Art

The Truth in Rented Rooms

by

Remember how the Beats traded the order of ’50s America for the liberatory order of Eastern religions? Koon Woon inverts and rethinks that trade: born in a small village in 1949 China, he listens to the edge of America, pours Cantonese nouns into a Stevens/Eliot/ Whitman mixmaster and serves up dispatches from a borderland where expulsion is a state of grace.

“Now, you know what
poetry/Essentially is: it is the communication/of pain,” he confides toward the end of his first volume, collected over years on stray scraps in
rented rooms, diners, and asylums. Elsewhere: “If there’s a choice, I’d choose to be poor.” Amid this terrain of pain and poverty Woon sings his post-Romantic, post-Beat threnody. No matter the
occasionally repetitive or adolescent tone of some of
the poems— his form often
an afterthought— Woon’s sensitivity startles. A line like “Puddles connect like children holding hands” or “It’s a trick to feel Chinese even in Chinatown” bursts forth to give you the shock of the new.

You could say this uneven volume recalls the Automat nature of urban life; caveat lector, choose your poems from the vending machine, scan the rest. In odes such as
” ‘Fortune Telling . . . ‘ ” and “You naughty woman smiling coyly at me,” Woon serendipitously achieves profundity and turns us into his compatriots in exile. A Dadaist humorist of sorts, Woon links his reader to a teeming subjectivity and an unsolvable mourning: “I have been unpopular with myself” or “The past folds up like an origami bird/will not dissolve like candy.”

Stylistically, most of these poems suggest a literal translation from another language: individual word choice, sound, and energy matter less than idea, image, motive, or the quiverings of a mind bent on disorienting us. With respect to this last desire, Woon succeeds, and, often enough, brilliantly. His rented room has a thousand walls: on many of them does lie a great truth.

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