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When considering the jubilant, fleshy dread of Feng Sun Chen’s “Illiteracy,” let us begin with a brief digression regarding the nature of bikram yoga. How might the bikram yoga enthusiast—or, for that matter, the locavore or the cross-fit trainer—imagine her own body? I would imagine that such a healthy specimen might view the body as beautiful and natural and see these practices as a way of purifying oneself to achieve a more authentic asceticism. This is the body as one’s true self and as something totally freaky that’s got to be controlled at all costs. What if rather than disciplining our bodies, we considered the fundamental unnaturalness of our bodies? What if we thought of our bodies as revolting, a word that comes with connotations of bad taste and rebellious uprising? Feng Sun Chen broaches these questions in “Illiteracy.” She starts with what she calls an author’s bio. What follows is not the typical blurb of oneself, but a rejection of the self-indexing nature of bios. The poem starts with a sort of manifesto against the splitting of the body from the mind—or, as she writes: “no duality of mind and body, self and flesh, body and archive.” Well, what would a poem look like if the self weren’t privileged over the flesh?

“Illiteracy” is a supercut poem of malfunctioned language, pop occulture, and a witchy, larval, uncontrolled femininity. The speaker says she has no friends (only mineral growth!), but she does have her mother—in fact there are many mothers: a maggot-like surplus of mothers, who writhe with a Lady Gaga-style body horror. This corrupted matrilineality forms the poem’s subtext; there are endless inheritances, “stepwomen” and “step animals.” “Illiteracy” glows with a Lovecraftian dread, but the grotesqueness isn’t really malign in that old-fashioned Symbolist Satanic way. Rather, it’s something worse: it’s fun, if one can include the full horrific consequences of that word.

—Ken Chen

Full-disclosure: Both Feng Sun and I are contributors to the poetry blog Montevidayo. Check out other Montevidayo poets we’ve published like Lucas de Lima and Johannes Göransson.

 

from Illiteracy

my contemporary biography reads
no duality of mind and body, self and flesh, body and archive,
motion towards the earth/death
then i am calculated and the speculum widens
EAT CAKE
trinkets r heathen
I never throw a party because the molting woman comes out from under
the stepwomen too they come crawling as if to worship me
but they are my mothers they want to coddle me
no wonder I have no friends just mineral growth
I take customers the ones who like truth they come slowly but sorely
slow things inheriting endlessly inheriting fenestrating
win like water like wind like st. catherine’s special medical soups
from the pastiche trinkets dredge up and up
maggots sleep in the open trinket
tiny fingers loom in the foggy
morn sloe things
stepthings belong to nothing no segment no nothing
come from endless night all so I return no avail tipped with radio
active creams snakes femme femmes
know the slow things in the cabinet
glass animals drink buckets of past
step animals drink from my nasty hand I am mastered with
held by the lemming meringue river of life
the small the withered the crass
STUPIDITY

I don’t flay myself but I wait for the touch of the dangling

sensical disks arranged like cakes

inside the tent acle

aching chorus the end is here in the windshield of hand on back

whisk whisk never reach the reach mee

the server serves me a note attached to a colon: hi

imbecile in smile sprouts cleanly after a thorough cleaning

give me a simile lonely is when this

I eat a vegan pizza and then an invisible hand crashes through

my window shards shards shards like art blast through thrashing

belt of square atmosphere

even the air flagellates my flog trembling eventually it will lay

millions of donut egg cells out of me a dream

into the blank cream of my ignorance if you are medi ocre I have hope

so much hope when you put ant ennae smash a tunnel the shape of a body

through my basal dorsal meditation on hi

. . .

virus says he wants to have a séance in which we take
ambien and channel cosmic energy maybe i will have visions of coconuts

i am standing on a soft precipice i could
see myself becoming very different like a robert frost poem

i am a quittee so i can’t let myself quit

how to feel now that you are airborne

i want to know your
geological and geographical interior exterior
orientation

good for my shallow waters

 

Feng Sun Chen is a writer and a CNA native to the Midwest. She is an author of Black Ocean Press and can be found at www.fengsunchen.wordpress.com. Her books include Butcher's Tree (Black Ocean) and blud (Spork Press).

Ken Chen is executive director of the Asian American Writers' Workshop and the 2009 recipient of the Yale Series of Younger Poets Award for his poetry collection Juvenilia.

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