Silent Anatomies by Monica Ong
Kore Press, 2015; 96 pp
Reviewed by Annie Won
Silent Anatomies, by Monica Ong, is a meticulously curated dance of two masters; the visual and its text intermingle to tell the deeper tales of family, identity, presence, and absence. The work opens with a medical illustration of an exposed larynx. Not raw, or violent, but rather, precise. We see the poetry of Chang Tzu stepped through a visually indicated scientific form. Here, and here. The doctor says so. Here is my voice, cut open for all to see.
The book invites, exposes, shows again, through a variety of vocal registers. Each voice – sometimes elegiac, sometimes epistolary, sometimes authoritative and tinged with a twitch of irony – carries the precision of a line, a part of the whole. Only a part. Sometimes it marks a historical family narrative; “Ong was the ghost that carried him. Name as shelter. Name as shell, washed up on the jungle’s edge” (“Paper Son”). As Ong illustrates, sometimes the MRI of the brain lacks its country (the Philippines), literally becomes islands. What happens when the hemispheres of a whole speak but do not carry through to one another, lost in the space in between? The text onto the MRI states, “Father, we were born / to play tricks on the mind.”
I had the special joy of witnessing Ong’s physical art objects in the white space of a gallery, shortly before the printing of their images in this book. Her “vintage Chinese medicine bottle collection” photographs are of actual bottles that she designed and offered for display, with labels such as, “SILENT TREATMENT / SUGGESTED USE / If you want to forget me simply leave me / upstairs, alone in my metal chair. Pretend I had an accident by a swimming pool.” What is the price of what is not said? We’ll buy it, we’ll rub it all over our body. We’ll use all of it, generation after generation. The “MRIs” and “x-rays” were printed on medical film and sat on sourced light boxes; scan the body, see. Deep seated in the hip bones lie a night sky of tall trees, and a distant helicopter. The picture is now complete with the vestiges the instruments forgot to pick up. Memory is a funny thing.
“This space between two entries / I claim it… / What if dysplasia simply meant / to displease?” (“Etymology of an Untranslated Cervix”) Ong’s negotiation of space encompasses a history, of a hybrid Chinese-Filipina-American identity, a multi-lingual push-pull, a negotiation of womanhood in a patriarchal society, an encounter of the lay with the medical. A species and another species. Transits, in transition. “Why do they want to go down there, / to that dirty, shameful place?” (“Etymology of an Untranslated Cervix"). Funny how the seat of a womb, the literal origin of humankind, can be dirty, spoiled. Can spell shame. “Ink spilled. Bleeding.” How assigned gender denotes power and privilege in a cultural context. “But what about her tongue?”
What of the tongue? As in the piece, “Profunda Linguae,” its medical diagram is scattered with pinpointed text as to what it contains – of course, “rice,” “sio pao,” “leche flan,” “honey,” “coconut.” What of the ephemeral sensation of taste, itself a collaboration between sight, touch, and smell, of the present moment, finds itself documentation in history, or even medical allegory? What matters? Why? The medical is used here as a stranger in stranger’s clothes, commanding orders. The medical is an analogy for a larger unknown, often assumed authority – how an Asian culture might favor a boy over a girl. How the doctor is always right – how what is said, in its own language, contains untranslated elements. Because it is unknown, it can provoke fear. How to deal with this feeling? This is the slippery nature of identity, “hidden under a pillow of bitter melon buds” (“Profunda Linguae”).
Perhaps most striking is Ong’s portrayal of “The Attic,” physically situated small in the ear, as medically named. In this medical illustration, a house sits up there, of course, with the usual markings of “stapes” and “Eustachian tube.”
There are creatures in there. Someone is taking notes.
As Ong writes, “Above your crib, the floorboards creak as I make more room in this attic.”