Landia by Celina Su
112 pages / Belladonna*
In her debut collection of poetry, Celina Su meditates on the everydayness of large-scale political and economic processes—be it gentrification, state violence, or migration—not as singular events, but as diffused, on-going happenings that shape the contours of quotidian life.
The poems explore how we are governed by a range of technologies, from maps and papers to borders and policy, and how each of us is “stranded in an improvised life” and must “take refuge in the imperfect.” Weaving oral history, critical theory, family narrative, research and travel memoirs, these poems are at once intimate and worldly.
Trained as an urban studies scholar, Su is the inaugural Marilyn J. Gittell Chair in Urban Studies at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York, as well as Associate Professor of Political Science at Brooklyn College. Her years of scholarship, collaborative research, and community work with NGOs and collectives undoubtedly inform this book.
Throughout the collection, we encounter an attentive speaker sometimes in the voice of traveler, other times as researcher or neighbor, observant not just to her own shifting interiority but to the exteriorities around her: the rapidly altering cityscapes of urban China, the negotiations of migrants or social workers along the border of Thailand and Burma, and the lives of long-time residents in Manhattan’s Chinatown. Across poems, the speaker leans outwards, listening to accounts from strangers and friends, texts and archives. In this way, Su’s poems bring together personal experience with community stories and wider global histories.
For instance, “Seeing Like a State,” a poem titled after the work of anthropologist James C. Scott, is concerned with the makings and unmakings of home through migration and diaspora. Unlike dominant diaspora narratives in literature that so often concentrate on the nucleus of the self and the family, this poem holds together diverse migration paths across class and geography. The poem opens at the heels of a family reunion in Beijing, with a speaker sensitive to her surroundings in a city that is not her own: “By the time my family arrives, one of the alley courtyards I’d visited has been demolished. It wasn’t one of the famous ones, like Skewed Tobacco Pouch Street, South Gong and Drum Lane. It didn’t have any trinket shops, just homes, people.” Su witnesses the on-going construction of an Asian world-class city on the backs of migrant laborers (“There are no aerial views, only fragmenting bodies”) but claims no pretense of knowing Beijing: “I ask a cab driver to take me to a specific neighborhood, reading the pinyin in my Lonely Planet copy without the proper tones. The driver stares at me, incredulous at what I do not know.”
Along the poem, the speaker’s position shifts; she moves from Riobamba, Ecuador to Manhattan’s Chinatown. But she also moves from center to periphery in the poem, sometimes foregrounding the story of a Fujian restaurant worker at a Chinese restaurant in Riobamba, or the oral accounts of her neighbors in Chinatown, and at other times her own father’s migration route from China-L.A.-Panama-Curaçao-São Paulo. The use of first person in this poem creates intimacy through the poem’s ambitious reach. Su honors the “I,” but also de-centers the self. The “I” in Su’s poem invite us in, allows us to walk closely alongside the speaker, even as the poem interfaces diverse accounts of migration and a larger social and political history of Chinese diaspora across time and circumstance.
A poetics of polyvocality also holds true for the poem “Notes on the Shape of Absence,” as it moves between the speaker and, as the footnotes tell us, excerpts from oral histories, documentaries, scholarly texts, and other voices. The poem grieves the death of a mother and contemplates the profound social loss of urban development and displacement, where the Gowanus roofline turns into a Whole Foods and the once Sun Sing Theatre is a mall for cell phone accessories. “The facts do not change, / for they are constantly rewritten.” The poems in Landia are capacious; they have room for numerous life stories and multiple life-processes, where gentrification and death, or government regulation and toxic waste, happen all at once.
The interplay between personal and political, the interior and exterior takes on a striking form in the poem “Route 1095.” Drawing on Su’s work in Northern Thailand with an NGO that supports Burmese refugees, the poem is organized into eleven sections, each titled after Thai words starting with jai, which “signifies the ‘mind’ as well as the ‘heart.’ That which it is closest to is what it is not.” The poem progresses through different heart-mind states – “enter heart,” “wake heart,” “dread heart,” “strange heart.” The organizing principle of the poem expounds cultural and linguistic understandings of an inner life, as it records political violence and upheaval on the borderlands in a non-linear, dictionary-like but also diary-like manner. Su writes of refugees who “walk farther each week,” or friends who run informal, illicit schools along border towns, “Cleaning blood off benches, dealing in maxi pads… procuring Birth Certificates from the District Office.” She also turns inward, aware of her own kaleidoscopic position:
To be hot-tempered. Like me, graceless here, unable to read
subtle social signals, unable to maneuver even slow-moving
buses. Passing by, a baby, her father, her grandmother, and a
dog atop a motorbike, whirling around the corner, a cartful
of chickens clucking behind.
The collection also considers the relationship between the self and the state. “Whimsy me citizen, human, or just barely so,” says the speaker in the poem “The Following are Proposed Facticities.” In a later poem, “Ghost Streets,” the speaker says, “I learned to introduce myself… with only the official truths, documented with seals,” and even later, “I have earned my certificate hours of existence.” The motif of records, documents, or papers scatters across the poems. Its recurring and altered appearance reminds us of how we are constantly made legible and illegible, legitimized or delegitimized by the state. The poems invite us to reckon “What documents / me human” and realize we live in a time “When paperness / demarcated our entire–” the incomplete sentence saying more than any complete sentence could. Whether we live in a police state or democracy, as the speaker in the final poem of the book says, “A state of emergency is no state of exception. This law envelops us in its warm, soft statutes.” Administrative violence and control comes in multiple shapes and forms. It affects us all and is anything but new. Landia immerses us into the velocity of our world where “Borderlines move daily” and “Supermodernity is under constant renovation,” but at the same time, the book de-exceptionalizes the here and now and reminds us that our experiences are not unprecedented.
Sahar Romani is a poet and educator. She trained as a human geographer and ethnographer at the University of Washington and Oxford before pursuing her MFA at New York University. Her poems appear in The Offing, Asian American Writers’ Workshop’s Margins, and elsewhere.