Welcome to this month’s “A Favorite Poem” issue. This month’s a particularly-fresh one, as it’s a recently-released poem from Chinese-American poet Anni Liu. Titled “Ars Poetica in a Dream Language,” it’s an image-loaded, almost sensual, poem that addresses the harmony and tension between two cultures of the individual.
Ars Poetica in a Dream Language (by Anni Liu)
I dream my mother / unravels / hair out of my mouth
in English / she asks me / to speak Chinese
coils the hair / into a dark gloss / whorled
in her palm / fluency: I can’t / unhear my Chinese
memories in English / does that make them / American
memories / the word ravel / means the same thing
as its opposite / to entangle or disentangle / render
incoherent or make plain / & now / in this dream
she leaves me / to muddle her hair / from my mouth
a thin silk / slick with saliva / I render into shapes
that look nothing / like her / once but no longer
ravel meant to waste / spoil / or destroy a thing
as by pulling / a fabric into threads / if we allow
for obs. meanings / then let me / also go back
in time / to the original state / examine at length
or in a hurry / because what is obscure / becomes
obsolete / leaving a thin trail of threads / when I
look back / I see the path / hair-dark & raveling
From the first line “I dream my mother / unravels / hair out of my mouth,” we already get a very stark, unusual imagery. One can interpret it as the hair in the mouth a sign of muddiness, particularly when it comes to the blend of two different languages (e.g. English and Chinese). The narrator, having grown up in two cultures, might feel “tongue-tied” and unable to confidently identify with one particular culture, and that’s why the hair in her mouth is a metaphor for that.
That said, the “unraveling” which occurs through the poem is the narrator’s attempt to organize herself between these two languages. The word “ravel” becomes a paradox then, as it “means the same thing as its opposite / to entangle or disentangle / render incoherent or make plain.” If anything, the narrator is stressing the process, rather than the result, of trying to make sense of her identity, which will come in time as she gets older.
Overall, the choppy issue of the slash symbol (/) throughout the poem is just as much a visual piece as it’s a functional tool for the poem’s content. In other words, it’s meant to evoke the dream-like sequence mentioned in the title. With dreams generally being vivid and incoherent, the slash symbol demonstrates that jump from one idea to another, line-by-line. Offering a distorted image of hair, fabric, and threads, the poem’s slash symbols can also be used to refer to the tenuous connection between two very different cultures and their languages, and the narrator tries to hold on to them at the same time. Whether or not she’ll be successful is left up to the reader, but again, it’s the process of getting there that’s emphasized in this poem.
I encourage you to give it a read. Otherwise, have a good day!
— The Finicky Cynic
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