A Grain of Rice - Reviewed by Zach Matteson for PRISM

In a previous editor interview for PRISM, I mentioned Evelyn Lau’s most recent collection of poems, A Grain of Rice (2012 Oolichan Books), as “masterful.” But I find that I am uncomfortable with that word if it implies the completion or pinnacle of a poet’s work, because Lau’s writing has consistently transcended and reinvented itself like a mythic trickster, drudging up slices of inner life from the “chrome surface of the dream’s lake / [she] swim[s] in every night [that] still holds the same wreckage in its mud bottom.” These poems are masterful because of the obvious care with which they were crafted. Lau’s tight organization lends its readers an ease of navigation too often absent in contemporary poetry. By the book’s end, the poet turns seemingly disparate events into a dynamic, breathing experience. Like a good film, A Grain of Rice challenges us to laugh and cry; it asks us to peer in like voyeurs, and occasionally to cringe or squirm in our seats.

Written in four sections, Lau offers four distinct flavors of loss and awe. Section I places us squarely in western, coastal Canada. Urban scenes dominate the first quarter, night markets, the #4 bus, city centre. Lau meditates often on setting throughout the book; here, she directs us through the constant humming of her apartment to the “soft animal snoring of [her] heart,” to the 2010 Olympics, to “bungling the interview for the position of poet laureate,” to bittersweet memories of her parents and grandmother, all while exploring her speaker’s battered, beautiful humanity. In the collection’s title poem, Lau tackles Western privilege and bulimia; the last ten lines are worth quoting in full:

My mother’s family in China shared a single

scrawny chicken on feast day,

hacked into bony pieces,

feeding two adults and twelve children.

Once I devoured a whole chicken in the bathtub—

slimy skin, rich barbeque flesh,

bitter hidden innards—

tearing it apart with my hands,

tossing the bones overboard.

Vomiting a village’s dinner into the toilet.

Most evocative of all is Lau’s own voice, the heartbreaking, hopeful tone of her speaker’s inner dialogue, her cyclical, often difficult, self-revelations, and the surprisingly convincing affirmation that—well, hey, she’s made it this far, and besides, the world’s just too damn beautiful. Rashes fade. People disappoint you. You disappoint yourself. Keep moving. Keep writing.

Section II (as well as the book as a whole) is dedicated to the late, great American wordsmith John Updike, whom Lau confesses to never having met, and yet, she floats through his world as though she were the ghost, visiting his last poems, his childhood home, his hospital bed in Boston, “Plow Cemetery, where soft fistfuls” of Updike’s ashes were “scattered on stone,” etc.—writing him posthumous, ir/reverent, intimate letters, addressed always to “you,” at times teasing, flirtatious; meditative at others. Her images are often sharp enough to startle us. In “Updike in Pennsylvania,” she writes (presumably of her spring allergies):

This day won’t go away—

the same fuzzed carpet, blank wall,

the shiv of sun in the mirror

slicing like a migraine.

In Shillington, the dogwood tree at the side

of your childhood home is in bloom, a plume

of salmon smoke puffing higher

than the rooftop, singeing the shingle eaves.

Lau navigates these fusions with a deft instinct, and a genuine passion, which drives the whole book. As pertains Updike, I admit I didn’t know too much more about him than the few short stories of his (chiefly “A&P”) that I read as an undergrad, but the poems didn’t expect me to. Details can overwhelm or alienate readers if mishandled, but Lau’s letters open up like really good journalism, or like six of the best obituaries you’ll ever read.

In the third section, Lau turns to travel: Hawaii, Sedona, Las Vegas. These poems are haunted by a sense of constant imbalance, restlessness, and perhaps a tinge of cynicism, juxtaposed against exotic destinations in the western U.S. In “Honolulu,” she writes:

This is the memory you will take home—

the man sprawled on the ground

in front of the International Market,

paramedics kneeling next to him

like ministering angels. Not even Lady Gaga

blaring beneath the banyan tree

can drown out his bellows…

Ultimately, I found these poems to be the least intriguing of the book, which isn’t to say they aren’t fine poems, with striking images: “Monkeys with golden faces sipping the silty water / at the riverbank” and “Above, an American rocket / burns across the electric sky, / this canopy of twelve million lights, / shooting for the moon.” But, towards the end of this section, the poems themselves start to fragment, and I guess I had hoped for a bit more redemption or lesson learned here.

Section IV acts as a sort of denouement, revisiting Lau’s various themes: “Again we found ourselves at the shoreline,” reads the first line of “English Bay,” the section’s opening poem, returning us to Vancouver. Spring begins again in this section, and with it, the speaker’s association with Updike, her own allergies, and “explosions of rhododendrons.” Life and death return also; so too does that reluctant, necessary scrap of optimism:

In a moment I will be called

into a bare examination room, the only ornament

nailed above the doorway—

Jesus on the cross, arched in agony[…]

But morning will come, again—

strands of blood swirling like helixes

in the bowl, tangled scarlet yarn,

calligraphy in crimson ink.

In “Midlife” the book’s final poem, dedicated again to John Updike, Lau takes us full circle, invoking the epistolary “you,” blurring self-talk with letter writing, and declaring that “[s]ome days you are bored with beauty. / The sun takes decades to set.” But one doubts whether Evelyn Lau, like John Updike before her, could ever be bored with beauty. Threading the book is the simple affirmation that each of us eventually finds our way through, if we just keep pushing.

I could rant all day about why you should read A Grain of Rice, but nothing beats a test-drive. Get out there and get a copy. Lau’s poetic prowess will inspire and intimidate you, but more importantly, it’ll re/invigorate your faith in contemporary poetry.

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