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The Ethics and Poetics of Alterity in Asian American Poetry

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The terror the butcher scripts in the unhealed air, the sorrow of his Shang dynasty face, African face with slit eyes. He is my sister, this beautiful Bedouin, this Shulamite, keeper of sabbaths, diviner of holy texts, this dark dancer, this Jew, this Asian, this one with the Cambodian face, Vietnamese face, this Chinese I daily face, this immigrant, this man with my own face.

This gesture exposes the self to what hurts, frightens, and enriches for the sake of self-transformation. Moreover, since the body is a contested site for competing ideologies, the poem begins and ends with attention to racially and ethnically marked features. In so doing, Lee transgresses the culturally and socially imposed categories and boundaries among people without eliminating differences in a singular oneness, in which unity replaces alterity, and otherness is absorbed by sameness.

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In so doing, Lee intervenes in the discourses on the racially and socially marked other through personal stories told in the voice of the autobiographical lyric I. In the last section of the opening poem of his second volume, Lee invites the reader to discard the autobiographical details of his persona and to know him by heeding the song of his soul: Know him by his noise.

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  • City 29 By insisting on specifying the nonwhite, non-European immigrant identity of the lyric I as poet, and articulating his inner self that resists socially constructed identities, Lee disrupts social inscriptions of the racially and ethnically marked body. In seeking to intervene in raced cultural otherness, Lee also resolutely implicates the racial, social, and cultural other in the lyric utterance, thus transforming the content of the universal. Your Otherness Is Perfect as My Death 65 chapter two Marilyn Chin she walks into exile vowing no return In a interview with Bill Moyers, Marilyn Chin speaks of her poetic aspirations in terms of her sense of responsibility as a poet, a woman, and a Chinese American.

    Historical voices, ancient voices, contemporary feminist voices. An immigrant, a professor of creative writing, and a bilingual poet who has developed a poetics of crosscultural encounters, Chin regards herself as part of a new beginning for Asian Americans, who used to be almost exclusively male laborers and domestic servants, forbidden by law to become naturalized citizens. It entails departures from established cultural and literary traditions.

    One of these departures includes reinventing a lyric I whose identity is at once individual and collective, Chinese and American. The immigrant worked his knuckles to the bone only to die under the wheels of the railroad. One thousand years before him, his ancestor fell building yet another annex to the Great Wall — and was entombed within his work. And I, the beginning of an end, the end of a beginning, sit here, drink unfermented green tea, scrawl these paltry lines for you.

    Why horses lie down only in moments of disaster. As the riddles in the closing lines suggest, the responsibility the speaker faces entails preserving an ethnic cultural heritage, despite the process of acculturation, through a poetics that resists assimilation by the dominant culture. In articulating this otherness, Chin seeks to reinvent Chinese cultural heritage and to transform the Eurocentric aspects of mainstream American poetry through the alterity of the culturally marginalized other.

    The form and content of this poem demonstrate the possibilities of creating a new lyric by combining and transforming elements from different cultural traditions. Chin incorporates and revises the modern Greek poet C. What are we waiting for, young nubile women pointing at the wall, the barbarians are coming.

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    They have heard about a weakened link in the wall. So, the barbarians have ears among us. So deceive yourself with illusions: you are only one woman, holding one broken brick in the wall. So deceive yourself with illusions: as if you matter, that brick and that wall. The barbarians are coming: they have red beards or beardless with a top knot.

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    The barbarians are coming: they are your fathers, brothers, teachers, lovers; and they are clearly an other. There is no way that the pure yellow seed, as my grandmother called it, will continue. Assimilation for Chin as shown in her poem does not mean erasure or oppression of otherness by the dominant culture; rather it suggests a mutually transformative encounter between self and other.

    Yesterday if you had called me an ox, I should have accepted the name of ox; if you had called me a horse, I should have accepted the name of horse. Chin incorporates the Daoist attitude toward naming and names in her poem, while shifting the subject position from those who fear the barbarians to that of the barbarians and their attitudes toward being named the abject other: If you call me a horse, I must be a horse. If you call me a bison, I am equally guilty. When a thing is true and is correctly described, one doubles the blame by not admitting it: so, Chuangtzu, himself, was a barbarian king!