Thursday, December 4, 2014

Poetic Musings: A Room of His Own by Chen-ou Liu

A Room of His Own

In the poems we reveal ourselves. In prose others. -- Phyllis Webb, Notebook, 1969-1973

cold moonlight
books of poetry
stacked floor to ceiling

Hearing of my housemate's suicide was like being stabbed in the back with a sharp knife, and yet I barely knew him.  Only his work and the scratching sounds of pencil on paper that came from his room. "His noisy silence (in an emphatic tone) hangs over us like a long, dark cloud," one of my other housemates once said to me.

drafts of old poems
on the water-stained wall
a starry sky

One week before his death, I was standing on the edge of the table hanging a clock, when he passed through the living room.  He suddenly turned to me, saying, “I have this insatiable urge to commit pencil to paper. It soothes my soul." He went back to his room and continued to spin poems out of the gathering darkness.

Haibun Today, 8:2, June 2014

On Chen-ou Liu’s A Room of His Own by Ruth Holzer (Haibun Today, 8:3, September 2014)

In two haiku and two short paragraphs, Chen-ou Liu tells of the life and death of one of his housemates, also a poet. He begins at the end, with a desolate haiku describing the poet’s empty room. In the following prose section, Chen-ou learns of the suicide and feels like he was “being stabbed in the back with a sharp knife.” With an introduction like this, the reader is hooked.

(I am using the writer’s name here, but because of the complex of identities in this haibun, I need to clarify that the “Chen-ou” I am referring to is an artifact, a poetic persona, and not the Chen-ou who wrote it.)

This haibun at first glance seems to be a straightforward narrative. Actually, it contains the classic story of the doppelgänger, the double, whose appearance often bodes ill for the primary character. Chen-ou says that he had a strong physical reaction when he learned of the poet’s suicide, then makes the disclaimer, “yet I barely knew him.” This is a master-stroke, at once distancing the speaker from his double, thus allowing him to continue the narrative objectively, and at the same time drawing him closer: he doesn’t have to know him because he shares some essential part of him, and mirrors him. In a way, Chen-ou may be considered an unreliable narrator, in that he doesn’t recognize or acknowledge his double.....
The prose style is notable for its lack of expressed emotion. Descriptions are limited to the basics. There is no interpretation, reflection or commentary. Any other treatment would have lessened this haibun’s effectiveness. Chen-ou is only reporting facts (or appearing to do so, for even choosing which facts to report is an art in itself); we must discern what to make of them.

The haiku tell another side of the story. They have more in common with each other than with the prose, and their relation to the prose is that of contrast. Both haiku show the reader the poet’s room, most likely after his death....

To end at the beginning: the title is taken from Virginia Woolf’s well-known essay “A Room of One’s Own” in which she stated the need for women writers to have psychological (and financial) independence in order to be as successful as their male counterparts. In the context of the haibun, however, the poet’s room turns into a place of isolation and missed opportunity. The irony of the title seeps into the rest of the poem.

The epigraph from Canadian feminist writer Phyllis Webb presents the reader with another duality: that of prose and poetry. In the mixture of these that comprises a haibun, Chen-ou reveals himself and the Other. “A Room of His Own” is an intricate construction, balancing light and darkness, achievement and failure, creation and destruction. The poem ends, but the dialogue it sets in motion has no conclusion.

You can read the  full text here.

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