The Bees Make Money in the Lion, by Lo Kwa Mei-en. Cleveland, Ohio: Cleveland State University Poetry Center, April 2016. 76 pages. $16.00, paper.
…In this book, the bees make money in the lion’s fontanel,
licked away by the hero
in tacky sheets of zero
Next chapter in, we girls spit it all out. The end is gold and harm
mercurial, and the sea, ashine with
milk and honey, and the sky, amen.
In these poems, Lo Kwa Mei-en constructs an eerily familiar, futuristic universe inhabited by citizens and aliens, would-be colonizers and their survivors, which recalls Karen Tei Yamashita’s cyborgian landscapes and Donna Haraway’s 1980s manifesto. As stated in the title of the opening poem “Pastoral with No Quarter,” these poems back down from nothing. They are fierce in their naming of trauma and survival:
My cavalry thinks of making love but cannot mean
wild horses surviving the saddle, bit and the bald
heaven of insuring a citizen’s eye the mindless green
of paper honey…
Let she who survives by her mouth mean / kickback…
Or in the poem, “Aubade with Beginning, End, and Zodiac”:
…In the future, my flesh
forgot the registry of movement and moved. In the future, the machines
turned over earth broken by a year of wild horrors…
He named me and I threw the index / out.
Intertwined with the naming of women’s bodies by men is the naming of “citizen” and “alien.” In Mei-en’s world, the multiple definitions of “alien” collide, conjuring at once images of outer space and extraterrestrials, and the familiar terrain of anti-immigrant language in the United States. A series of linked sonnets winds through the collection from beginning to end, each piece bearing the same title, “The Alien Crown.” From the end of one “The Alien Crown”:
the colony names its price and I,
hot cent of foreign cash,
sell it slant. …
in radio, but here comes the foxtrot–
they come, and we conquer the footwork of being.
To its partner:
The conquerers came and wrote the conquered into being
… But say we climb
back on the boat. Say we pack the hull with work and angry
zephyres—to, say it, their hell—and over it heave the extra
anchor, aim it to a future minus a canon the color of quartz—
The speaker(s) of these poems bear the wounds of alienation, assimilation, and perpetual foreignness, yet in naming the trauma rise to meet it with “X-acto sharp” swords of honey. Conquerors and colonizers have come and lingered, but these daughters, queens, citizen-aliens refuse to submit quietly to their rule.
Similarly, the language and genre of these poems refuse to be colonized by the etiquette of dead-white-guy poetry. Lo Kwa Mei-en’s use of repetition and sound is masterful and bewildering. From the next sonnet of “The Alien Crown”:
Anger and aim fused to the future, a cannon lined with quartz.
… Thus reflect. The reef is glass, the chain is deaf
gold, and the future is bright, this bright, but flashing in fright,
the mild boom like a child in bloom, like a world refracting.
Alliteration, internal rhyme and homonyms abound in language that is a melding of science and sex, myth and techno-jargon. Additionally, in each of these sonnets, Mei-en tweaks the traditional carry-over of the last line of the preceding sonnet to the first line of the following sonnet. Each succeeding sonnet is obviously haunted by its predecessor, yet the meaning of each line writhes and twists into new significance.
“The Alien Crown” is not an exception in formal inventiveness and experimentation. The entire collection is intimately concerned with formal constraints. Yet, rather than blind obedience to the form, these poems thrive on pushing structure past its limits to see what may be salvaged from the aftermath of explosion.
It seems as if every other poem in this collection is a form of abecedarian. In its simplest form, each line of an abecedarian begins with a letter of the alphabet, starting with a and ending with z. Not so with “Aubade for Non-Citizens,” which runs a, z, b, y, c, x, etc. or “The Alien Crown” number four, whose last line starts with a and ends with z, second to last line starts with z ends with a, then starts b ends y, starts y ends b, and so on up to the dizzying beginning. Mei-en twists and doubles the form back upon itself, relentless scrolling up and down the alphabet, rendering it utterly subject to the poet’s ceaseless pacing.
In section “III. The Lionshare,” each line of each of the six poems begins and ends with the same word; six wildly different animals that all share the same exoskeleton. Not only do these poems ricochet and swerve within the intricate rules of alphabet and word count that Lo Kwa Mei-en has set for herself, they also redefine the possibilities of standard forms like the aubade, elegy, and pastoral. “Babel / Elegy” ends with the lines:
…the backs of the horses
rang red on red. O rental ruin of kindness’ ruin, halo be thy name.
Run up a flag of a body clock rung and cast out the unbearable
and tributary light.
And from “Babel / Pastoral”:
…ricochet off horses
rang to apple flesh now dappled red, ruin carried on a wind, wind’s name
run through the stable door, the girl slammed to it, a vowel unbearable
and terribly light.
The pastoral form in particular has long, and narrowly, been canonized as “a white male poet speaking in and about a rural landscape that very much resembled rural England” (Foust). Lo Kwa Mei-en’s pastorals, and other formal poetry, refute that assumption with their unapologetic existence. Grief lives in these poems, and nature too, but rather than clutching like a corset the forms function here as lattices through which the poems rage with the unconstrained ferocity of new growth.
The Bees Make Honey in the Lion serves us “honey whipped mean” to combat a world where “daily racism has no face / for the head went in the jaw unhinged.” The honeyed current of these poems conjures lions that “will not lie down” despite the “fat rifles” resting in their hearts. Here, in the future, words are weapons wielded in an endless “editing [of] violence” that cannot be silenced. In this exquisite collection, Lo Kwa Mei-en exhibits a clinical proficiency over language and traditional poetic forms, and then deliberately walks away from convention and into the unplumbed wilds of what language and narrative could be, were we brave enough to venture there.
Jasmine An is a queer, third-generation Chinese-American who comes from the Midwest. Born in Ann Arbor, Michigan, and raised in the Twin Cities of Minnesota, she has also lived in New York City and Chiang Mai, Thailand, studying poetry, urban development, and blacksmithing. Her work can be found in journals such as HEArt Online and forthcoming in Galavant. Her chapbook Monkey Was Here was a finalist for the first Two Sylvias Press Chapbook Prize. She is looking forward to a residency this fall at the Sundress Academy for the Arts, where she will work on her next manuscript and enjoy the citizens of Firefly Farms, including Jayne the donkey.
Foust, Rebecca. “Poetry Sunday: ‘Anti-Pastoral’ by Vievee Francis” http://womensvoicesforchange.org/poetry-sunday-anti-pastoral-by-vievee-francis.htm