysis and instead lists either exact quotes or what must be internal dialogue of the men. I laughed out loud hearing the poem read live, but I had to then consider why the poem seemed funny:
Bro, you’re lanky and tall. Your eyes really stand out.
Got a lot of hair growing from your chest, spilling.
I’m jealous of your beard, it’s nice and full. Jealous.
You look like you take care of yourself. When we dance
I love the way our bells swing. Got a good physique,
You’re a good-looking guy. We coordinate well.
With a book this experimental and often heavy, it’s nice to have these poems that feel so pure and lighthearted. This balance itself seems a part of the book’s project: the idea that this “kaiju poetry” against oppressive hegemonies must include levity to survive. Tenderness also, and perhaps the grace to forgive the awkwardness of those attempting intimacy beyond of the binds of a narrow masculinity that deems such connection as too strange to commit to.
Other times, the work is humorous but more due to the utter horror of the content being matched by its outlandishness. “She’s people! 10 Apologies” collects text from the statements given by celebrity men accused of sexual misconduct, and lists ten new statements that are demented in their insufficiency:
- I offended women, but I’m founded in great hardship, I as stories, hope,
grace, touching excuses, I.
- This is my regret basket. Honestly, I’m the last accountable man, think I.
- My behavior cannot have been seriously, sincerely remiss, a double-digit
nothing. I deserve a superhero investigation.
- It’s not an excuse. Time will apologize.
The effect of reputation prioritized over humanity (that of both victim and perpetrator) is dehumanization. It makes sense that these words end up sounding mutated, reflective of the choice of the speakers’ (and those complicit in their protection) collective decision to erode their own humanity to enforce patriarchal celebrity culture that treats victims as collateral. The poem’s concluding tenth “apology” seems to act as an ultimate translation of these statements: there is no remorse for the victim, there’s only the wait now for the world to forget victims again.
Liu introduces new forms every few pages, and much like the notes towards a frankenpo, the general Notes at the end of the collection illuminate a great deal about individual formal innovations. For the poem “Dear I-Ching, how does hetero-patriarchy live on through me?” Liu used an online I Ching divination system, which he critiques in the notes as a “digital representative of ancient Chinese heteropatriarchy” interviewing the divination website with questions that are “against its own best interest” (p. 87). In the case of this particular ‘question,’ Liu input various masculine Japanese versions of the word “you” descending in politeness from formal to rude, so the resulting poem’s Japanese text is to be read as either “you” or “your.” This wasn’t immediately clear to me at first, but even so, the project is still served for readers both unaware of the origin of the poem and unable to read Japanese: each instance of the word “you” in this poem would be possibly obscured, in step with one of the book’s experiments of omitting the subject in a sentence.
Liu understands that resisting toxic masculinity cannot be accomplished alone. In one of the final poems, “Self Portrait as Voltron,” both the musical notation, original lyrics, and translated lyrics of a traditional Japanese bon odori song are included to accompany the poem. I remember seeing many Bon dances at Buddhist temples around my neighborhood, a beautiful event featuring colored paper lanterns leading up to a center tower called the yagura around which participants dance throughout the evening. The lyrics to the bon odori explain the event: the festivities commemorate and welcome for the night the ancestral dead. It feels like an appropriate backdrop, this cloud of witnesses, for Liu’s declarations:
My neighborhood flips over onto its scar-faced back. How to put the senses back
together, how to assemble the machinery of my house? I have so many side-eyes.
I want to be the right man, but not just any.
The reader has just been given a book length report of some of what Liu’s “side-eyes” have beheld in suspicion or outright critique, and by this time may be heavy-hearted by the sights. Yet, there is energy in feeling like someone else sees what you have also seen and known. For me, this slides into a double meaning with the bon dance anchoring the poem: the idea that there are eyes beside the speaker, watching as well. It feels almost like a statement of solidarity. “I want to be the right man, but not just any” is also a tall order: goodness but preserving one’s unique soul. A goal that requires, Liu knows, all the help we can get. We rely each other and need those who have come before us, as those who will come after us will need us, to do our best to resist and imagine something beyond toxicity and oppression. Liu’s poems may be metaphorically in the form of monsters, but the words forming them exist solely by the existence of other prefigured speech, other distinct and bodied statements. This feels quite a bit like a picture of the human condition.
Experiment is necessary and yet requires vulnerability and courage, not only because it can fail, but because “success” is nebulous, often decided by arbitrary metrics like public opinion. But we need experimentation in order to move forward, in order to be free. Those willing to take a journey through (or make a home within) the risky realm of experimental artmaking are plumbing the depths of our humanity for the forms we have not yet imagined, perhaps cannot imagine until such forms are made. It’s a paradox how the radical act is also a needed act. Liu also understands that whatever is found through experimentation benefits everyone else, his poems are reaching by any possible path towards a cure, a protection, a more excellent way to counter the systemic behemoths we are all enmeshed in. This willingness to gather the detritus available to us, to take apart and reconsider everything starting with one’s self, and to put pieces back together are all movements toward a kind of hope. Monsters I Have Been leads by example in showing how experimental writing can be an act of communal love.
Jordan Nakamura is a poet, critic, and MFA candidate at Antioch University. He’s been published in The Curator magazine and Zócalo Public Square. Born and raised in Hawaii, he currently lives and works in Los Angeles.