MERIWETHER CLARKE Reviews
The Tribute Horse by Brandon Som
(Nightboat Books, New York, 2014)
[First published in The Asian American Literary Review, Vol. 5, Issue 2, Fall/Winter 2014, Editors Lawrence-Minh Bui Davis and Gerald Maa]
In her introduction to The Language of Inquiry, Lyn Hejinian writes that “the language of poetry is a language of inquiry, not the language of a genre...Poetry, therefore, takes as its premise that language is a medium for experiencing experience.” To Hejinian, poetry’s purpose is to investigate the emotional, intellectual, and political aspects of human consciousness, not simply describe them. In his Nightbook Poetry Prize-winning collection The Tribute Horse, Brandon Som harnesses delicate, controlled forms and sonic richness to fulfill Hejinian’s prophecy. Drawing from personal and historic sources, Som’s poems navigate the complexities of migration by depicting a deep understanding of the role language plays in creating and documenting immigrant experiences. His collection not only draws attention to the trials of Chinese immigrants in the twentieth century, it also embodies the very essence of movement itself, the temporary nature of identity, and the unique anxieties of multi-national personhood.
The collection begins with a meditation on Som’s grandfather, an early twentieth century immigrant from China to the United States. The poem, one of several titled “Elegy,” describes the Som family name as a word comprised of “a stowaway vowel between one aspirate, one liquid.” This startling image haunts the entire book, continuously reminding the reader of the burdens words and names place on perception of the self.
Just as physical appearance can change after movement between countries, so can speech, habits, and, in many cases, self-identity. It’s impossible not to consider this phenomenon without remembering the often destructive relationship between an immigrant and the land to which she migrates. Readers of Som’s book are implicitly forced to remember the discrimination nineteenth- and twentieth-century Chinese immigrants faced and the laws (the Exclusion Act of 1882, the Geary Act of 1892, to name a few) that undergirded it. The Tribute Horse bears the weight of both a poetic, intellectual meditation and a political one.
The poem “Coaching Papers” is a fine example of Som’s ability to loom an experience that feels both intensely personal and unapologetically rooted in historic realities. After the 1906 earthquake and fire that destroyed San Francisco City Hall, many recent Chinese immigrants claimed they were born in the United States in order to sponsor family members, friends, and, in some cases, strangers to migrate from China to the United States. To determine if the familial relation was real (which, in many cases, it was not), immigration authorities on Angel Island interrogated immigrants (often referred to as “Paper Sons”) and their sponsor with complex questions about their home village, family traditions, and ancestry. Meanwhile, on the journey across the Pacific, immigrants studied slips of paper with comprehensive histories of the sponsor’s family. The precise couplets and haunting imagery of “Coaching Papers” exemplify the stifling difficulty of appropriating an unknown identity in order to successfully immigrate. The poem begins with a meditation on names:
Said, my name was a seine net,
torqued by pitch & drawn closed.
Said aloud, my name swallowed me.
Aloud, my name kept me in its net.
Nights, I hauled the wet nets: names
silent & breathless across my desk.
Nights, I mended trawling-tears.
I took needle & thread to names.
The name the speaker invokes is presumably a fake one, adopted to legitimize claims of family relations. The startling images of a fishing net introduces the reader to one of the poem’s central interests: the damaging experience of constructing a new self by adopting a false name and personal history. Immediately following this opening the speaker states “A paper-name ensures a debt / of sound,” implying the power exchange implicit in taking on a fake identity and verbally defending it to immigration officials. As the poem progresses, the ocean becomes a form of the coaching papers themselves, described as that which records the speaker’s practiced memorization “in waves,” the ship’s “bow dips & rises / like a pen signing the horizon. / Som - aspirate, vowel, liquid. / There is a sea on the coaching pages.”
These lines recall the final lines of the collection’s opening “Elegy”:
A Chinese immigrant, on his Pacific-crossing carried coaching papers for the memorizing. Approaching the island station, these pages were tossed to sea. A moon’s light in a ship’s wake might make a similar papertrail. My grandfather, aboard at twelve, practiced a paper-name. When ensued was a debt of sound.
In “Elegy,” the papers are gone, thrown in the ocean, but the memory of their necessity (and the new history they force the speaker’s Grandfather to accept) will continue to shadow the speaker and his family for generations. “Coaching Papers” similarly evokes a haunted past while calling for a strong remembrance of these lost identities, forcing the reader to remember that the adoption of new names is both what marked Chinese immigrants as citizens (or sons, daughters, or wives of citizens) and what forced repression of their true histories and families. The poem ends with an overt call for this rediscovery of forgotten names, one of the most political gestures in the book:
I am charting a written name,
reading aloud a manifest of sons
marked Citizen, reciting to sound
out again the purchased names,
to hear what silence stowed away.
In the extraordinary poem “Seascapes,” Som accomplishes a similar combination of internal consciousness and historic recollection by aligning the ocean’s movement with the experience of immigrating to a foreign country. Based on a series of photographs by Hiroshi Sugimoto, Som’s seascapes do not overtly mention a specific body of water, yet amid the rest of the collection, they are difficult not to contextualize as a response to the Pacific crossing from China to the United States. Som describes the horizon as having a “resistance to form,” and the speaker’s hands, while holding it, feel “as if thousands / of miles were between them.” But the ocean’s call, in sea shells, lacks urgency: “long distant / Phone calls in which the past / Is in our hands by some rendering tinged with loss.” The ocean not only serves as a literal reminder of distance but also as a living, moving depiction of shapeless identities in the flux of transformation.
This desire to hold the past and present in the same handful, to marry where one is going with where one has come from, speaks to Som’s delicate representation of the inner turmoil of immigrant experience. Aquatic images appear in many other poems: in “The Nest Collectors” an important family meal consists of fish and scallions; in “A Crow’s Robe” an emperor’s daughter drowns herself in choppy waves; in “Confessions” the speaker is “rusted from the wet.” Som’s Pacific is one defined by moments of discovery, change, and transformation, for better or for worse.
Other poems in the collection kindle a conversation between the continuous evolution of language and the experiences of immigrants in a new country. One of the most moving poems in the book, “Bows and Resonators,” utilizes found fragments from the walls of cells at Angel Island to explore the communicative, expressive component of language. The image alone—of immigrants scrawling words on the walls of a prison cell, so near the country they’ve traveled toward yet powerless to enter—is heartbreaking, an apt example of what Kazim Ali describes in the book’s preface: Som’s ability to “explore the ways migration acts upon a body’s language, culture, perception, and physical manifestation.”
The Tribute Horse amasses a library of such images. This is part of what Hejinian refers to, poetry’s unparalleled ability to create a deep understanding of an emotion or idea by evoking the essence of an experience, not just providing an explanation of it. One finishes The Tribute Horse left with a deep sense of the complex richness and sorrow that define the transformation of the self. Som’s poems send these evocations beyond the page, to linger in delicate and haunting echoes.
Meriwether Clarke is an MFA candidate at the University of California, Irvine, where she also serves as the Poetry Editor for Faultline Journal of Arts and Letters. Her poems have appeared in The Nashville Review, 491 Magazine, and Off the Coast, among other publications. She currently lives in Los Angeles.