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From The Asian Reporter, V17, #14 (April 3, 2007), page 16
By Adrienne Su
Manic D Press, 2006
Paperback, 64 pages, $13.95
By Josephine Bridges
Itís never easy describing what a book of poetry is about, but Adrienne Su does as admirable a job of this as she did writing the poems in question. "Iíve realized that race is only one of several themes in the book. More central to the poems are motherhood, womanhood, and ó I hope this isnít too vague ó safety and risk Ö And itís about being the child of Chinese immigrants to the U.S., for whom ambition is a lower priority than survival."
Sanctuary begins with this stanza from "The English Canon":
Itís not that the first speakers left out women
Unless they were goddesses, harlots, or impossible loves
Seen from afar, often while bathing.
Itís a disturbing, perfect beginning for a passionate, severe collection that never lets up. "Escape from the Old Country," the second poem in Sanctuary, ends with these unsettling lines:
But of course. Here in America,
no one escapes. In the end, each traveler
returns to the town where, everyone
knew, she hadnít even been born.
Fortunately, Adrienne Su has a sense of humor. "Foreign Languages" is a sensual and funny poem all the way through, but itís hard to know whether to blush or laugh at this spectacular stanza:
The first one I experienced out loud
was French, so brief and I so young
that it never got its tongue in my mouth.
Two formal poems, a sestina and a haiku, share the title "Asian Driver." The poet is confident enough to wonder out loud about the "racial profiling" ordinary people engage in, and the kind of humor it elicits. By the end of the sestina, she still hasnít told you what she thinks. Hereís the first stanza:
Itís an expression youíre not supposed to use,
like "black basketball player" or "fat person,"
unless you are a member of the group,
in which case you can even tell jokes.
Did you hear about the Asian driver
who stopped at the red light?
Adrienne Suís poems about motherhood are ironic, visceral, and unnerving, yet also overflowing with the ecstasy of the experience. With titles like "Postpartum Vocabulary" and "Secundigravida," these are the records of a life concurrently lived and observed, and they make us see the strangeness in what we thought was commonplace.
The last poem in the book takes it a step further, enlarges the size of the world we live in, engages our empathy, gives voice to our outrage. "The Girls Learn to Levitate" ends with this stanza:
Although the bodies protest, the girls feel nothing.
Out on the balcony, concentrating on the release
of earthly burdens, they rise unsteadily to the orange sky.
"The theme Iíve struggled with most is motherhood," says Adrienne Su. "It brings out the sentimental side of many writer-mothers; the ground is mined with clichťs we havenít dealt with before; the emotions are complicated and new; and if youíre still in the postpartum period, youíre writing under the influence of all kinds of hormones you havenít dealt with before, either." Still, she concludes, "I find myself with a lot more to say than when I had only a dog to take care of." Lucky for us.