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Straddling Convention: The Erotic in Asian American Poetry

Ocean Vuong, in search of the “new erotic,” guest-curates a portfolio of poems in time for Valentine’s Day.

By Ocean Vuong

Desire is the root of all suffering, said the Buddha as he sat beneath the Bodhi tree surrounded by his disciples. As one of those disciples, I am bound by my refuge in this truth. But how does one free oneself of desire when possessing a physical body means satisfying even its most basic needs. The flesh, along with the mind that thrives within it, is subject to hunger, thirst, the biological fact of sexual lust: the lips made ruby and bright against the twilight of a grey and desolate world, the skin rendered soft enough for the hand, despite its propensity for total and irrefutable destruction, to find solace as the warmth of another’s pulsing fills its clutch. The impossible language of two mouths lifted brim to brim. Is all this to keep us from loneliness? The Greeks claimed that we are only searching for our missing half, that somewhere, among the rubble of a lifetime, is a fellow refugee, waiting for redemptive union. Perhaps fueling that search is the very fear of isolation, the possibility to be filled not with another life, but its absence.


When I was asked to guest-edit a feature of Asian American poets on desire and the erotic, I knew the collection had to reflect the complex diversities of Asian American lives themselves. Fortunately, the poets showcased here made that task an easy one. Not only do these poems exhibit the myriad ways Asian American writers respond to the erotic, they also contribute innovative and startling conceits to the well-trodden trope of desire itself. And yet, one cannot read the lines “The snake was a quieter fellow. He came in the fall evenings / through the long grass, his steps barely parting the blades” in Jee Leong Koh’s opening poem without confronting the outsider’s gaze—the body that loves, listens and dreams from the margins. In David Mura’s “Unsent E-mail Number 5,” the speaker negotiates desire through various yet constant states of departure: “I’ve / left the howling of dogs, Christ on the cross, / shoppers in downtown Hiroshima….Sometimes I wish / I wasn’t Oriental.” How quickly the question of desire grows complicated! The poem stylistically and thematically enacts the truth that, for so many of us who speak from the margins, venerating psychical bodies inevitability transgresses toward the longing for cultural acceptance.

Like the rich and intricate diasporas from which these poets write, the erotic—regardless of how searing or subtle—cannot be explored without the threat of danger. As in Joseph Legaspi’s piece, where the speaker literally faces the dichotomy between a son’s filial piety and the carnal, taboo infatuation with his father’s manhood: “How free it looked, / powerful, shaped like a bullet, and instead of taking life, / it gave life. I petted it. My father…” This collection reminds us that to write as an Asian American is to be political. In these poems, the question of sex and how the body politic engages sex is posed without apologies: “he pushed his tongue / into my mouth,” confesses the speaker in Cathy Che’s poem, while “I sat / in my Catholic skirt…” These poems not only interrogate the erotic from the sidelines of the American mainstream, they straddle and tenaciously ride the border of convention itself. They are only a fraction of new and exciting interpretations of this theme, but through their earnest, visceral, and sometimes desperate investigations of love, lust and hunger, they evince a rich narration of how desire, in all its beauties and risks, changes us—as Americans. Because “beauty,” as Rilke wrote, “is the beginning of terror”—and, as evidenced here, terror is the beginning of answers. As such, like the lover waiting for us in the darkened room, these poets leave nothing unturned.

—Ocean Vuong

Brooklyn, NY (February 4, 2013)

1. Eve’s Fault – Jee Leong Koh
2. [The boss has a band of people around her the way] – Victoria Chang
3. The Circumcision – Joseph O. Legaspi
4. V Unsent E-mail, No. 5 – David Mura
5. IN THE STREETS… – Lee Ann Roripaugh
6. THE BRIDEGROOM – Timothy Liu
7. Story – Cathy Linh Che

(Hieronymus Bosch)



Eve’s Fault

Eve, whose fault was only too much love
Aemilia Lanyer, “Salve Deus Rex Judaeorum: Eve’s Apology”

Though she has left the garden, she does not stop loving them.

God won her when he whipped out from his planetary sleeve
a bouquet of light. They watched the parade of animals pass.
He told her the joke about the Archaeopteryx, and she noted
the feathers and the lethal claws, a poem, the first of its kind.
On a beach raised from the ocean with a shout, he entered her
and she realized, in rolling waves, that love joins and separates.

The snake was a quieter fellow. He came in the fall evenings
through the long grass, his steps barely parting the blades.
Each time he showed her a different path. As they wandered,
they talked about the beauty of the light striking the birch,
the odd behavior of the ants, the fairest way to split an apple. 
When Adam appeared, the serpent gave her up to happiness.

For happy was she when she met Adam under the tree of life,
still is, and Adam is still Adam, inarticulate, a terrible speller, 
his body precariously balanced on his feet, his mind made up
that she is the first woman and he the first man. He needed 
her and so scratched down and believed the story of the rib.
She needed Adam’s need, so different from God and the snake,

and that was when she discovered herself outside the garden.

(first published in tongues of the ocean)

Jee Leong Koh is the author of four books of poems, including Seven Studies for a Self Portrait (Bench Press) and The Pillow Book (Math Paper Press). He lives in New York City and blogs at Song of a Reformed Headhunter.