In 2014, Octopus Books published an anthology of work by poet Wong May, whose 1969 collection, A Bad Girl’s Book of Animals was the subject of the Portland press’s Recovery Project series article. A late 1960s graduate of the Iowa Writers Workshop, May published two more books, Reports (1972) and Superstitions (1978), before taking a 36-year hiatus from publishing further work. The result of this three-decade interim period is the substantial and engrossing Picasso’s Tears: Poems 1978 – 2013. At turns tender and wrenching, May’s collection is most striking in its compulsive readability. This is a rare trait in poetry so intensely involved. So close is her eye to her subjects, so intricate the lines, the details, that the reader is tugged in on a line-by-line level. One cannot help but to succumb to close reading. Yet the reader will find in May’s collection a sweet momentum that drives from page to page, so crucial in that it allows the reader to see the world from the poem’s eye.
While May’s gutsy experiments with style and form could risk isolating the nervous reader, the tactics found in these poems instead challenge us, inviting us to dig further, to consider shape and sound as much as language. Selections often find themselves arranged in a rising or falling pattern, as if respirating; so precise in its beats certain words often require a line to themselves. Consider “L’Envoi”:
c/o is all we can
no other measure
The eye is as much arbiter of taste in poetry as in aesthetics, a truth to which these poems pay tribute. May acts as a skilled architect to her poems; she knows where the bricks should be laid and where the air should be left to do its job. The structure here is crucially artful. Volumes are spoken with space, making the sparse and unflinching more so. Poems like “Given 2 Persons” flow accordingly and devastatingly, each word bearing immeasurable weight:
Given 2 persons
In a room
One of them would
As striking are poems which seem to simulate sensation in their build. The gorgeous, rending “Still Falling, We Say” traces the journey of a friend suffering from cancer, likening the experience of living as a variety of dance in a tumble-down of verses, the poem itself a body in mid-plummet:
Gravity in general helps.
You don’t need a dance critic
To tell you.
& you needn’t even be brave
To stay in this world.
We do what we can
To quit the corporate body/
It sometimes resembles a dance.
& it is arduous.
The best case-in-point of the collection’s mastery of space and structure is demonstrated by the finesse governed over poems both light and dark. These poems have genuine range, allowing for both the reality of human suffering as well as the warm and redeeming. There is even an impish sense of humor evident throughout, best demonstrated by “Friends in Berlin,” in which the author describes a certain method of cracking nuts:
In my room
– On the threshold of, that is,
I’d put a walnut in the hinge
Of the white
Beautifully proportioned / painted door,
Drawing it close
It worked fine –
So when the secretary
Of the mansion
Came up & asked
If I would learn to close doors
I will be good.
There is a perspective of the universal citizen throughout this collection; unsurprisingly, perhaps, for May, who was born in mainland China, raised in Singapore, and spent significant time in both the U.S. and Europe, where she has lived in Ireland since 1978. This perspective is a crucial component of the book, compassionate, yet unflinching. This perspective’s possible motivation can be found in the delicate dread of “On Crossing the Century”:
The choice is Poetry
Of that Voice
We who have no country but our century
The collection’s centerpiece, “The Making of Guernica,” reflects the collection’s mindfulness toward the political as personal, exploring the horror of the Boston Marathon bombing through the lens of the bombing of the village of Guernica during the Spanish Civil War while referencing Picasso’s iconic painting of the Guernica bombing devastation. The poem aptly navigates the struggle to live alongside political violence so wrenching “Tears weep themselves,” particularly that of American violence:
Who doesn’t want to lie down in America
Everyone who wants to live & die in America
Who can’t wait
America I have always defended you
I said no-one has the right to excoriate America
Unless they love America,
When asked from which country you are an exile
I’ll always answer , with little hesitation
The collection ends with an interview of sorts in which May responds to the question of how her relationship with poetry has changed in the 36 years since she last released a collection – a rare glimpse into the motivations and desires of the poet accompanying the poems. She confirms the weight and work of social awareness in “Picasso’s Tears,” offering, “I can’t think of “Consciousness” or “Conscience” as two separate departments or compartments. The use and employment of words...I mean with the writers I admire, each word is a moral decision.” She presses, “You write what’s been handed to you by life. You do not choose the itinerary.” In this, “Picasso’s Tears” navigates its tumultuous journey–the never-ending struggle to reconcile the coexistence of incredible violence and incredible grace–admirably.
Kayla Rae Whitaker holds an M.F.A. from New York University. Her work has appeared in Smokelong Quarterly, Split Lip Magazine, American Microreviews & Interviews, Bodega, Joyland, Five Quarterly, and others. Her debut novel is forthcoming from Random House in January 2017. You can find her on Twitter @KaylaRWhitaker.