prop by Grace Shuyi Liew
Ahsahta Press, 2016; 32 pp
Reviewed by Annie Won
PROP by Grace Shuyi Liew is a haunting, lyrically charged, intellectual, largely untitled meditation on displacement and identity. Our female protagonist is ageless, coming of age, crossing physical boundaries; she is drawing in and through the lineage of her sisters, her own eyes. And what are the sisters in this work but multiple versions of the self. By timeless, we mean transcending generations, roots deep under the consciousness. The mythic is immediately channeled through the immediacy of the work's opening lines.
she hears things, as if
the soles of her feet are still growing, or maybe it's
the greed of
collecting salt under her heart when
all the oceans are refusing to spit.
When we hear about the narrator's sisters, we find that they are also unnamed so as to allude to a common tribe, a heritage, a lineage, a root. The sisters crave connection, are displaced, ungrounded, generationally so. Liew writes, “Before the sisters fell into their forms there were other stories that waited and waited / . . . Hair, first hair, dipped in ink of irises." Origin breeds uncertainty, is unsettled, creates a restless animal energy.
One of her came into this world holding sour in
her nose, an event / animal
on whose tail rode every time-abiding claim
What is to be said of notions of country, as physical containers for the notion of being, when the country is more fence than home, when a country is a reason to flee. What remains? She writes, “Down a captive country netting loosed faces / Two pairs of hands sewn to two pairs of cheeks / . . . another sand angel flailing the white desert.”
Does the narrative necessarily contain the author's own displacement from Malaysia to America? Must we stamp an immigrant experience on the unfolding of this work? PROP is larger than this. It is not Malaysian. It is not proto-American. It is a song of the displacement of human bodies through physical barriers and societal boundaries through the aching passage of time. It is the pushing through of the human spirit. It captures the subtle movements of the unconscious, of inquiry. Liew writes, “Do you know this outrage by latent instinct, or by tracking movements outside your body?”
It is important to keep the inquiry alive. Otherwise, we are all dead inside. The necessity of physical displacement cultivates the activity of action, of consideration, of the age-old struggle to understand the self. We must ask ourselves these things.
What are you in danger of losing?
What are you in danger of discolouring?
How much longer do you need to keep on this rummaging?
And the questions are posed; they are not placed from a concrete character to another, but rather they are placed through a nameless inquiry.
Questions from the other side of a barrier angle to clear your name
We can't stop considering our own identities through what we see of ourselves, what others see with us, what we make of it, if we are brave enough to do so. The pain of not knowing is also an urge to understand. And we must.
Look at your face. Look at your face. Look at your face. Look at your face. Look
at your face.