Things I’ve been thinking about: Malls, Manor Houses, and Revolutionaries

I’m currently based in Hangzhou, China, and being in a new and unfamiliar city means that while I have much to discover, I have little to do–and a lot of time to spend reading. Here are three things that I’ve been thinking about this week:

Qiu Jin, The Woman Knight of Mirror Lake

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A few days ago I stumbled across a memorial to Qiu Jin near Hangzhou’s West Lake. I had briefly studied her in a college history class, and a quick online search reminded me of what a fascinating figure she is. Born in 1875, Jin was a Chinese feminist poet and revolutionary who left her husband in order to pursue her education in Japan, then returned to China to fight against the Manchu Qing dynasty (she was executed in 1907). I love these lines from her poem Capping Rhymes with Sir Ishii from Sun’s Root Land:

Ashamed, I have done nothing; not one victory to my name

I simply make my war horse sweat.

The image of accomplishing nothing except tiring out yourself and an animal who can’t understand the context for this exhaustion conveys a very specific sense of futility.

Evelyn Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited

I finished reading Brideshead Revisited a few weeks ago, and I’m still not sure what to make of the way Evelyn Waugh writes about romance, sex, and sexuality. Most of the sex in the novel—and especially queer sex—is subtextual. Is this just a function of censorship in 1950s Britain, or is it a calculated choice? And if it’s intentional, then is Waugh being subversive by refusing to label sexuality, or does his characters’ refusal to talk about sex indicated how repressed and self-loathing most of them are (and does that tie in to his views on Catholicism)?

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I’ve also been thinking about similarities between Brideshead Revisited and Atonement: I think Atonement might be the better book, but it might not have been able to happen if Brideshead Revisted hadn’t been written first. Both center on a country house and a family, both have a writer/narrator looking back on the past, both use WWII to mark the end of an era and the destruction of a class system and way of life.

I haven’t yet seen any of the movie/tv adaptations, but it’s now vaguely on my to-watch list.

Joan Didion and Malls

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Luxury malls are everywhere in China (apparently many of them are actually closing down because the market has become over-saturated). But the experience of going to a mall here is very different than going to a mall in the US—and very, very different from going to a mall in my hometown in Oregon. The mall where I grew up was ugly, with outdated 1970s architecture and stale, stuffy air. When I was older, I learned it was also a hub for local sex trafficking (which explains why my mother wouldn’t allow me to go there alone in my early teens). But reading Joan Didion makes me think that visiting malls in China must be akin to the experience of visiting a brand new mall in California in 1975. It is easy to get lost in these malls. They are vast, filled with clothes and sweet shops and luminous white melamine surfaces. In On the Mall, She writes:

Ala Moana, The Esplanade, and Edgewater Plaza are the same place, which is precisely their role not only as equalizers but in the sedation of anxiety. In each of them one moves for a while in an aqueous suspension… ‘It’s a hard place to run in to for a pair of stockings,’ a friend complained to me recently of Ala Moana, and I knew that she was not yet ready to surrender her ego to the idea of the center.

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On Our New Poet Laureate, Tracy K Smith

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This week, the news that Tracy K Smith had been chosen as the new poet laureate of the US provided me with a gleam of encouragement amidst the ever-worsening firestorm of current events. I first discovered Smith’s work in a college seminar on contemporary poetry. Smith’s Pulitzer-winning collection Life on Mars was required reading, and I immediately loved her powerful, clear-voiced, and accessible style. Many of her poems–The Speed of Belief, Eggs Norwegian, and The Good Life among them–have stuck in my head and prompted revisiting and rereading over the last few years. Last year, I taught The Universe: Original Motion Picture Soundtrack to a class of middle school students.

In honor of Smith’s new role as poet laureate, I’d like to share some thoughts on Life on Mars. I’m also adding her memoir, Ordinary Light, to my reading list.

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Life on Mars, Tracy K. Smith’s attempt to address death in the post-space age era, is an ambitious collection of poetry, spanning topics literally as vast as our ever-expanding universe.

Smith’s father, an engineer who worked on the Hubble telescope during the 1980s, died in 2008, and his presence is felt throughout the book in Smith’s allusions to astronomy and outer space. If anything, Smith takes on too much. The book’s four parts chart a progression towards the internal, and Smith risks losing her readers along the way, but those who stay with her will find Life on Mars both thoughtful and thought-provoking.

Smith begins by examining the world in which we live on a massive scale. Part one of the collection is an amalgamation of astronomical facts and Cold War pop culture references drawn from Smith’s childhood.  “Sci-Fi” and “Museum of Obsolescence” offer Bradbury-esque visions of a future where “Eons from even our own moon, we’ll drift / in the haze of space” or visit museums to stare at “an image of the old planet taken from space.”  In “It & Co.,” Smith searches for something unnamed, “vast and unreadable.” Those who remember Sylvia Plath’s “Death & Co.” might guess that Smith is referring to death, but the unidentified “it” appears throughout the book in a variety of contexts. Among other things, “it” sometimes stands in for death, but also for life, space, and sex. As I read further in the collection and grew accustomed to Smith’s ambiguous “it,” I found myself substituting new words and concepts for “it,” testing out possible meanings for the lines. Smith turns the reader into the astronomer, searching for something to explain the motions of the universe.

Life on Mars ranges in scope from the cosmic to the political to the deeply personal, and Smith is at her best when, as in “My God, It’s Full of Stars,” she successfully unifies these extremes. The ambiguous “it” appears again in this title, taken from a line from 2001: A Space Odyssey. “We like to think of it as parallel to what we know, / Only bigger. One man against the authorities. / Or one man against a city of zombies,” Smith writes, reminding us of the cinematic tropes that still shape popular conceptions of science and outer space. Smith goes on to describe a meeting with actor Charlton Heston, who, I learned from a visit to IMDb, starred in the 1968 sci-fi flick Planet of the Apes. Heston died in 2008, the same year as Smith’s father. Smith invites Heston inside, where, she writes, “I ask him to start from the beginning, but he goes only halfway back. / That was the future once, he says. Before the world went upside down.”  The scene underscores the vagueness of our understanding of time and space; Heston’s cryptic words sound like those of a movie character, and Smith’s notes at the end of the book give no hint as to whether their meeting is real or imagined. Here, Smith successfully uses ambiguity to force her readers to scrutinize the poem. The passage left me curious, but not disoriented.

When Smith describes her father for the first time in the book, she pairs her description of his work on the Hubble with the imagery of Cold War America:

When my father worked on the Hubble Telescope […]

He’d read Larry Niven at home, and drink scotch on the rocks,

His eyes exhausted and pink. These were the Reagan years,

When we lived with our finger on The Button […] 

Smith reminds us that the space race, which propelled humanity towards deeper and more complete scientific knowledge of our universe, was also driven by nuclear brinkmanship and fear of worldwide annihilation. Smith’s references to the Cold War set up her later discussion of the ongoing War on Terror, and by drawing a parallel between the two wars, Smith makes the Cold War allusions of part one more relevant to readers today.

“The Speed of Belief,” Smith’s elegy for her father, is one of two poems included in part two. The poem opens with a description of the hospital room where Smith and her family gather around her dying father, surrounded by “trays of food meant to fortify that silence.” The scene will be familiar to anyone who has visited a hospital death bed, where flowers and framed photos only partly mask the impersonality and sterility of the room. In the next section of the poem, Smith addresses her dead father, recalling her grandfather’s death:

When your own sweet father died

You woke before first light

And ate half a plate of eggs and grits,

And drank a glass of milk.

After you’d left, I sat in your place.

As Smith finds herself in her father’s place, this time metaphorically. Mourning her father’s death, she must once again ask the childhood question, “who were we / Without your clean profile nicking away / at anything that made us afraid?” As Smith struggles to explain her father’s death, she finds that she must redefine her own identity, both as a daughter, and as an individual. Who are we without the people we love? So much of our own selves are created in the context of our relationships that death forces us to examine ourselves. The final sections of the poem move toward increasingly abstract imaginings of death and life after death, closing with Smith’s prayer that her father is “what waits / to break back into the world // Through me.”

In part three, Smith’s poetry moves away from childhood memories to focus on recent tragedies. The book’s title poem, “Life on Mars,” is both luminous and chilling. As she tries to define “the space between people / When what holds them together isn’t exactly love,” Smith recounts news stories describing the torture of inmates at Abu Ghraib and a woman imprisoned and raped by her father. The horrors of life on earth, and in America today can be just as surreal and grotesque as imaginings of extraterrestrial life. In “Solstice,” a modified villanelle, Smith uses the gassing of geese at the JFK airport as an opportunity for political commentary. Smith criticizes the Bush administration’s obsession with the War on Terror and holds American citizens accountable for our passive complicity in injustice, our readiness to “back away from all we say / And, more or less, agree with what we should.”

Some of Smith’s strongest poems appear in part four, a collection of vignettes from daily life. Smith listens to the neighbor’s screaming children, refuses to walk the dog with her partner, goes for a frustrating walk with the dog, and contemplates the “the years I lived on coffee and bread.” Most of these poems, though beautifully executed, seem disconnected from the previous sections. The two final poems of the book, “When Your Small Form Tumbled into Me,” and “US & Co.” do return to earlier themes. In “When Your Small Form Tumbled into Me,” a sonnet to addressed to her child at the moment of conception, Smith asks, “From what dream world did you wriggle free?” The question calls to mind Smith’s earlier imaginings a nebulous afterlife where her father waits to break back into the world.

“Us & Co.” the book’s closing poem, harks back to part one’s “It & Co.” In “It & Co.,” Smith asks, “We are a part of It. Not guests. Is It us, or what contains us?” While “Us & Co. does not exactly answer the questions that Smith has posed to herself throughout the book, she does manage to find a kind of resolution:

We are here for what amounts to a few hours

a day at most

We feel around making sense of the terrain,

our own new limbs,

Bumping up against a herd of bodies

until one becomes home. 

“It,” once a single and foreign thing, becomes “us,” as we come to better know ourselves and the people around us. There is comfort in this. Yet Smith is well aware that this sense of familiarity with our world is at once real and illusory. We make our homes among particular people in a very specific society. There is so much beyond us that we ignore, and even more that is real, but which is also unknown to us.

“When the storm / Kicks up and nothing is ours, we go chasing / after all we’re certain to lose, so alive —” or when we recall how the Hubble “saw to the edge of all there is — // so brutal and alive it seemed to comprehend us back,” the reader, like Smith, will find herself in awe. Smith’s questions about death inevitably become a contemplation, and often a celebration, of life. After all, the book is not titled Death on Earth, but Life on Mars.