by Ashley Dailey | Contributing Writer
Imagine Us, the Swarm
Nightboat Books, 2021
What does a period sound like? What vibrates within the single black dot? Does the spot of ink, so consequential in the defining of ends and beginnings, possess an echo? What do one thousand periods sound like—one following directly after another, running along the landscape of a page, the pattern quick as flight, a series of stings?
Poet and multimedia artist Muriel Leung’s second book of poems, Imagine Us, the Swarm, honors the ways in which a reader physically interacts and engages with a piece of writing. Through vivid, sensorial descriptions; visual mastery of space on the page; and evocation of sound through typography, Leung models how poetry—ever a sonic, performative mode of literature—is evolving, challenging the constraints of the page. The form of The Swarm is perhaps best described as a series of seven poetic essays, each a wandering rumination that shakes off poetry’s tendency to trim—to pin a single image to the wall. These essays stretch, allowing each to hold more than a single poem can typically bear.
The collection, above all a rumination on family legacy, is interested in the way our ancestors’ joys and traumas accumulate in our bodies. In the fourth poetic essay of the collection, “Life of a Drowning,” Leung writes, “Many have been here before. They would point to one end of me and say, This is mine and then another, This is also mine.” Leung sees this inheritance as inevitable, herself a single stitch in a series: “. . . I don my mother’s attire . . . like a distant thread that does not stop weaving.” But Leung also grapples with the present—her own grief upon losing her father to cancer, her feelings of helplessness in the face of sexual abuse, and, ultimately, her fury toward the societal forces that have taken so much from her and her family.
The typographical experimentation in Imagine Us, the Swarm, takes the obsessive, uneasy shape of blocks of uninterrupted periods in “This Is to Live Several Lives,” the book’s first section. When I first opened it, I was struck by the urge to run my fingers across the paper, expecting a discernible physical texture to the patterns of dots permeating the first nineteen pages. Interspersed are bracketed phrases that generate the sense that Leung is shouting, that her words are punctuating a roar as she details the worklife of the bee alongside the worklife of her father. The bee, that industrious insect that invisibly accounts for the pollination and health of the ecosystem, becomes in this collection a symbol of the American immigrant experience. Ever-working, in spite of the effects of pollution and agricultural pesticides, bees (like Leung’s family) struggle against the increasing inhospitality of their environment. I began to associate the repetition of Leung’s periods, persistent and visually propulsive, with the sound of a buzzing hive:
I asked my father once, “Do you ever get lonely?” Did he answer?
It’s tempting to read Leung’s lines of periods as blank spaces—as typographical indications of the missing. And perhaps that reading is not inaccurate, as Leung returns throughout the collection to the image of the ghost—her father’s, her own. And what is a more apt description of a ghost than a haunted absence? But as I hovered over the lines, I heard the collective work of bees—the swarm. Leung cannot recall her father’s answer to her question, “Did you ever get lonely?” Instead, the sound of her father’s voice is drowned out by the hum of bees. “The story of labor is that it goes on,” Leung insists. “The hive hums its vacant sound / . . . / I swear love is a hollow tomb. / And the rest of us—we carried him; we were the tomb.” Leung struggles against the tension between fullness and emptiness. There is sustained chaos in the buzzing periods, as well as a refrain of utter nothingness.
There is another way of reading the repeated periods: as cancer cells replicating indefinitely. In the middle of a full-length page of only dots, Leung challenges her reader: “I think it’s funny that the book is not about bees at all.” Consider again, she’s saying, the infinite symbolic possibilities of a dot:
He told me he had less than [ ] months to live. It was [ ] and it had accelerated in his body. Not an ulcer but a different monster. He sat on my bed and let the words hang stale in the air. I folded twenty times into his lap—the zipper on my side without any give—a gush of gold and tulle scattered across the wooden floor.
The next day, I danced into the dawn, shimmering in a devastation that looked and felt like a human-sized hole.
At the beginning of the second essay of the collection, “The Plural Circuits of Tell,” Leung identifies her project: “. . . because no one talks about remainders, I hope to draw the line from here to there, scattering in between the points, a nominal [feeling] of what an absence looks like when dispersed.” How to name an absence when absence, by its very nature, defies naming? How to enact through creation—a book of poems which is a tangible, physical collection of symbols—a disappearance?
Death. Leung asks what it is to break apart, to become particles on air.
Through the use of hefty, lyrical footnotes, Leung expands on her father’s battle with cancer and reckons with the limits of her own understanding of the disease. In her annotations, she turns to scientific research, her family’s journey from China, happy memories, reports from news magazines, and the musings of literary theorists. She seeks knowledge from the synthesis of disparate experiences, but “the cancer’s origin and path remain unknown.” That unknown haunts the collection as the speaker and her family strive for control against violent outside forces. “In celebration of becoming American,” Leung recalls, “my parents bought a plastic tree, and in their happiest days, the angel top stood high on chopstick stilts, so eager were they to help the object remain upright.” The sign that “hangs over everything”: “YOU TOO CAN MAKE IT IF YOU TRY.”
. . .
Resistance against malicious forces is the project of the rest of the collection, centering most sharply on whiteness, male violence, and the American project. In “A Careful List of All My Failures,” Leung articulates the pressure she feels to “bend so far back, [her] spine becomes another flag. Of assimilable colors. / [She is] not even legible to [herself]. Cannot not even English [her] way out.” Leung’s lines take up space, stretching long across the landscape-oriented pages, even as she says, “I did not ask to be born.” The essay closes with a sentiment of resilience, if not hope:
. . . I spoke
a language of two
and there I lived
despite it all.
Adversity persists. Life (and death) persists.
The meaning of the period evolves once again in “Life of a Drowning,” which sits at the very center of the collection. In this one, three sets of ellipses, one stacked on top of the other, are used to indicate transition. The text, a consideration of the body’s relationship to water, is visually demarcated by nine dots at the center of each page. The periods thus become disrupters of white space—patterns certainly, but sparing, disappearing from the page when the eyes become the least bit unfocused, the marks swallowed by whiteness. At the same time, in this essay about water, the dots become droplets or barely discernible ripples. Perhaps tears:
. . . I could not swim and was sinking with painful slowness. I might have cried too. [My mother] said, Can you manage, and it was not a question. I told her I was a marriage of fine and fine. My sadness was not louder than her relief.
Water becomes a vehicle through which Leung considers the body’s relationship to the world around it—a body’s physical relationship to other people, the natural world, life and death. In the same way the preceding essays suggest the continuity and insistence of inheritance—the linkage between one generation and the next—“Life of a Drowning” positions the individual as a drop of water falling into an ocean. Utterly inextricable, a part of a whole. “I plummeted and I knew the sea,” she says.
. . .
Imagine Us, the Swarm reshapes itself over and over, disrupting the passive reader and demanding their participation in the meaning-making process. Leung’s poetic essays, organic and unrestrained, buzz with intensity. They chart a family’s journey and grief as both personal tragedy and national epidemic. “I am looking at you now in the acceleration of time,” Leung closes her collection. “All the possibilities of the swarm ignite. The humming of many / wings amassing into a greater noise. We can write our origins / sacred here . . . .”
Muriel Leung is the author of Imagine Us, The Swarm (Nightboat Books), Bone Confetti (Noemi Press), and Images Seen to Images Felt (Antenna) in collaboration with artist Kristine Thompson. A Pushcart Prize nominated writer, her writing can be found in The Baffler, Cream City Review, Gulf Coast, The Collagist, Fairy Tale Review, and others. She is a recipient of fellowships to Kundiman, VONA/Voices Workshop and the Community of Writers. She is the Poetry Co-Editor of Apogee Journal. She also co-hosts The Blood-Jet Writing Hour Podcast with Rachelle Cruz and MT Vallarta. She is a member of Miresa Collective, a feminist speakers bureau. She received her PhD in Creative Writing and Literature from University of Southern California where she was an Andrew W. Mellon Humanities in a Digital World fellow. She is from Queens, NY.
Ashley Dailey is a writer and multimedia artist who is currently pursuing a PhD at the University of Southern California. Her work has received support from the Academy of American Poets and the Bread Loaf Writers Conference, and her poems and short films have been published or are forthcoming in Sonora Review, Tupelo Quarterly, Waxwing, Breakwater Review, New Delta Review, Plume Poetry, The Florida Review, and elsewhere.