“How do you write a history that is both [yours] and [not yours] but an extension of an improbable future?” Muriel Leung asks. When we discuss the historical context of the United States, we are still speaking about white supremacy, and a logic that denies both the space for other stories and our ability to tell them. The white-centered narrative demands a performative, exhausting throat clearing to define our very existence in America. We are given no space we don’t claim for ourselves.
I was reading Leung’s Imagine Us, The Swarm the week of the Atlanta shootings which killed eight people, including six women of Asian decent, five hours away from where I live. When I heard the news, I called my mom to tell her to be safe, and she told me to show no mercy. Which reminded me how childish it was to believe that there was safety for me, a Filipina American woman living in the South. To write a history, to imagine “an extension of an improbable future,” is not a passive act. It is a fight against our annexation into oblivion. I came home to the South because my ghosts are as valid as anyone else’s, and I like a place where I can point to them. I came home to be unwanted and to demand love, and this too is grief. It is the kind of grief Muriel Leung’s second collection grafts onto history. Leung’s is not a work of consolation; it is a work of inheritance, a bequest in the context of diaspora, where “In this inheritance, a sign hangs over everything: YOU TOO CAN MAKE IT IF YOU TRY.” Effort is our parents’ legacy and our own, so what will we strive towards?
Imagine Us, The Swarm is composed of seven expansive poems. Combatting fragmentation and erasure, Leung’s work frames loss and grief within a social context, at once acutely personal and historically grounded. Within the collection, the body becomes a vector for diaspora, a tool accustomed to assimilation:
The path of water from one country to another is stored in the silo of my father’s back breaking. There is no room for me except what I can carry too.
Shapeless as water, Leung’s language for lineage propels the body toward adaptation “as something uncomfortably other.” Her’s is a speaker who readily recognizes “what it means to try beyond recognition” as “a marriage of fine and fine.” Leung presents the body as a union, but a union we don’t believe, “fine” being a term of both benediction and indifference. “Fine” is the limitation of a performed, emotional register. I cannot imagine a greater loneliness than to say the body marries itself to manage—to say we are not permitted to seek more from others, not even those who made us. If labor is pain placed on the body, if it demands isolation, then attempt, too, is a violent demand.
Leung’s craft centers on specificity and definition, directing readers to the index asserted upon human identity “which contains gold and tulle and other objects not frequently featured in narratives of [ ] or witness.” The brackets document fragmentation, a palimpsest the speaker resists. She is dressed in gold and tulle “shimmering in a devastation that looked and felt like a human-sized hole.” The speaker offers her own humanity where humanity might otherwise be omitted, a personal narrative against a silent matrix, where the unsaid is an assertion that understanding does not offer completion. She recognizes her own body within the gaps of language:
In the dying field, pointing to my own body,
I saw that it was mine was always there
and it spoke when I spoke
a language of two
and there I lived
The field Leung presents is Claire Jean Kim’s “field of racial positions” which triangulates social ostracism and valorization. It’s a theory that recognizes anti-Blackness while also asserting the tentative position of Asian Americans, a position that demands endless effort without social acceptance. And yet the effort persists—“the story of labor is that it goes on.”
Labor within capitalism is not a term of love but a deleterious, mechanizing force. Under its demand for constant adaptation, the father is an engine who “said ‘Yes’ often,” who “ignored most pains as he was accustomed.” The elegy, in turn, becomes a reciprocal act to safeguard against erasure. Leung offers supposition beyond oppositional definition. The collection pushes toward possibility. Postulation becomes a generative act from a speaker who has indeed presented sufficient detail that theory, too, must be a valid creation:
Suppose I got into the car with my mother and we just drove.
The day that she left, the air filled with a prickling sound.
In the car’s silver interior, we were pulled by streetlights
and the debris of night. It became possible to drink
one another’s pains.
We cannot negate the drive or the women or the meal they are about to eat. Instead, supposition engenders our own participation “With the women, our pockets lined with sugar.”
Set against the misinformation of 2020, the fictions of a country where “disease and a people can be locked in the same imaginary configuration–as if the disease is and was a people,” this is a text that must manufacture the humanity of both the speaker and the reader, a text that cannot afford detachment. Leung’s collection demands engagement and, more importantly, recognition. The reader, too, must be part of this labor, diverted to the footnotes and invested in the effort of assembly. Marginalia traditionally offers insight into a thought’s lineage. Leung preserves that gesture, tying expression to the body:
because no one talks about remainders, I hope to draw the line from here to there, scattering in between the points, a nominal [feeling] of what an absence looks like when dispersed.
She lays out citation and familial lineage, at once directing to scientific and to familial memory. Like the speaker, we straddle a memory larger than our own and hold that expanse over the page to participate in a record that resists resolution. Leung articulates grief prismed by the politics of labor and race, reclaiming who can center loss and value the “arduous labor of some effortlessly seeming toil.” If we are going to labor, let it be to point to our own belonging as a fact, so large, so frequently repeated, that it cannot be overlooked.
Asa Drake is a Filipina American writer and public services librarian in Central Florida. She is the recipient of fellowships from Tin House and Idyllwild Arts and is a 2020 92Y Discovery Poetry Contest winner. Her most poems can be found in The Adroit Journal, Copper Nickel and The Paris Review Daily.