Reviewed by Diane R. Wiener
It is difficult to gather, let alone write, a collection of poetic images that is simultaneously mellifluous, sentient, fragrant, and thematically consistent—that is, internal to itself, while outward-facing, and thus externalized (coming toward the reader)—without engaging in explicit risk-taking. There exists, as some might argue, surely the possibility (isn’t there…?) that a poet could (might? will?) be accused by certain harsh outsiders of over-emphasis, perhaps even of a forced kind of patterning, to make the pieces work “together” and “separately.” An orange, unpeeled, partly broken up, but not yet fully separated from itself into wedges, bits, and pith, is whole while not whole.
Ann Lena Ho’s cover art for Travis Chi Wing Lau’s Paring is a perfect while cripped pairing to the words within, as the poet—like the illustrator in company with him—accomplishes everything engaging one might hope or wish for, as a reader (at least, this reader), in a thematically consistent gem of a book, without any of the cliché that might have been at risk (but, indeed, never manifests).
What is conjured, instead, is language so sensual and embodied, it is somehow both lyrical and pragmatic in its enveloping and naming—ethically—a shared imaginary between writer and reader. The liminal fruits are boundaried yet boundless. Fruits are queer, and crip; they flourish, fall, fly, transmit, and are transmitted. Fruits rot, and, in doing so, advance incarnations for other species and themselves.
When I think about those of us who write alt-text, and then think about the representations of so-called negative spaces in photography, I wonder about how both alt-text and negative spaces function to emphasize what is absent as much as what is present, taking into account—presumably—that doing this labor exceeds mere binaries. Travis Chi Wing Lau’s debut poetry chapbook is so exquisitely delicious, it is almost impossible to read without having to pause, repeatedly, to taste the paradoxes and (or, as) their often bittersweet fruit.
In “Still Life,” the poet serves us a plate of serious puns—of course, including a still life with fruit, as a painted medium. Still, the poem is a strong commentary on life continuing, being steady, and facing the possibility of stopping or being stopped inequitably or even violently. The narrator asks, “Who am I to consign to / dull wax a life that refuses / to still?” In every line of this poem, as throughout the chapbook, the poet’s queer crip sensibility insists—without dogmatism—that there is a not idealized possibility of aesthetic freedom, of living in and with disability as far more than a stereotyped pared down life.
Rather, the poems are expansive, even when they are terse, as in “Disarmament,” which I quote in its entirety:
When the knife
more than skin.
This poem is elegant and brutal. What is pared, spared, cut—“more than skin”? Whose skin? Which skin? I am finishing this review in the wake of a spate of Anti-Asian hate crimes in Atlanta, shortly before the Vernal Equinox. Lau was born in Hong Kong. He is living in a racist, Anti-Asian world, during a global health emergency blamed by ignorant and aggressive people on people who look like him. He is an out, queer, disabled activist-scholar-poet who at times describes socio-emotional intimacies in his poetry. Lau’s debut chapbook was published at the end of 2020, in the midst of these contextual truths. It is impossible for me not to think about internment, xenophobia, and myriad racist wartime and post-war horrors when I read the koan-like words in “Disarmament,” in the contexts of #AAPILivesMatter, #AAPIDisabledLivesMatter, #BLM, #BlackDisabledLivesMatter, and the COVID-19 pandemic.
“How much does it take for two broken men to walk upright? / A spine, a spirit: wanders, / but mostly to get away from itself” has line spacing that displays a scoliosis, a getting away from itself, in the separation within the second section of “Jasmine (I).” In the final line of the fourth section of this poem, we are met with: “Sighs that would one day need to expire,” where “to expire” is dangling at the edge of the page, suspended in separation from the rest of the line. The fruit unpeels and we are not in control. We have just been told about “Inspiration: / a refusal, then gasping. / (too late / too late),” in the line right before. This work was published shortly after George Floyd’s life was extinguished, and the phrase “I can’t breathe” became a banner of linguistic activist solidarity.
There is, here, a comment, too, perhaps, about the mixed bag of inspiration and its gravity as a framework within Disability Rights Movements. While some readers may object to my political interpretations, I believe one of the many gifts of this poetry is its explicit anti-ableist, anti-queerphobic, and anti-racist assertions, without being polemical. The reader is asked to think about multiple meanings, layers and layers, without projection’s excuses or (in)accessible exit doors in the poetic movie theater. These poems are at once accessible and endlessly interpretively ripe.
I have read “Crabapple,” repeatedly. Yet again, this poem’s form—including its line shaping, leavings, and structure— are on-point, chiseled and sharpened, while somehow malleable and subtle. “If purity is a ring, / what happens if the body / goes pear-shaped?” we are asked, in the first line. The separation in the line breaks, and the extended placement of the words parsed into meta-stanzas, is deceptively lean, forming a prose that is truly complicated, while pared down from itself. Disability, race, masculinity, and queerness are at the center of the question asked, brought to us as a metonymic fruit that is also a homonym. The poem continues: “Do we reconcile with this / inevitable warping, / born from the fingering / of the very first of us / who had the gall to taste / beyond her imagination?” Eve is here, now, or maybe we are meeting Adam in drag. Or, possibly the words center a genderfluid, crip homage to the sanctity of genuine choices and daring to be deviant, without romanticizing or minimizing the accompanying pains, advocacy, fights, and consequences.
Eroticism, conflict, and mindfulness co-exist in these poems. In “Snow Chrysanthemum,” the poet releases “just a kiss of rock sugar / and wolfberries—” which are followed by a throat that is “encircle[d]” by “August’s heaty garlands,” and later is referred to as “already weak / with the smoke I have tried to / swallow whole.” Some of the smoke—or perhaps the heat, or the sugar and berries (or all of these, including the throat)—is/are connected with another person, then others: “A little spilled for him, for what / the joss paper couldn’t / pay for, and what I owe those / who watch over my / chipped shoulders too busy / playing atlas to notice / the extent of the damage.” Is this the Atlas of mythographic storying, the mapped, normatively masculine man, who holds up a world, because he must, and seemingly accepts his charge? What couldn’t be paid for? I don’t need to know the answers, but I sure want to dive deeply into the ways that Lau asks. And, if sensual generosity, political boldness, and affection are your poetic cup of tea, reading Paring is a requirement.
Travis: No pressure, but/and, I cannot wait to read your next book. Thank you for your shiny, fruitful mind-heart.
Author: Travis Chi Wing Lau
Publisher: Finishing Line Press
About the Reviewer
Diane R. Wiener became Editor-in-Chief of Wordgathering in January 2020. A poet since the age of seven, her first full-length poetry collection, The Golem Verses, was published in 2018 by Nine Mile Press. Her poetry chapbook, Flashes & Specks, is forthcoming from Finishing Line Press. Diane’s poems also appear in Nine Mile Magazine, Wordgathering, Tammy, Queerly, The South Carolina Review, Welcome to the Resistance: Poetry as Protest, Diagrams Sketched on the Wind, and elsewhere; poetry is forthcoming in Jason’s Connection. Diane’s creative nonfiction appears in Stone Canoe, Mollyhouse, and The Abstract Elephant Magazine; her flash fiction appears in volumes 2 and 3 of Ordinary Madness. After serving as Guest Editor for Nine Mile Literary Magazine’s Fall 2019 Special Double Issue on Neurodivergent, Disability, Deaf, Mad, and Crip poetics, Diane was appointed as the magazine’s Assistant Editor. The Founding Director of the Syracuse University Disability Cultural Center (2011-2018), Diane now serves as a Research Professor and as the Associate Director of Interdisciplinary Programs and Outreach at the Burton Blatt Institute (Syracuse University College of Law); she also teaches in the Renée Crown University Honors program. Diane has published widely on disability, pedagogy, and empowerment, among other subjects. She is a proud Neuroqueer, Mad, Crip, Gender Nonconforming, Jewish Pantheist Nerd (etc.). Diane blogged for the Huffington Post between May 2016 and January 2018. You can visit Diane online at: https://dianerwiener.com.