The lines in Mia Kang’s poems have two sides at least: One points to reading and another points to writing. They have an edge. And they are not to be confused with poems that use the Classics to cast personal drama in a mythological light. Instead, these poems plagiarize the past’s apocrypha and turn its foundational fictions against themselves, reminding us that the patriarchy’s myths are bound for eternal return unless their syntax is exploded. This is precisely what Kang does with the notion of the hero and the vestal virgin whose enforced chastity renders her bodiless, silent. Note how in “Livy Theorizes the Social” “heir apparent” becomes “no one hero is here apparent.” And in the marvelous “Rhea Silvia, Buried Alive (Figure to Ground)” the eponymous speaker declares: “I was a ruled body / with lines wide enough to write between.” We follow suit and read between them.
I am taken with the subtlety and complexity that Kang’s poems pack into their measured forms, tackling power dynamics, inner drives, and reading’s mechanisms. But I am even more taken with their how: with their rigorous purchase on words and with the way in which they put poetry’s devices to the test —repetition, line breaks, word play, polyvalence.
I recently came across an essay by Lyn Hejinian from 1976, “A Thought Is The Bride of What Thinking,” in which she writes: “Certain themes are incurable.” Hence, mythology, of course. Yet, who doesn’t ache for a new script?
—Mónica de la Torre
Livy Theorizes the Social
Romulus made his attack… He ordered his men to come by different routes to the king’s palace at an appointed time. Remus collected another group and came to their assistance from Numitor’s house. And so he killed the king.
—Livy, The History of Rome, Book 1, translated by Valerie Warrior
And so he killed the king
where king means [blood
relation] and [he] could
mean any twin
who fits the bill. Livy enacts
as pronoun, and as in
relation to the king:
blood of blood
and so fore-
And so he killed
the king, where so means
means to end
and king means [brother
of my mother’s father]
and kill is
what it always is. And so
tells us something
about the structure
of death: first description,
then the main event.
And so he killed
the king. And so he
killed the king.
From all sides
a net of guile
but no one hero
is here apparent;
[he] means merely
soon to be with
-out another. And so
the king is killed
at every hand—
it was me, climbing in
-to Rome to read
for reasons men
go missing, mediate
who inhabits the sentence.
The grammar runs
cold. Livy quiets
the singular person, and so
finds us out.
• • •
Rhea Silvia, Buried Alive (Figure to Ground)
A whole body becomes no body.
A nobody becomes a body of earth.
I was a ruled body
with lines wide enough to write between.
Virgin, lover, mother, dead.
It doesn’t matter which version is true.
Mars comes inside and the body fills
with another body, then another and another.
Mars comes inside and the wax body
melts at the touch of bronze.
Where the kiss was, dirt
fills the cavity. Where the words were, earth.
It happens gradually. Who digs
my grave? A command in the early morning.
I stand at the lowest point.
This is what digging does: lowers
the earth relative to itself. A hole
transforms the surrounding surface—
All this you see now
is only one version, says the hole.
The whole body rights itself
into the hollow. A man’s hands lower
me onto my back. In no version
do I ask for otherwise—let me
go, says the hole body. I close
my eyes against the light.
I receive a blessing
of dirt. I receive endless blessings
over every part: ankle, kneecap, hipbone.
I can bend like anyone until the dirt
is too heavy, and I warm
to stillness. Last the face:
mouth, nose, eyes. A body learns
slowly; it still tries to respire.
The dirt itself is made
immaterial, since the lungs understand
only lack. To gasp
in anticipation of relief—
that’s the whole body
in love. I die, I die, I die. I was
a ruled body, with lines wide
enough to hold my
ground. I was Mars’ nobody
until I ruled myself out.
• • •
Mars Falls / Honeymoon Suite
Mars at the podium, Mars in his gmail, Mars on the platform, Mars in the elevator, Mars in the park, Mars in his office, Mars on the steps, Mars at the door, Mars in his kitchen, Mars in his room, Mars on the couch, Mars on the floor, Mars at the river, Mars on the phone, Mars at work, Mars at a conference, Mars in a paper, Mars by text message, Mars in a daydream, Mars in midtown, Mars across town, Mars in the heat, Mars at his desk, Mars at his books, Mars on the train, Mars in the mind, Mars in a memory, Mars in the summer, in May, as in May I?, but it was too soon, we were wrong, it was spring.
Mars & I consider the problem of circumscribed futures.
Mars & I look at the grid and think slant thoughts.
Mars & I send signs and get it wrong.
Mars & I invent a version.
Mars & I make choices, on purpose, to regret.
Because I had no body I was looking for one.
Mars saw a body in me.
We bodied up against each other to prove it.
I proved it. I was no body to come home to.
I said yes and I meant it. Yes recklessly with office door shut or while his girlfriend was in Canada. Later when I couldn’t ask his advice I wondered about the limits
of questions and answers. For instance What do you want? etc. And in fact it was posed to me as a hypothetical: If we
were to how would you want it? I said From behind. And then we did.
And that’s the difference between theory and practice.
In another version I am buried alive.
In another version Mars takes me by force. Why can’t a woman want the wrong thing without becoming victim? I said yes and I meant it. Yes he took advantage; yes I asked him to.
[I want to forget everything. I don’t want to see the future. I wanted Rome to burn before it ever existed.
Or maybe I was futureless already. Why else choose this ending.]
According to Wikipedia, my name means guilty woman of the forest, i.e. the woman who was seduced there.
According to Wikipedia, my story is a prototypical “invention scene.” Mars invents me. I don’t disagree.
Because I had no body Because I was losing some body
I was looking I was closing my eyes
for one I was turning
Mars saw a body I wanted to become
in me invisible
so I invited myself to a myth-making
We made it as one makes an image, a scene, that is to say we discussed it, we considered, we chose our angles and arranged the bodies like so.
We bodied up against each other I asked you not to write
to prove it. To prove it.
• • •
[Is fratricide a dream
of suicide, misplaced
onto the loved and hated body
one recognizes as one’s own?
Is suicide a dream
for a brother, gesture requesting
additional existence, more hands
in the loam? The marking
of a deficit always present,
no less real
for having been lively, singular
• • •
I find Rome in Ann Arbor
while digging to discover
my next life. I give up
to a red bird tattooed
along his ribs, black band
inked around wrist.
I know this isn’t
the life I will choose;
therefore I can
desire it. Bent
at the sharp edge,
marble and flex—I fear the lyric
but not the fantastic, the gray
Taurus and the Hampton Inn.
figure from ground. The hand
in situ makes a long
time coming a new
before names, bird
falling to the palm below.
We crunch fortune
cookies, cache their bits
as Ann Arbor burns behind us.