The Truth in Rented Rooms


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.