Other Rooms

Downward into Appetite: on Christine Shan Shan Hou’s “Like It Never Happened”

by Jay Aquinas Thompson | Associate Editor

Welcome to Other Rooms. In this series, Poetry Northwest examines noteworthy work being published in contemporary poetry journals.

Monostichs—single-line stanzas—can fall like repeated bad news; they can elbow into our attention like headlines; they can unsettle their own implicit sameness with successive sensational declarations or wildly divergent material. In the poem “Like It Never Happened,” from the most recent issue of the consistently weird and wonderful annual The Tiny, Christine Shan Shan Hou’s single-line stanzas feel like a brief wall-contact for someone disoriented in the dark and without a sure way forward. Here I am, the reader says; then, Where am I? 

Cindy says that she loves things that are magically clear. 

Clarity is a moment of madness unravelling in real time in a public space. 

We are all members of the public with dreadful hometowns and pathetic hearts. 

We tell ourselves: Fake can be just as good! Then slink back into our pattern-seeking ways. 

While contemplating whether or not to eat a clay pot, small anonymous faces appear in low reliefs around the pot’s surface. 

Hou is also a collagist. Her poems feel as many-sourced and diverse as her visual art, but Hou is at pains to distinguish her collages from her written work. In an interview in Luna Luna, she calls her poems “darker, heavier” than her collages, which can be breezy in their pairings (a nose-wedge of fresh pink lipstick under a curly faceless 50s ‘do; hardboiled egg slices ringed halo-style around a smiling woman in a dark sleeveless dress), without the haunted, eerie, obsessive quality of her poems. A collage’s forms can be taken in in a perceptual instant that’s not replicable in a poem; the interrelation of disparate parts in a poem can only be experienced in time, and “Like It Never Happened” (like other recent work of Hou’s) makes those interrelations unstable. A collage is arranged from found (unoriginal, “fake”?) materials, as a poem can be, but Hou’s poem isn’t content to re-appropriate comforting and predictable received forms of thought. “Like It Never Happened” speaks in a language of certainty—“we are all . . . ,” “recent history shows . . . ,” “it’s natural to . . . ”—which the poem’s development constantly undermines. Using a lexicon of theoretical knowledge, Hou’s poem nevertheless pitches the reader downward into appetite, habit, and preoccupying questions of authenticity. Notice how the reader is bumped from one line to another here:

Little acrobats line up in the streets in preparation for doomsday. 

Floral and vegetal forms from heaven fly over the landscape. 

It is natural to be scared when teetering on the precipice of change. 

It is natural to keep your refrigerator stocked with frozen dinners 

Hot dogs, macaroni, turkey, peas and mashed potatoes.

There’s “doomsday,” “heaven,” and miracles in this poem, but no salvation. There are beloved friends “emanat[ing] golden lines,” but no intimate neighborly voice alongside the speaker’s. There’s a “glass” clarity that ends the poem high (“How magnificently clear is the day”), but the reader still feels turned-around, unsure, anxious; clarity, after all, being “a moment of madness unravelling in real time.” 

Hou is the author of four books, including CONCRETE SOUND with visual artist Audra Wolowiec, and the outstanding Community Garden for Lonely Girls, published in 2017 by the short-lived Gramma and now distributed by Black Ocean, a press whose affinity for dark magic suits Hou’s work. In her Luna Luna interview, Hou commented that “I prefer sentences that look at each other, even though my sentences don’t have eyes.” The monostichs of “Like It Never Happened” feel, compared to the variety of formal structures in Community Garden, like a conscious attempt to isolate and focus on this act of looking. The various consciousness of each of the poem’s lines, the predictable but unsettling breaks between them, make the reader feel watched by a frighteningly close and uncomfortable intelligence.

As the Other Rooms series continues, I hope to include notes from editors, authors, or both on the contemporary work that we highlight. I reached out to The Tiny‘s editors to ask what drew them to Shan Shan Hou’s poem, and Gina Myers shared this appreciation:

I love this poem for its calm, measured intelligence, its aphoristic lines, and the way those lines accumulate, arriving in a present that I want to be in. The poem is not in a hurry to get to its end—the long lines, many of which are complete sentences, allow each idea to be taken in and contemplated before moving on to the next idea. Sometimes the way a line builds from the previous line is clear, while the movement of other lines is more enigmatic, but both ways are effective and make me want to know and befriend this speaker. I want to know the person who says, “Clarity is a moment of madness unravelling in real time in a public space.” I want to know the person who eats a clay pot after reading about the benefits of eating clay, but first sees “small anonymous faces appear in low reliefs around the pot’s surface.” The speaker is someone I trust—someone who can clearly discuss art, religion, and the ordinary day-to-day. Someone who knows the pleasure of being present, as captured in the wonderful final lines of the poem:

The warm bodies of my friends emanate golden lines like the sun.

I am wide awake.

How magnificently clear is the day.

Read the rest of The Tiny’s latest issue here.

Jay Aquinas Thompson is an Associate Editor at Poetry Northwest.

Cover/sharing image: Christine Shan Shan Hou’s “TV of the Mind.”