Wednesday, April 19, 2017



On Poems On by Sandra Liu
(Ugly Duckling Presse, 2012)

Sandra Liu’s short collection On Poems On is part travel-journal, part-scientific record, part-protest, part magical diary, and all really captivating. The poems included here seem carefully observed and located; they take readers to a Mongolian volcano, for example, or off the Australian continental shelf. And the objects in the poems, too, are similarly precise: trees are not merely pieces of forest but are “unified by an extended root system underground” (6); the rocks are magnetite, olivine, garnet, limestone, and gypsum (8). Liu’s poems, though, go beyond displaying her scientific knowledge. Instead, she uses technical and geographical information to underscore potentially fascinating juxtapositions. In the poem “Static” Liu describes, in flat language that could be taken from a wire report or a geological tract,

            Security forces under orders
            to shoot provocateurs on sight returned relative
            calm to another day of sectarian violence.
                        Lying between these 2 relatively stable areas
            is a large unstable area where land
            and sea alternate sharply and the ocean bed descends
                                                                        to extremes— (4).

Liu’s parallel of the “stabilized” violence of the humans aboveground and the extreme sharpness of the ocean floor is where we find the poetry of the passage, and throughout the chapbook she excels at showing readers how “two events [are] part of one story and also mean / two distinct stories” (6). While the use of first person is fairly limited, Liu’s narrator is always part of the story of On Poems On, and we want to follow her—and her experiences in places where “the shore is rocky and the sandflies awful” (6) or “The skyscraper resembles nothing / less than a bolt of fish” (7)—to see what happens next.

Plenty happens, often in a charming, almost magical way. While lines like “The gargantuan / size of indigenous spiders necessitates / special crossings” (3) may sound rather unpoetically procedural, these are enormous spiders, after all! In a poem! And they share space with “a man / who thinks he’s a berry” (14), a “gnat burnt against the light,” (17), a “birch tree that is white and slender usually” (25). The author’s attention to sound and willingness to bend reality just a bit creates results that are quite lovely. In “I in river” Liu lets language guide the poem, exploring “i without / River, i; i with river, / I in river; river in me” (24).

The poems in On Poems On seem both organic and constructed, they can be simultaneously methodical and playful, and happily, they are never predictable. Liu’s chapbook includes such an impressive range of interests, reflections, and techniques ; the poems move deftly between ideas as disparate as “water / cannons of security forces”  (4), “a Chinese painting brushed with horsetail strokes” (12), “mollusk tentacles” (21), and even Rapunzel, locked “in a tower round / by definition / also seamless” (7). The poems here are ultimately always interested in what makes poetry more or less poetic, and how we—as readers or writers—might explore that further. As Liu writes in the title poem “On poems on” (a poem that is about poetry but is also about the game of horseshoes and about grammar and about science and about life),“Somewhere out there is the judgement that one  is / Better than the other” but that any “rules will need fleshing out” (16). Ultimately, the poems in this chapbook explore what such a “fleshing out” could look like, and Liu’s work here urges poems—and their readers and writers—onward.


Genevieve Kaplan is the author of In the ice house (Red Hen Press), winner of the A Room of Her Own Foundation‘s poetry publication prize, and three chapbooks: In an aviary (Grey Book Press, 2016); travelogue (Dancing Girl, 2016); and settings for these scenes (Convulsive Editions, 2013), a chapbook of continual erasures. Her recent poems can be found in Colorado Review, BOAAT, and Sugar House Review. She lives in southern California where she edits the Toad Press International chapbook series, publishing contemporary translations of poetry and prose.

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