Christine Shan Shan Hou
Community Garden for Lonely Girls
reviewed by Jamie Townsend
The history of human civilization begins in the garden. Archeological research shows the development of outdoor structures for horticulture as far back as 10,000 BC, with evidence of Mesopotamian temple gardens appearing in some of the earliest known religious texts. As such, it’s an apt image of the fundamental connection between personal and political life (that of the communal body, the city-state that portions out materiality to individuals, the model and source of all social relationships). The barriers of a garden, their first notable architectural feature, were designed with the dual purpose of separating the garden from its surroundings—creating a demarcation line or loop—and keeping out unwanted trespassers. The word “garden” itself derives from the Old English “geard” which means “fence” or “enclosure,” and cultural depictions of the walled garden as a paradise also necessitates the idea of an area outside its confines, someplace mysterious, uncultivated, wild.
Poet and visual artist Christine Shan Shan Hou’s dynamic collection Community Garden for Lonely Girls examines what grows in spaces of enclosure, as well as how individual consciousness strives to both demarcate experience and break free from its constraints. Reading it I am reminded of Brandon Shimoda’s book Evening Oracle in the way both texts dive into and dissect the experiential, splicing and weaving together surreal imagery and personal record, while exploring how various histories (familial, personal and cultural) are exploded or collapsed, drawing in with them the surrounding environment. However, Community Garden for Lonely Girls scans less as travelogue or daybook (like Shimoda’s book) and more as a non-linear autobiography, straining against the limitations of narrative. Hou’s poems shine with humor and pathos, interlacing both fantastical imagery and the philosophic lyricism of memoir.
Like a field that holds a multiplicity of forms, Community Garden for Lonely Girls collects discrete momentary observations, maxims, dreams and memories that overlap, repeat and interplay with each other. The book is divided into four sections, each finding a common ground between the oracular and quotidian, the familial and the universal. Playing across its intimate yet grand scope, these forms begin to combine into something larger, like newly discovered constellations dotting the night sky of a parallel universe. Over the course of the book this strange expanding star chart becomes filled with celestial figures, repeating images like “the salad”, “the hole”, “the family”, “the cage”. These motifs, their elliptic movements merging, overlapping, and racing apart from each other, trace a legend for navigating the cultivated space of the text.
In "Family Teachings", the book’s second section, Hou’s dynamic aggregation of poetic sentences is condensed into prose poem blocks. Each piece retains elements of the sensual, surrealist language of the lineated poems filling other sections of the book, but collectively focus themselves with a less kinetic energy: a soft precision, a globe of blue crystal cutting through clouds. Here Hou traces the history of her family, relatives arrested, deported, disappeared by oppressive external forces, the terror of time, its slippage and nesting doll cycles of containment—"of boxes to come"—with a language that avoids opacity or proscription; “Humiliation quiets us in the realm of uncertainty. // Go back.” (“One Must Not Fight For the Center Seat Don’t Walk in the Middle”). Like the striking idiomatic proclamations that serve as titles throughout, local law and tradition are held up to the light for examination. A picture of complex interpersonal relationships is captured, filtered, or cropped. These pieces are, at times, reminiscent of John Berger’s limpid book of meditations And Our Faces, My Heart, Brief as Photos, where occasional flourishes of brief lyric attend the prose - a steady hub for the radiant, shapeshifting works that surrounds. Berger writes: “Imagining the constellations did not of course change the stars, nor did it change the black emptiness that surrounds them. What changed was the way people read the sky.” For Hou, "the everyday spinning us in circles so fast we emit light. Light, being what we need the most" ( from “To The Kind Hearted Show Proper Respect, To The Wicked Keep Far Away”).
"All salad is believable, wild." (from “Sugar on Fruit is an Untidy Wish”). The individual plants that compose a salad emerge from the garden in scattered, disparate bunches and are gathered together to compose an aggregate form - perhaps a family meal or later a nurturing pile of compost. Salad can be likened to an edible collage as Hou’s poems often function as narrative ones, delighting in, while sensually navigating, the overlapping edges and textures of thought. Wild and believable, a poem is, arranged half by chance and half by fate. Hou is thoughtful and sly about the arrangement of her succulents, roots, and poisons, never letting one overpower the other. Balance is struck between preparation and risk. “Cauliflower is meaningful and versatile”, later: "Singularity decreases my appetite" (from “I’m Sunlight”). Ultimately there’s a protean freedom in this return to unmannered space, a space connected to reflex, muscle memory, origins: "What is the feeling of new skin / The soaking of vegetables in salted water" (from “Laws”). A space which offers some perspective sense of where the garden ends and the forest begins: “A classical arrangement is never fit / or tidy because mushrooms grow around it” (from “Autobiographical Song”).
Collages, like salads, cages, and families, also construct themselves around the incremental filling of holes. In each, spaces of lack make themselves more and more pronounced until a body or object is required to float over the surface or fit itself inside. Community Garden for Lonely Girls repeats this image of often dutifully filled holes throughout the collection, providing a host of things to mediate negative space, if momentarily or unsuccessfully: "The truth is I want to be a hippie in a circle skirt" (from “Envisioning the Future Can Be Dangerous”). Our bodies become sites of exchange or blockage: "Gluten flows through me like green slime. I jam my finger in / the hole to stop it. This, too, is a passing feeling" (from "I’m Sunlight"). In other poems, holes become energized with the potential for discovery: "What is this mission / that I’m after? / Is it finding the hole / inside of me and falling / through it" (from “Bubble”). The sky becomes a hole persistently on the periphery of sight, Something we’ve reigned in and seeded with patches of light as well; the blind spot in our collective origin story which, nevertheless, emerges as a space for potential discovery:. "the circle rotating, creating an endless blue vacuum / a secret hiding place" (from “Today”).
In The Center of the Cyclone, recounting an intense LSD trip during a series of self-imposed clinical trials, neuroscientist John C. Lilly’s describes the terror of seeing his own personality as a program running a circuit in a cosmic computer, unable to deviate from its preset function. This recognition, won through an intense internal struggle, eventually enabled him to extract his consciousness from this totalitarian system, and to view it whole from an adjacent perspective, floating in a field of infinite possibility. This sense of hard-won freedom is resonant in many of Hou’s poems throughout the book, a recognition of systems and how they’re constructed; once the dimensions of cages can be understood, open space can begin to creep in:
"A room gives birth to another room" (from “Another Tree Poem”)
"A spirit can easily slip in between cage bars" (from“The Fawn Response”)
Hou hunts for interstitial breaks in the day-to-day then boldly ventures into them. These poems also account for how power distorts common objects, rendering the quotidian unfamiliar ("a boy being folded into the shape of a crab / shoved into a car, not a symbol") (from“Laws”) or fucking with the ways a body is gendered (“Trimmings made of milk and nuts. / Tighter and not all boyish. / Girly boy wakes up wet anyway”) (from “Autobiographical Song”).
Taken together, what do all these signs amount to? The arc of a bildungsroman? A rhizome of falling light in the sky? The curve of an earthworm in a planting bed? In "A History of Detainment," Hou, inverting Alice Notley’s assertion "the problem with America is my body,” offers an emphatic response: “The problem with this body is America.” It’s a line that sums up much of what the book does most effectively, refusing designation. That thin line between outside and inside where institutional power works to contain any expression of self, particularly a body that is racially othered: "The history of detainment correlates with the history of natural skin." Later, "A body is tied to an appeal. / Say no to the appeal." Community Garden of Lonely Girls actively seeks out these nuances of oppression, collectivity, and freedom with the urge to create a common space, a garden wherein we might look up and wonder where we all come from.