on Monsters I Have Been by Kenji C. Liu

Of the many monsters that walk the landscape of Kenji C. Liu’s second poetry collection, Monsters I Have Been, perhaps the most terrifying are those that have blended into everyday life. Godzilla and Ultraman are featured prominently in the book, but they are not the ones to fear. The most gruesome monster is the legacy of imperial, colonial, racial, and sexual trauma that neoliberal and capitalist violence leaves in its ruins. Liu makes a proposition: to defeat this monster, we must confront its most heinous language, interrogate its documents, and find a way beyond the narrative of totalizing disaster. 

Liu’s book is assembled through the poet’s invented form of the “frankenpo.” The frankenpo is inspired by Mary Shelley’s Dr. Frankenstein’s laboratory experiments leading to the making of his creature. In a similar alchemic fashion, Liu engages in a process of “collecting, disaggregating, randomizing, rearranging, recombining, erasing, and reanimating one or more chosen bodies of text.” These texts include—among other historically and socially provocative sources—POTUS 45’s inauguration speech, the U.S. Executive Order 9066 of 1942 that called for the internment of Japanese people in the country, and statements of apology issued by celebrity men responding to sexual assault charges in the wake of the #MeToo movement. Weaving together these documents via their cut-up and reassembled forms, Liu is in pursuit of reanimating the language of these texts without reinforcing their harmful meanings. 

This political and aesthetic move distinguishes itself from a branch of conceptual poetry that may insist art and literature are incapable of producing new content and meaning. Monsters seems to argue that, rather than poetry failing to produce fresh content and meaning, it is the persistent systems governing our world that are not new. His diligent erasure, recomposition, and subversion of historically and socially oppressive documents reveal the mundanity of their violence. In the case of apologetic statements made by celebrity perpetrators of sexual violence, for instance, Liu’s reconfiguration of the original texts in the poem “She’s people! 10 apologies” gestures toward how the insincerity of these apologies disguises another form of injustice: the refusal of these offending men to acknowledge how they wielded their power to enact harm with the assurance that they would not face major consequences. In the collaged voices of these men, the poem reveals their self-centeredness through repeated references to “I” and their unwillingness to accept accountability through the pronouncement that “Time will apologize” on their behalf. Although these celebrity apologies have garnered sympathy from a public audience, Liu’s revisiting of the statements suggests a different reading of them, one that wants to know why it is socially acceptable to forgive perpetrators. If the critique of art and literature spanning twentieth-century postmodernism to twenty-first-century late capitalism is that it no longer produces anything new, Liu’s work contends that we have yet to grapple seriously with the full ramifications of existing power structures—and so, reconfiguring the language of its harms through the frankenpo seems to be one viable way to remind ourselves of the horrifying disturbances of our current political time.

Liu attempts to reform this language into something that might expose and undermine the extent of its harm. The original source texts are unsettling, but the reconstruction of them in Monsters I Have Been does more than remind us of what some of us know intimately: the failing logic of neoliberal capitalism and its toxic masculine forms. The book also unveils the unexamined grief that lies beneath the original language, suggesting that mourning is a means of creating a pathway to healing. Mourning may seem at first like a reproduction of this hurt in the way that it forces us to reconcile with the pain, but Liu offers it as an inevitable step toward identifying what is worth salvaging and, eventually, toward recovery. 

This effort is evident through the poem “Footnotes to a murder in the third degree,” in which Liu mourns the death of Michael Chun Hsien Deng, a college student who was the victim of a deadly hazing ritual conducted by an Asian American fraternity. For Liu, this tragedy demonstrates the detrimental impacts of Asian masculinity that normalize the brutal practices of initiation into manhood. The poem engages with fraught ideas of Asian masculinity that have been colored by years of racist emasculation in the U.S. from the relegation of Chinese immigrant men to labor typically associated with women’s work so as not to threaten the white male workforce in the 1800s to more recent media portrayals of Asian men as desexualized figures of comedic relief for white audiences. While this history is not explicitly spoken, Liu’s lament for Deng sets out to explore how this dominant belief about race and masculinity can lead to something so intimately destructive for Asian men. As a counter to this injustice, Liu argues for more emotionally vulnerable expressions of relating between Asian men. 

As a frankenpo of various texts—including Jay Caspian Kang’s New York Times Magazine article “What a Fraternity Hazing Death Revealed About the Painful Search for an Asian-American Identity” and other media sources—the poem’s speaker identifies with the victim by stating, “I too am a blundering translation. A red, beaten trophy.” Liu examines how such extreme expressions of Asian masculinity hurt him as well, an Asian man who feels the resonant impact of the horrific incident. With his “blundering translation” Liu also remarks on the failure of language to produce an Asian masculine identity that does not include toxicity. Asian masculine identity is “imprecise” and “illegible,” and as such, the connection between Asian men would always be “A fluttering, untranslatable concept.”

By reframing the problems within Asian masculinity as an issue of language and translatability, Liu also comments on systemic productions of violence that occur on an interpersonal level. The poem “Dear I Ching, how does hetero-patriarchy live on through me?” attempts to trace this legacy of harm through cultural and familial history. For Liu, whose heritage includes Japanese and Taiwanese ancestry, it is important to confront the ways Western imperialism and militarism have turned Japan into a political aggressor toward other Asian countries. Confronting the forces of the Japanese colonization that lives in his own history, Liu’s question for the I Ching acknowledges his intimate tie to this violence and his desire to figure a way out of it. 

“Dear I Ching, how does hetero-patriarchy live on through me?” moves through various Japanese translations of you, with each iteration becoming increasingly brusque in reference. The poem opens with the English translation of you parallel to the first line, which declares, “<Bさま have no meaning yet.” In this early proclamation, Liu asserts that heteropatriarchy is not natural but still accrues value and meaning over time, much like any language. As the poem proceeds, the you becomes increasingly defined by arbitrary structures and a sense of loss:

                   In the thunder here, set      きみ name, the growth of obligation.

All the lines are old, and hide

lot of resources.

                                    Do ___ change   じぶん mind slowly? How rich it is.

                                                         こいつ face the order. It is not the truth.

                                                         きさま feel conquered, a tragic sadness.

The Japanese iterations of you are enumerated along a disarrayed column, each line detailing a sense of “obligation” and resistance to change despite the privileges afforded to those who benefit from heteropatriarchy—including Liu himself. The compounding of contrasting messages and expectations contributes to the “tragic sadness” the speaker experiences, a grief that is arguably shared among other beneficiaries of heteropatriarchy. This is by no means a sympathetic view of straight men but rather an indictment of the ways the powers of heteropatriarchy are obfuscated throughout history. A refusal to acknowledge this history would prevent any alteration of its harms. 

The poem concludes, “Your war does not deviate / from the war.” The final lines are a reminder of the inextricable ties between imperial and colonial oppressions perpetuated by heteropatriarchy. If the through line of the collection examines how masculinity can operate at various levels, then the declaration that a war does not deviate from other wars is a means to connect previously disjointed events to insist on their equal importance. In this way, the masculine violence that has contributed to Michael Chun Hsien Deng’s death is part of the same struggle that defines the legacy of heteropatriarchy in Liu’s own familial and cultural lineage. Neither of these cases is an isolated incident outside of time or politics; both are mutually devastating. 

The poems in this collection certainly move through different textures of grief, but the frankenpo is also a form that embraces play whereby Liu can experiment with new ways of relating to other men beyond the toxic narratives of masculinity. In two poems inspired by artist Kenneth Tam’s video performance Breakfast in Bed, which features a group of male strangers interacting with each other in loving ways, Liu highlights the oddity of the deeds the men are asked to perform on one another. The acts are sensual and erotic but mostly sweet, featuring a lightness and humor typically not regarded in traditional masculine scripts. In “What I like about you 1” the speaker offers to another man, “Let me glue / this cheerio to your chest” and then adds “I’ll avoid the hair.” The gentle consideration in the latter statement, in addition to the randomness of the act, contributes to the playful humor of the poem—but never is it lost on the reader that these acts, silly as they may seem, are meaningful when performed among men who likely have been taught to interact in less emotionally sensitive ways with one another. 

The tender acts continue in “What I like about you 2,” where the intention to forge a deeper connection among men becomes clear in the final declaration: “I’m here with you to be a man.” In the general absence of adequate models of healthy masculine connection, these simple acts carry emotional significance. The monstrosity of neoliberal capitalism that has contributed to toxic masculinity cannot be eradicated anytime soon, and there is much to despair about in this acknowledgment. Still, Monsters I Have Been is a way of offering “a field of compassion, a gentle titration [that] ensues between self and un- or re-making the self.” The book is an emotional labor, one that justifies the frankenpo form and is evident in the poem “Ritual against toxic masculinity,” which lays out a ceremony performed by the speaker and other men in the effort to cleanse themselves of certain ideas they have internalized. In the final lines Liu writes, “We rub antennae and soak, ready for release— / on the right bodies, holy water will burn.” The closing image of touch and affection offers a balm to counter the book’s preoccupations, yet this ritual also “burn[s],” suggesting that the way forward is through contrition. In other words, to take on accountability is difficult, but it is also necessary to make things right. 

In the face of looming injustice, the transmutation of its known forms can grant us a new way of moving through the world. The “ethics of mutual grieving” Monsters I Have Been calls for may seem like a solemn notion, but perhaps another way to interpret this is as the recognition of one another’s pains where they were once rendered invisible. It may seem peculiar for this book to offer something so gentle against the backdrop of its disturbing source texts, yet this collection reanimates language in such a way that we are left hopeful about how we can approach the world through collective repair.

 

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Monsters I Have Been. By Kenji C. Liu. Farmington, ME: Alice James Books, 2019. 95 pp. $15.95, paper.

 

Muriel Leung is the author of Bone Confetti (2016), winner of the 2015 Noemi Press Book Award. Her writing can be found in The Baffler, Cream City Review, Gulf Coast, The Collagist, Fairy Tale Review, and elsewhere. She is a recipient of fellowships to Kundiman, VONA/Voices Workshop and the Community of Writers. Poetry co-editor of Apogee Journal and a member of Miresa Collective, Leung co-hosts the Blood-Jet Writing Hour podcast with Rachelle Cruz and MT Vallarta. Currently, she is a Dornsife Fellow in Creative Writing and Literature at the University of Southern California