The Antigonish Review rates Wide Slumber for Lepidopterists and The World is a Heartbreaker
Tjia and rawlings are Merlinesque poets in that they reengineer what is ultimately the provisional relationship between words and things such that the language becomes active in startling ways. The result is poetry which penetrates deep into the reader's psyche like timed depth charges. The clarity sparkles, and you wonder if these books could be loci of the supernatural. Indeed, these collections are, in vastly different ways, cognizant of the inner lives of their audience and crafted from the stuff of prophesy. In their sage roles, a.rawlings becomes the Medean hypnotist; Tjia, a winsome soothsayer in the guise of an oriental comedian. In Tjia's work, the revelation happens in the form of what at first seem to be cute jokes. rawlings, on the other hand, picks up where Silence of the Lambs left off (or was that The Fly?).
These two poets turn a reading into a literary séance, bringing new meaning to the term "spoken word"-their stage acts are well crafted extensions of their written works. The first few pages of Wide Slumber For Lepidopterists seem absurd - the monotonous repetition of the line "a hoosh aha," "a hoosh aha," Why the wasted space? we might ask. Yet, to read this opening section aloud or to hear rawlings's incantation is to enter a state of rhythmic hyperventilation.
And this is precisely the kind of state in which a. rawlings would like to have you as she ahooshes you through her ambitious first collection. This lengthy, schematic poetic experiment is a pataphysical eco tour through the world of lepidopterists and dreamer's physiology. Interspersed are vivid photographic illustrations of lepidoptera (butterflies and moths), and diagrams to help orientate the reader within the stages of the circadian cycle, while at the same time invoking the six phases of larval metamorphosis. An appended glossary assures us that although cryptic, this collection will be generous in letting us in on some of its secrets. The terms are bizarre such as, "book lice: an all-female insect that feeds off mold found on paper… "
"We stretch our feelers toward the warm body. a a Slowly, hands fog-damp spin plants, form air-filled hollows,/ breath cocooned, fur soft and blurred, heavy even heavenly. hoosh Soft like quiet. ha/
Soft like we quiver." (14)
The language goes beyond comparison into a reassembling of heterogeneous states of being. It is a very erotic text which sets up fascinating homologies between female anatomy, insect anatomy, and the anatomy of the human vocal system.
The creative process is also under inspection:
"collect, sort and frame text./ how does a text fall asleep?/ pinch meaning between morpheme and phoneme./ How does text eat itself?/ slide meaning into envelope; store in box with semanticide." (42)
Here we have the poem as a pinned butterfly; the reader, or writer, as lepidopterist. The collection itself undergoes a metamorphosis. On some pages, the poetry is concrete, the words resembling airborne fragilities. There are also neologisms galore: "chrysalistalization", or "hallucidity" (46), for instance, are words you will have difficulty cross-referencing, yet they make sense as semantic hybrids. Maybe most mysterious of all are sections which contain constructions that appear to be completely made up, perhaps some new language of dreams based on mutated cognates?
"tsniaga tsurht rotcelloc a#tilps#tips nehT" (28)
Spell checks don't get this; maybe the reader won't either. Inevitably, people will ask of this book: "Great, but what does it mean?" Perhaps we should read this work as an examination of the very process of making sense; an exploration of some of the ways that the world confounds.
By the "end", we are left with a mysterious exorcism:
"Pre-end. Exhale three dead white moths - cream moths. Moths with thick, furry antennae. Tickle the epiglottis/ and struggle to exit." (90)
The only notes of falsity occur when the hand of the experimental poet is too easy to discern, for instance, when suddenly we encounter the line, "dissect rain th 'pata'pata'pata'pataphysical way." Here, the playful freedom becomes a bit too much like theoretical posturing.
Shewin Tjia will never get called on a theoretician's bluff. On stage, he makes us laugh our pants off. Quickly, however, our stomachs ache. Like being tickled and poked at the same time, The World Is a Heartbreaker elicits contradictory emotional responses. Here is a small sampling of the whopping 1600 pseudohaiku in this very pretty collection, which are scattered randomly across the pages (or do we notice a subtle connectivity?).
Immediately we are alerted to the controversy of, (a) Tjia's total disregard for the basic tenets of the haiku tradition, and, (b) the disturbing subject matter which at times seems totally frivolous.
The image of Winnie the Pooh makes us immediately think "ah, cute"; but, wait, Winnie crucified and bleeding honey, this perverse sadness mixes unfavorably with the warm feeling. Tjia leaves us pinned and wriggling on our own subjective contexts.
How should we classify these poems? Do we allow the tomfoolery of "pseudohaiku" into our critical vocabulary? True, there are practically no seasonal references here and only a few, albeit wonderful, allusions to nature; yet before denying their status as true haiku we must admit that the poems retain that form's essential crystalline economy. The result is a whole bunch of "best lines", as if longer poems had been boiled down to a sugary pulp. Within the Japanese short form tradition these poems come closest to being senryu:
"A short poetic genre which focuses on people … It portrays the characteristics of human beings and psychology of the human mind … It can also employ puns, parody and satire. Unlike haiku, senryu are not reliant on a seasonal or nature reference, but they DO occasionally use them." [Alan Pizzarelli. SENRYU. http://www.poetrylives.com/SimplyHaiku/SHpages/introduction_senryu.html. (accessed July 10th, 2006)]
It would seem Tjia is still working in a form related to the haiku. Maybe the publishers should have marketed this as a book of senryu, instead of the throwaway inkhorn, pseudohaiku.
The original manuscript of The World Is a Heartbreaker is somewhat of a legend - bound in industrial cardboard with what must be 8 inch steel bolts through the spine, a single pseudohaiku per page. Standing onstage, Tija asks the audience to pose a question to this megabook, then randomly opens the tome and reads the haiku in response. With surprising frequency, and hilariously, the haiku comes eerily close to the essential nature of the question.
There is something mysterious at work in these collections. We remember Robert Graves saying in The Crowning Privilege that all good poems are, "written only when a certain magical atmosphere arises under the influence of the 5th Dimension, where time and space can be bypassed by personal love."
The World Is a Heartbreaker and Wide Slumber For Lepidopterists offer some very peculiar love.