Kenji C. Liu: Five Views of the Same Poetry: Situating the Self

Map 1

Grandfather takes me on his motorcycle through town—bumpy road, night sky, a warm breeze. Scent of cigarettes. One of my initial vivid experiences of conventional masculinity.

My father’s childhood village in Taiwan was small when I first visited as a child. It had two dirt roads. During the bai se kong bu—White Terror—hundreds of thousands were disappeared or executed. Now it’s a city, and those dirt roads are main thoroughfares in a democracy. The house is surrounded by buildings instead of fields, instead of spies.

I wasn’t born there, but my birth certificate is of two minds about it—Birthplace: Kyoto, Japan [* mother’s country]—Nationality: Republic of China [* father’s country].

Map 2

Recently I learned there were cross burnings in the 1920s down the street from my childhood home in New Jersey. They were lit across the border in the neighboring town, Metuchen. It was the “negro” section, right next to the tile factory, pub, and railroad tracks.

We drive down the street, and on the corner there is an older black man in his usual spot, leaning with his leg raised on a cement stoop. I meet his eyes, and he nods.

As a child, things I didn’t know filtered in through feeling. That part of the street always seemed older, more worn out. Somewhere in the back of my young brain I wondered why black people lived over there and not in Edison. Today I can discuss class difference, a history of the area’s racialized development. But back then, the map was unspoken. A feelings cartography. Maps under the maps.

Map 3

This is how one pictures the angel of history. His face is turned toward the past. Where we perceive a chain of events, he sees one single catastrophe which keeps piling wreckage upon wreckage and hurls it in front of his feet. The angel would like to stay, awaken the dead, and make whole what has been smashed. But a storm is blowing from Paradise; it has got caught in his wings with such violence that the angel can no longer close them. The storm irresistibly propels him into the future to which his back is turned, while the pile of debris before him grows skyward. This storm is what we call progress. — Walter Benjamin

The wreckage of now. Myriad human struggles have created the cartography of “here.” What I know or want to know about a place is often not on any map, and I understand maps influence perception, understanding, decisions, laws. As a poet I let myself be haunted by what has happened in a place. Being an immigrant of color, an Asian American man, a Taiwanese-Japanese emigrant from a New Jersey suburb, the present is littered with wreckage:

1882: Whereas, in the opinion of the Government of the United States the coming of Chinese laborers to this country endangers the good order of certain localities within the territory thereof… 1895: China cedes to Japan in perpetuity and full sovereignty the following territories, together with all fortifications, arsenals, and public property thereon: The island of Formosa, together with all islands appertaining or belonging to the said island of Formosa.
1942: By virtue of the authority vested in me as President of the United States, and Commander in Chief of the Army and Navy, I hereby authorize… military areas in such places… from which any or all persons may be excluded… 1945: We hereby proclaim the unconditional surrender to the Allied Powers of the Japanese Imperial General Headquarters and of all Japanese Armed Forces and all Armed Forces under Japanese control wherever situated.
1965: Visas shall next be made available… to qualified immigrants who are members of the professions, or who because of their exceptional ability in the sciences or the arts will substantially benefit prospectively the national economy, cultural interests, or welfare of the United States. 1979: It is the policy of the United States to provide Taiwan with arms of a defensive character; and to maintain the capacity of the United States to resist any resort to force or other forms of coercion that would jeopardize the security, or the social or economic system, of the people on Taiwan.

Map 4

“I” as a set of dispositions based on history, experience. Influences. Reactions. Learning. Preferences. “I” as a temporary formation at the intersection. Race. Gender. Class. Sexuality. Nationality. Learning to be a raced self, a gendered self, what is acceptable and not. Normality. Governability. Economic plug and play. Productivity.

“I” as living sculpture, performance of selves. Self-reflection. Unlearning. Helpful and unhelpful habits of mind. Alignment with alternatives, subcultures, political movements. Valuing difference. Queering. Alliance with margins. Legacies. Counter-stories.

Map 5

O Shariputra, form does not differ from emptiness, emptiness does not differ from form. That which is form is emptiness, that which is emptiness form. The same is true of feelings, perceptions, formations, consciousness. … Therefore in emptiness, no form, no feelings, no perceptions, no formations, no consciousness; no eyes, no ears, no nose, no tongue, no body, no mind… — Heart Sutra

Self, a collection of ever-changing phenomena. A collaboration of multiple elements, influences. Not insubstantial or  transcendental, but contextual. In a network of meaning, of meaning-giving. Self as a nexus, shifting over time, in and through society. A large, warm pool of humanity.

No matter how tenuous this convention of having a solid self, I am inevitably a Chink and Jap to someone. These eyes, these ears, this nose, this tongue, this body, this mind. One of the male bodies that for much of US history, needed to be legislated, regulated, inscribed.

Chinese, Japanese, dirty knees, look at these.

An elderly white man answers my knock on his door. I finger the candy I’m selling for middle school. You know, he says slowly, during the war I fought against the Japanese. A Jap boy is a Jap boy.

There are so many Asians at these events—the nice white lady says—the attendance is slanted. No offense.

The legacy of response has often been militant, meeting solids with solids. Assertion of masculinity. You say this identity is negative? I say it is positive, vibrant and unbreakable. It requires allegiance, conformity, and a spoken word manifesto.

Solid and changing, both are true. They challenge each other. For me, these are the bones of poetry.

Map Key

Settled about 1700, named for Indian chief, Metuching. Colonial trade center at Oak Tree Store. Skirmish fought here in June, 1777. — Metuchen Historic Marker

My old Edison neighborhood used to be a forested country road, farmland. A village of the colonies, built on the outskirts of a town barricaded against Indians. Before that, so many other things. The Turnpike follows the route of a former Indian highway. How many skirmishes don’t have plaques?

In 2005 Edison elected its first Asian American mayor. In 2010 Time published a “humor” column article lamenting the town’s excessive South Asian presence. Too many Indians.

I no longer live there. But wherever I am, the more looking happens, the more unfolding happens. Most of the time, there aren’t any markers for these maps. Some legacies need to be tagged. Somewhere in here, poetry lives.

Kenji Liu is a 1.5-generation immigrant from New Jersey. His poetry chapbook You Left Without Your Shoes (Finishing Line Press, 2009) was nominated for a 2009 California Book Award. His writing has appeared in or is forthcoming in several journals, including Kartika Review, Lantern Review, and Kweli Journal. He has received a Pushcart nomination and is working on a multi-genre full-length collection of poetry, prose and visual art. Kenji is currently the poetry editor at Kartika Review. More info at

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3 Thoughts on “Kenji C. Liu: Five Views of the Same Poetry: Situating the Self

  1. claire on June 22, 2011 at 6:20 pm said:

    love it! And i love the benjamin quote and have appropriated it.

  2. Simply wonderful. Subtly Devastating. Beautiful.

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