Book Review

The speaker in “A Parable” concludes, “It was our time to savage.” Thus begins Anna Maria Hong’s vision in her first poetry collection, Age of Glass, where a fierce and uncompromising feminine voice asserts and empowers itself, notably in a literary landscape that has been dominated by a white male canon. This voice appropriates myths and fables that inform this canon’s assumptions, adding to the diverse and intersectional voices characterizing current poetry.

Hong’s literary landscape is the sonnet. All but three poems riff on this form. Hong’s sonnet disrupts this male-dominated box, this literary container, yet retains its echoes—especially via her stanzas corresponding to a given sonnet’s structure, quatrains followed by couplet or by two tercets (a sestet). Hong’s sonnets do not hold to the end-rhyme scheme, expected volta, nor iambic pentameter. The rhymes can be packed and internal as within the frenetic pace into which the middle of “Io” transforms:

Now doomed to loop his gassy bongo
like some dumb bean, pinto or garbanzo,
like one number in one bunkum bingo,
I fly the shoo in his falsetto

pie. Boo hoo hoo. I too can go commando,
Captain Neo, serve up coolio,
assume the form of a loon. Lo! Not so lame-o
like poor Cleo, all coo and brio

The rhymes can also be unpacked and chained within a different kind of pacing as at the beginning of “Yonder, a Rental”:

Time to howl at the celestial sphere,
that full frontal silver dollar, the very
paintball of pallor and elemental other.
It’s all or nada as noonnight’s empanada

discloses her pretty quarter, the priest’s collar
hung high on the hook of evening’s fluent
wall. Hung like a juror bent on acquittal
who can’t stall any longer, you’re a cobbler

Lush with sound and wit, the disruptions of her sonnet are so varied that by the end of the collection in “Fix the Sphinx,” the form seems to have created its own newer echoes. Hong’s “Shift happens” undercuts a more serious-sounding “shift” with the cliché “shit happens.” She seems to be saying, let’s move on, while enacting an incremental shift in the literary landscape.

Her book is divided into three sections. The first briefly introduces materiality reflecting the male, his tools, and an implied violent use of these tools. Powerful feminine voices reside within this world, acknowledge it, and ultimately redefine it via retelling and foregrounding the feminine voice in Greek myth. The voice accretes power through vigor and continual, imaginative use. It violently frees itself at the end of “Pandora”: “I flipped my lid and changed my name to Sally,” punning on Sally as an unexpected, run-of-the-mill name and Sally as in a sudden rush, especially from a defensive position to attack an enemy. She also puns on “flipped my lid”—as in going crazy, and as in opening her box. By the section’s end, the feminine voice via Medea has taken off from being contained within the gender assumptions in Greek mythology. It leaves along with the “the V-shaped flight / of something rising in rows and rows and rows.” The flight’s momentum is not necessarily comforting or lulling, even if peaceful or natural. Instead this migratory momentum is collective and gaining strength, or at least sustaining strength in itself.

In the second section’s epigraph, Hong invokes Angela Carter’s retelling of a myth. Hong’s poems here employ the multidimensional female voice to disrupt, often violently, and break up myths, which—according to Carter—are “extraordinary lies designed to make people unfree.” Hong remakes Grimm fairy tales as in “F, H & G,” a retelling of “Hansel and Gretel.” The witch from this tale retells “a falling apart version of the f***** up / fairy fiction of the fraternal Grimm.” She then floods her shortened version with F’s, as if to signify “Fuck you.” As if to finish what the Grimm Brothers could not; they died before finishing the “F” entries in their work on a German dictionary. As if to say, I, as a culturally stigmatized barren woman, will compile-create this tale and entry. Absent is an assumed feminine urge to nurture. Only the speaker determines the urges she sees fit to act upon.

This section continues to break apart assumptions of the feminine, which are embedded in fairy tales and myths “in the dumb Kingdom of fear and trembling”—and in this male-dominated world in “Cin City,” a remaking of “Cinderella.” The feminine voice in these poems propels a power to break apart (and transform) this male world in “Moon to Sun”:

. . . I am a much smaller
massive object, cool, internal, free
of my own light. My gravity will collar

your value. You will darken me to pure
black splendor, as I bury your power
behind me. . . .

In “The Red Box,” the voice turns the traditional sexual role of women in marriage on its head: “I beat // him to a finish. Finish blood and blue. / I tell him: Now flip over. He cannot / unpaste his shoe.” The voice transforms “out of the ashes & conviction” like the mythical phoenix in “I, Sing.” Taking off from Whitman and the sonnet convention, this feminine voice emerges in “Aura,” acknowledging women as marginalized and essentially erased (“I was tone, pause, energy”) and beginning “the process” of effacement—not of the feminine voice itself, but of the male power that has been defining it.

By the beginning of the third section, the voice in “The Empress” is active and persistent, “clutching a mirror and a will.” This section moves toward renewal. Near the end, in “The Glass Age”: “Glass is sand is time falling loose.” The literary landscape is shifting, and Hong is all in with this shift. The speaker in “Yonder, A Rental” too, is all in: “Time to howl at the celestial sphere.” The last line of this sonnet fragments into “valor and force, vital—.” While its momentum seems abruptly cut off, the speaker does so at her own volition. There is more for her to say, and she is free to do so.

Hong resists any narrative, which is a strength of this collection. While her poetry is dense, its energy opens up the language through skillful associative sound, phrasing, rhythm, and play. In “Salome,” for instance, Hong exhibits such energy:

Stop Flinching. Look at me, not as a heretic

but as a wrench to twist your hermetic
inch from its attic of static piety,
your monastic track. Synch to me.

Hong playfully foregrounds tension inherent in language. While “synch” looks as if it should end in the soft consonance of the previously heard “ch,” it is a variant of “sync,” ending in a hard “k.” The lack of narrative opens up space for the sound of Hong’s (and her personas’) fierce feminine voice on a physical level, where in this case the reader can “synch to me.”

About the Reviewer

Robert Manaster’s poetry and co-translations have appeared in numerous journals including Rosebud, Birmingham Poetry Review, Virginia Quarterly Review, Image, and Spillway. He’s also published poetry book reviews in such publications as Rattle, Jacket2, the Los Angeles Review, Borderlands: Texas Poetry Review, and Rain Taxi.