|City of Eternal Spring
Poems by Afaa Michael Weaver
|University of Pittsburgh Press, 2014
Reviewed by Mike Walker
City of Eternal Spring is a difficult, demanding book from the onset: however wrongly, we often tend to look for central themes and backgrounding for poets and their poetry, being too accustomed to a Chinese-American poet writing about her ethnic experience or a black poet about his, and losing sight, I feel, commonly of the role of good poetry, period, in contemporary literature. Afaa Michael Weaver, a highly-accomplished yet under-known poet who also happens to be black and happens to be a scholar and explorer of Asia therefore shatters the assumptions that some of even the most well-meaning or educated readers may bring to a book prior to opening its cover. His work here, in the third volume of an ambitious three-volume collection, does concern his ethnicity, it does concern his travels in Asia, but it concerns much beyond. It concerns narrative language and form in a manner often lost today in poetry; it concerns his efforts to make peace with abuse he suffered as a child. It is, as serious poetry ought to be, a challenge in all the best ways.
I know there are readers who will take issue with what I noted above about how we approach a writer of any minority status, they will say we’re beyond this, we no longer see a “black writer” or a “gay writer” but I will contend we still, alas, too often do just this. We find in college courses that writers, especially contemporary poets, often organized in such a fashion where we want for a token someone to represent every facet of diversity. The problem is, the lesbian poet has to then be, foremost, a lesbian. The black male poet is expected to contribute something on racial injustice, the Asian-American something on her struggle as such—as an Asian, as a woman, but what about as a writer or a teacher or whatever else she is? We set expectations of poetry to tell about the person that sometimes are at ill odds with the trajectory the poet wants and desires to take. I don’t want that mistake made with Weaver’s fine book: for its emphasis on Asia alone and its quality of writing, it could stand as a one of the best and most-crucial volumes of original poetry of the year thus far, but the aspects of the poet dealing with childhood abuse also contribute a whole separate though united dimension to the book and the poems it contains.
Weaver’s Plum Flower Trilogy, which this book concludes, takes on a huge project—the reflection of personal history and the human body via Asian, in most instances Daoist, metaphorical explorations. Thus, many poems in this final book are quite personal, but they also are wide-ranging, focused in places on several topics, such as one concerned with the poet’s reaction to learning Michael Jackson died while he, the poet, is in Asia. Effortlessly, Weaver fuses his impressions of the famed singer’s death with his first-hand take on small visual details before him. Something noteworthy for America, for pop culture, has happened, something surprising, something nearly wanton, and yet life goes on and in many ways, in this place where he walks and records what he sees, hears, and smells, it happens in a way life could have progressed centuries ago, with the same daily tasks at hand. It is not how many poets, even our greatest ones, would have approached Jackson’s death. It is more: it is about how a person is displaced‚ either by death, or by the media reaction to death for one of great fame, or by actual removal—by travel and by immersion in another culture. Likewise, when Weaver writes about the earthquakes in Taiwan, he speaks as someone close to the topic but with a feeling of removal still—closer than us, but not native, perhaps near-native given his dedication to learning the language and culture, but still coming as a traveler to the scene.
Travelers, versus tourists, are a rare breed these days: We either go places on business where we are too often cloistered from the acute aspects of a foreign land via our business hotels, meetings in English, and other efforts made to make the experience as smooth as possible or else we are tourists, literally, as we are on holiday tours. Cruises, package deals to see a lot of Europe in a very short time, efforts at eco-tourism that while often well-meaning are tours nonetheless and meant for tourists all the same. The traveler, whether a man in the 1880s making his way through western Texas or a man in the 2010s making his way through Taiwan and elsewhere in vast Asia, are another thing altogether. These are people who are in the midst of a strange land, strangers fully, strangers trying to learn the local ways half via personal interest and half via great imperative to do what one must to survive and to make the experience as much a quality one as possible. That duty is upon our traveler: with the tourist, the surety of quality of course is in the hands and promises of the tour operator—so the responsibilities are rather different.
Weaver is very aware of his position as a traveler and what it means. In his poem “Buying a History of the Language,” which is one of my favorites in this book, he makes it clear that he’s doing things that are the domain of a traveler alone, encountering the origins of a language in a native bookstore, yes, learning about China from the book’s page but buying the book in the first place within China. Weaver entitled the second section of this book “Exile” because he is simultaneously a traveler and an exile: beyond where he came from, where he established via legacy and nationality and education and all else a sense of self versus one of somewhere else. He writes in one poem of walking into a bookstore and seeing a book in a language he did not understand and while he interplays Chinese here and there in his poems and clearly understands not only the language in the sense of being able to communicate in it but also the concept of its vast depth, scope, and history, he in addition knows what he doesn’t know. He realizes his position of removal, his position of not being where he started nor where he wishes to finish nor exactly in transit—as he’s dedicated a lot of time both in actual days and the efforts of these poems to being in situ—so he is, in many ways, in exile.
Despite—or perhaps indeed because of—his self-imposed exile, Weaver writes of his own history in poems such as “Tea Plantations and Women in Black” where the concept of a plantation expectedly returns him to the plight of African-Americans in the United States. It is in poems such as this one, especially given how short, tight, and compressed it is, that there would be an ease in the poet producing something too coy, too earnest, but Weaver avoids this pitfall. His poem is quick, both in its length and its ability to arrive at its core points, yet it leaves the reader wanting more in the very best way. These poems are highly narrative and what they truncate or outwardly leave out is nearly always non-essential and despite how brief they can be, their narrative powers and sheer ability to put together a whole story in a few lines is staggering in scope. I normally like to quote from poems when I review books, but here it is rather tough to do so with much meaning: Weaver’s poems, while often beautiful, are built of uncomplicated language and a couple borrowed lines will do little to convince anyone of their real gravity. Weaver notes, in example, the difficult, nearly-impossible, mission of learning the Chinese characters, he says: “if there are not enough stars in the sky to count the years it will take to learn these characters, do not tell” strikes me as less poetic than it is simply honest.
The role of metaphor here is not to explain the simple, but the complex; Weaver’s metaphors are much larger affairs than one typically expects and he is not interested in metaphors where he can plainly explain, as narrative, what is at hand. He can tell us, in example, about how he marvels at the sense of cohesion and duty in Chinese society and he can tell us, simply, how he notices old couples talking together—huddled together—and provide us with a picture in our minds of such grandmas and grandpas in close conversation that requires no metaphor whatsoever. However, metaphor in larger measure and of more robust, complex construction is merited when speaking of his personal history and childhood abuse. How do we seek solace and remedy for things that are both awful and long ago? Things able to remain with us not years but decades? English itself lacks very sound or sure terms for such a mission—the French “cherchant du réconfort” is more noble and also more accurate. For his part, Weaver turns to the Chinese language but even more the landscape and human geography of it, via Daoist teachings, he has mapped out. He is also very adept at finding in rural Chinese farm life—a life much unchanged for decades despite the boiling rise of Chinese urbanity over the past twenty or so years—likenesses to his own black heritage in America. Again, in less-able hands such efforts could feel forced, but Weaver is restrained and skilled enough to only provide honest, vivid, and necessary examples of how his culture and the one he is visiting reflect each other in often nearly mirror-like gloss. Peanuts, a crop of great actual and cultural import to both Black Americans and to rural Chinese, become a focal point in a poem, in example, and the depth Weaver produces is powerful: not just the surface values of the peanut in terms of a crop with meaning to the ethnicities at hand, but the pragmatic and economic values therein of a humble yet hardy crop, a rich crop of the impoverished, a crop of various broad uses and high nutritional content. His metaphor here is not metaphor: it is what Susan Sontag desired, a removal from metaphor and it is devoid of tropes—it is not about Black people raising peanuts or Chinese farmers raising peanuts, but about encountering a foodstuff valued by two cultures and appreciating it as the wonder of agriculture it is incarnate.
“Wind and air have forgotten magicians,
who can fly beyond the range of the compass”
This, quoted above, now this is worth quoting: lines that are in rare instance for our poet as these so removed from direct narrative, yet all the more beautiful and fully keeping of their strengths of narrative language and simple explicatus intact. Weaver’s expert ability to employ exactly the best words at the exact most-apt moment is something I suspect not only to be the profit of a lifetime of quality writing, but also of coming to the third book in a trilogy where he can draw from themes and items he has considered for two other books’ worth of writing. It’s a rare and very special situation for a poet and one that can only be earned via the sheer amount of grand effort Weaver’s invested in his writing.
Perhaps the most gripping aspect of Weaver’s poetry here however is his cohesive application of Daoist images and concepts to explore the abuse he suffered as a child and also to explore his position currently in the world around him. He is steadfastly careful to not preach Daoist views as a key that unlocks any door but simply as a vantage point that has allowed him necessary distance from himself and his own personal history. While some people might turn to psychoanalysis for such a mechanism, in his Daoist approach Weaver is able to place very core human emotions within the unique geography of a combined landscape, portraying his journey through time as a man akin to a journey across a territory charted out on a map. His poems are perfect for this approach, too, as they are short and compact yet, again, very narrative in nature and brimming with visual cues to larger themes taking place. They function as a collected corpus in this book much as a map rolled out over a table could: showing various locations and the major roads and paths nearly lost to time which lead between one place and another.
Clearly, Weaver’s book is a triumph and a graceful, powerful conclusion to his trilogy as well. Weaver offers up poems that accomplish the rare feat of describing both a foreign land—the whole spectra of people, places, traditions insofar as such can be bottled up in poems and transmitted to a reader. However, he does much more: he flawlessly incorporates his own personal history and personal struggles with his explorations of Asia and in doing so, makes his poetry all the richer instead of truncating or lessening either his autobiographical approach nor his geographical journey. This book therefore is rich, deep, and yet accessible to the reader who is willing to approach it; we need more poetry of this tenor, more poetry that is able to interrogate cultural traditions but without the normal tropes of a poet pigeon-holed into a certain ethnic, national, or other tradition: a poet, as Weaver proves himself, who is truly a traveler.