Of Thee I Sing
by Timothy Liu
University of Georgia Press, $16.95 (paper)

The title of Timothy Liu’s fifth collection may suggest poems of a political cast, but this book is no more or less topical than 2001’s Hard Evidence, and the title’s address embraces any number of abstractions: nation, God, beloved, body. Liuis not an untalented writer, and he is capable of moments of grace and craft; two poems here, “Getting There” and “Bisexuality,”suggest a poet of sly, sometimes lovely erotic subtlety, at his best almost resembling a latter-day, lesser Catullus. But Liu seems incapable of self-assessment; this at least is the best explanation for a poem in which a line of potential emotional force and imagistic vibrancy, “Let world be more than teeth flashing in the dark,”can be followed by the nonsensical and awful “Let me be your rotisserie Christ.” Liu’s better instincts are everywhere hijacked by the indulgence of a strange voyeurism, a desire to imagine degradations cartoonish in their extremity: “threads of spider / eggs parachuting onto the lips of / dying whores,”“festering / sores on a stranger’s cock.” Scenes of abject violence and need are glutted with debasement, turning what might have been an exercise in moral imagination, or at least beneficent social awareness, into an often repulsive aesthetic of gutter-baroque: “needle stuck in the neck / of a woman giving head as a child // clings to her back, still sucking / on a pacifier.”The problem with such lines is not their explicitness but rather the tenor of their explicitness: they lack any sense of compassion, of ethical content or commitment, of what Martha Nussbaum has called“reverence before the soul.” These poems’ pageants of suffering(“a fag bashing / a lover’s brains with hammer blows / followed by twenty-two sleeping pills”) are finally anesthetic: they are not efforts at therapy, social or psychic, or invitations to empathy or even indignation; they are mere rhetorical flourishes, attempts toward the decorative, bankrupt grandeur of a negative sublime.