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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.

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.

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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” by Jee Leong Koh
2. “[The boss has a band of people around her the way]” by Victoria Chang
3. “The Circumcision” by Joseph O. Legaspi
4. “V Unsent E-mail, No. 5” by David Mura
5. “In the Streets . . .” by Lee Ann Roripaugh
6. “The Bridegroom” by Timothy Liu
7. “Story” by Cathy Linh Che