Yearling is a collection of poetry which delves deep into a complex network of introspective philosophy. Lo Kwa Mei-En wades through incredible, abstract language that leaves the reader to interpret her ambiguous scenes. There are times when the reader feels as if they had been dropped into an unfamiliar jungle, left to fend for themselves. For example, in her poem “The Jubilee Year of the Dead Inside of a Banyan Tree”:
The underworld is what you thought it’d be,
but not where. We who know not what we are,
tick the record of animal loss off our fingers.
We give names to the faces: badger, black canary,
Mei-En’s style is fragmented and difficult to follow, yet enticing in its abstraction. Her work is dense with allusions to referential stories and animal symbolism. There is a darkness lurking behind every line, a mystery that begs to be discovered, explored, dissected. Mei-En drops the reader off within an unknown point of view. Who is the “you” referring to? What are our expectations of the underworld, and where does it reside? The reader begins asking questions immediately upon entering the first line. By the end of the first stanza, they’re stuck untangling the ambiguous identity of “we” and the purpose of the various animals invoked. But Mei-En does not allow for pause, the reader is whisked immediately into the next stanza. Later in the poem, Mei-En creates a metaphor for her reading audience:
Oh phoenix. Come brighten. Wade
in the year of your acre and flood, a mere, lit fig
hung from your neck to lantern you back and forth
to a place where we will speak your name again.
Mei-En’s poems, like the banyan trees of her childhood, are “more stranger than strangler,” in that they approach recognizable issues on body image, immigration, and cultural symbolism. However, there are moments when the reader feels lost, like the traveler being led through a flooded field with nothing but a mere fig lantern to guide them.
That poem is but one example within a wonderful collection that begins with the foreshadowing lines “Temper, temper” and ends emphatically with the phrase: “How a wolf watching water is how I want / how I want to love the new apocalypse for good.” By the end of her book, the reader just believes that perhaps the best mindset is to embrace our inner animal and learn to love the pain of the coming apocalypse. Her poems are a mixture of self-deprecating and empowering. Fluctuating from images of imposed sexuality – “I thought myself ready, / restless in the register of hips and eyes” – to moments of empowering femininity – “The body that has something to say / knows better than that. / Lights everything on fire with one hand / and tends coals with the other.” There are moments depicting physical abuse where the narrator seems ambiguous as to her feelings about it. These poems are raw, and they are real. They do not flake away from the messy edges of her experience, nor do they indulge in mainstream Liberal didacticism. If Lo Kwa Mei-En’s poetry could be compared to a breath of fresh air, it would be like the first step out into city pollution after spending all day within a padded, sterile room; the air is dirty. Paradoxically, in her misdirecting metaphors, she reveals herself completely.
Lo Kwa Mei-En’s Yearling shows that she is an incredibly innovative and aspiring talent. She displays a mastery of poetic conventions, causing any sense of narrative to be speculative at best. Her poems are fragmented and rely on parataxis between seemingly abstract images, allowing for ambiguity and multiple readings. However, while this ambiguity is one of her greatest strengths, it also proves to be one of her greatest weaknesses. Mei-En’s poetry, while incredible, is not accessible. Each poem requires contemplation in order to decipher meaning; Mei-En makes no attempt to cater to the reader. Because of this, Mei-En’s poetry remains barred from most audiences, but within this lies her true power. Mei-En does not shy away from her intellectualism. Rather, she fully retreats into her dense, introspective language and provides a portraiture of her unique experience. This is a book of highly philosophical, intellectual poetry which is aimed at likeminded readers. Mei-En’s poetry is difficult in subject-matter and pyrotechnic in form; or, as she would say in her own words: “I’ll keep it real, go / hurt something to love it, real, good, find the center / of aurora in me, the second of ignition.”
About the Author: Lo Kwa Mei-en is a poet from Singapore and Ohio. Her first book, Yearling, won the 2013 Kundiman Poetry Prize and is available from Alice James Books. The Bees Make Money in the Lion, a new book of poems, won the CSU Poetry Center Open Competition and is available from Cleveland State University Poetry Center. Other work includes Two Tales, a chapbook from Bloom Books, and The Romances, a chapbook forthcoming from The Lettered Streets Press.