FABLESQUE, a Tupelo Press poetry-hybrid collection by Anna Maria Hong, reviewed by David Epstein

Let’s assume the superlatives are sprinkled all throughout. Fablesque is a poetically expansive volume, a house in three wings, with each wing containing, if not multitudes, then dozens of rooms. The rooms themselves are in every architecture, from personal archeology—where Anna Maria Hong offers her family history in thin threads of heredity: impetuous ancestry plus luck. Uncanny luck. Luck so shredded it feels like anointment. Wing One, of nineteen rooms, in prose, in poems. Be aware of the physical book. The leaves all have a small horizontal bar on page edge, about two-thirds of the way down. This can indicate the blank space, like an invitation to engage. It can also be a border that sometimes gets overflowed by the poem as it fills toward the bottom, a surge of need to share.

Nineteen rooms, each titled by a creature, from Ants to Amphisbaena, from Bear to Blue Morpho. Nor let the titles assuage our desire for order. The opening prose of “Heliconius Melpomene” (the “postman butterfly”) concerns the narrator’s father’s escape from North Korea. In the inchoate entry to this volume, the narrator invokes the Viceroy butterfly, a species that survives by imitating the coloring of the more poison-filled Monarch. Consider the possible lines of interpretation and resonance available to us with just this sketch of the poem. The imitator who isn’t poison; the similar-looking creature who is; the poem title, which is of a similarly appearing creature whose vernacular is the messenger, and these are only the starting points. Such is the depth of delicious complexity in the poems of Fablesque.

The narrator of one poem, “The Ants,” can suddenly reveal “Then, in a hotel room, and I am male, I think, the crotch / of my unflattering Sansabelt pants bulge ambiguously …” Readers and critics flock to the obviousness of “Siren,” for its fulsome feminist candor. Taking nothing away from that poem, consider as well “Snow Goose,” in which a girl’s mother brokers her rapist’s access. The girl turns out “to be a person instead of a very competent erasure.” And all of this in the archetype of fairy tale. We are unapologetically in the realm of fairy tale, but at the same time, prisoner of a narrative authority whose command of the language—and whose poetic commissioning—is beyond question. By the end of section one, it’s possible to feel a little beaten up. In “English Mole,” “‘Nothing,’ / said the suicide, ‘is as sad as recovery.’”

The second wing of Fablesque is like a breather, containing eight set pieces, four of which are sub-headed “Interiors” which were originally published in a Seattle-based architecture journal, ARCADE. As in section one, the intensity never falls off. The surety of voice is the kind of overwhelming that comes with a manic new friend. In “Basement Wall Crack” the language sizzles along with the voice: “… long since surpassed by the / technical innovations of Athenian and Hellenistic crack- / makers, the anonymous creator of this crack ranks among the / best of the Archaic period.” Each of the four Crack pieces has a coda, in the voice of a museum wall card: “A note about availability: While such Orientalist pap is rare / in basements, anyone wanting to buy it deserves what they get. / It’s a crack, and you can’t have it.” There is phenomenal control exerted by anything that is tendered (“to buy it”) and then retracted (“you can’t have it.”). How has this narrator swept us in so close? The second section closes out with two of the more accessible poems in the book, namely a Hello Kitty narrator, and “Ballad of the Small Dog.” The ballad measure of the latter seems to have three levels of satire, at least, and retains Hong’s semantic core of longing for language undetermined, a place

…to where
no soul sails, unless it wants

to be alone for ere, a sense-
less concept to you and we,
but there’s no kenning humans
and their hairless needs.

Erasure leads on to mourning, yes, but in this narrator’s hands, even grief is redemptive.

The third and final wing of this book is a dessert of form. Anyone who’s ever gone over the edge into sonnets will understand perfectly their allure. They are the playdough of the language. One can mix and meld, rearrange, pigment, change, do nearly anything so long as one signals fourteen somehow. In Hong’s sonnets we feel the entire rolling comber of the history of the poem, while she performs her pirouettes on the foam-fleck lip of the breaking wave. These twenty poems (“Astral Sonnets” are four collage poems under one title) are where, having earned every iota of our attention, Hong has collected us to wander in her zoo that has no bars on its cages. The title poem, “Fablesque,” invocates:

Now gather up the elements: sleep and kiss
and fat and hair. Get me a goose and glass
a casket. Tump a princeling full of blare
Here is the fish blown to ocean. Here,

The little basket of bittering flares.

Hong has said she writes by sound, sometimes depositing a word for its mellifluousness and returning later to find the right term. But we never have the sense that the end-rhymes enslave the poem. They’re like tarnished gemstones, sometimes radiant, sometimes skew and subdued. Here’s the closing, the sestet, of “Tropique du Mal”:

… as fever gifts me with a rave payola.
Again, I will not dream. I will not let
this harbor break me. I will hold the halo
that holds these hands, shuddering soft black heat.
I will let them all strum this deciduous strip
of a heart, desiring nothing: not love, not sleep.

Even chaotic desire flourishes in this poet’s grasp. In “Blow Blow Blow,” “I was the girl cried Wolf eat me … I was the girl misunderstammering. / Wuh was the girl cried gimme mot mot mot.”

It’s difficult to leave this book alone. Even a first reading foments rebellion in the rest of our hours: we need to return to it, to bask, to learn. We have to keep looking around the house for Hong’s book, as it travels to every latest chair. Come to Fablesque for the menu. Stay for the music. Pine for second helpings. Satiety, satiety, satiety.

Fablesque, by Anna Maria Hong. North Adams, Massachusetts: Tupelo Press, September 2020. 69 pages. $17.95, paper.

David Epstein holds a PhD in English and American Literature. Currently teaching Creative Writing at the University of Hartford, he can often be found in Woods Hole, Massachusetts. Epstein is on the board of the Greater Hartford Friends and Enemies of Wallace Stevens. He has three children, and lives in West Hartford, Connecticut. He has reviewed for Harvard Review and Shofar; his poems have appeared in such venues as Bellingham Review, Marsh Hawk Review, RatsAss Review, and more. 

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