Book Review

Muriel Leung’s powerful second book is divided into seven parts, each of which are formally and thematically distinct from one another, but which, like a swarm, share the same directionality, hunger, and capacity for flight. And, in fact, each section might be read as an experimental investigation of how different genres can engage variously with the concept of the swarm—or, in Leung’s words, each section “IMAGINES ALL THE POSSIBILITIES OF THE SWARM.” In this way, generic hybridity itself becomes activated as yet another of the swarm’s possibilities.

For me, one of the most energizing, fascinating, and challenging imaginative demands of this book lies in its experimental metaphors, which do not function linearly, but instead—swarm-like—constellate multiple points of simultaneous reference. Rather than following the expected pattern of connecting tenor to vehicle as a way to illuminate some quality of the described, Leung’s metaphors follow fast one upon another in a way that complicates the comparison and challenges the stability of the image:

. . . I wear a pleated mask.
It was my grandmother who taught me to cut a mango,
so I eat and think of her, she who has passed a thousand times.
I wear her face, I don my mother’s attire, our inheritance
like a distant thread that does not stop weaving.
In one delicate swoop, the water of my life
can fall—each splatter, a new pattern I cannot escape.

A mask-wearing speaker eats a mango and then the mask becomes anthropomorphic, she is wearing her grandmother’s face; now “wearing” and “donning” swivel back to the identifications clothing creates and the speaker is wearing her mother’s clothes; now we zoom out into an abstraction connected to the clothing metaphor and inheritance is like a weaving thread; then, perhaps picking up on the movement of weaving, there’s a swoop (submerged metaphor of a bird?); and finally, water splatters in an inescapable pattern. Interconnected, but constantly changing, this cluster has the effect not of mystification but rather of dense interrelation. The jolt comes with the footnote to which we are sent after the word “escape”: “There was my mother’s cancer and then there was my father’s. In each instance, the organ revolted, and they were sunken for a while. But the fact that my mother lives and my father died was no product of a greater cure. I began to see in each of them a cruel optimism.” The “new pattern I cannot escape” becomes a cancerous proliferation, the senseless symmetry of two parents falling sick and one dying. Suddenly the revolting organ of metaphor takes on a malevolent aspect as the cancerous cell.

Leung again and again draws connections between familial bonds and disease—both environmental diseases like cancer and contagious illness like a cold or COVID-19:

We leapt and we hurled out bodies through this engagement. And then somewhere between us, a severing. Or metastasis—the cancerous cell, in its effort to become not one but many, splits and duplicates. They are called daughter cells for that reason.

Beginning with the first-person plural, these lines create an uncomfortable identification with cancer cells, or “daughter cells.” Such identifications recur and intensify:

On its way to becoming cancerous, a cell first enters metaplasia . . . . But adaptation should not be confused with assimilation . . . I, too, think of such costs, what it means to try beyond recognition.

What does it mean for the cancer cell to be an object of sympathy, and even identification? The attempts of the cancer cells to assimilate are likened to an Asian-American experience: “I, too, think of such costs.” The Franco-Uruguayan poet Jules Laforgue calls Baudelaire’s metaphors “downright American” in their exaggeration, brashness, and “disconcerting purplish flash and dazzle” (quoted in The Arcades Project). If Baudelaire’s metaphors are American, Leung’s metaphors are Asian-American; they insist on difference within their Americanness; they resist the dominant framework of whiteness to create divergent logics and connections.

Ultimately, Leung’s comparison of the Asian family to the cancerous cell constitutes a trenchant intervention into the anti-Asian violence that permeates the American media and imagination. When the speaker remembers, “Then, they would call me, and it would be another/ Asian woman’s name,” the footnote at the end of this line jumps to a discussion of cancer’s proliferating animacy, a liveliness that duplicates itself even as the Asian woman is made plural. The racist white gaze—that would conflate Asian women and so eradicate their individuality—behaves like cancer, and constitutes a cancerous logic.

Through repetition, Leung amplifies the violence of the Asian/family/cancer metaphor cluster, inverts it, and—daringly—reclaims it as love. In a brilliant passage that balances, on the bottom of the page, a discussion of the term “Chinese Sneezes” as xenophobic shorthand for Chinese market dominance, “how disease and a people can be locked in the same imaginary configuration,” and the sinister mumblings of Donald Trump when he defended calling COVID-19 the “Chinese Virus,” Leung writes:

In a preposterous theory to my family, after we had all contracted a cold from one another, I was remembered as having said that any family that did not get sick together must not have loved each other quite as much.

If love’s proximities result in disease, embrace the cold—so the reasoning goes. This is a rhetorical turn that refuses the reductive sanitations of whiteness, that makes a revelry of love’s embodiment.

The swarm-like multiplicity of metaphor in Imagine Us, The Swarm refracts through the book’s elements, especially its formal flexibility. In the first section, “THIS IS TO LIVE SEVERAL LIVES,” lines of periods hum across the page, performing—like concrete poetry—the zip and buzz of bees and—like stage directions or a musical score—the fraught pauses between the speaker and her father, the intergenerational trauma that weighs silently, the unspeakability of the word “cancer.” The fraught multivocality of the following section, “THE PLURAL CIRCUITS OF TELL,” orchestrates a formal simultaneity in which prose fragments and poetry are interrupted, redirected, and even refuted by the footnotes which run, in plural circuit, along the bottom of the page. The physicality of the page remains in view throughout the book, as fluid and constantly changing forms take one another’s place: footnotes, right-justified lines, triptychs, words scattered loosely across white space, lines in tight columns, long lines, prose fragments. And again, the period returns as a physical object in the section titled “LIFE OF A DROWNING” to extend white space in pauses or bubbles of lost breath. Later in the book, Leung complicates the primacy of the author by engaging in the collaborative and cross-referential forms of epistolary address (in a letter beginning, “Dear intimacy of [theory]”) and ekphrasis (in a verse essay engaging with the film, Lady Vengeance, directed by Park Chan-wook). Form is a swarm that Leung multiplies, makes expansive, imagines, and reimagines.

In this way, it is the very multifariousness of the swarm upon which the title’s injunction to “imagine” insists. It is the complicatedness of the metaphor, the metaphor that shifts, resists summary, doubles back, and changes again. It is the metastasizing metaphor, the dispersing metaphor, the metaphor that refutes the teleology of dominant narrative frameworks in favor of a more obscure contact tracing. It is the metaphor that multiplies, soars, and swells, that expands imagination itself.

About the Reviewer

Claire Marie Stancek is the author of several collections of poetry, including wyrd] bird (Omnidawn, 2020), Oil Spell (Omnidawn, 2018), and MOUTHS (Noemi Press, 2017). With Daniel Benjamin, she co-edited Active Aesthetics: Contemporary Australian Poetry (Tuumba/Giramondo, 2016). With Lyn Hejinian and Jane Gregory, she is co-editor and co-founder of Nion Editions, a chapbook press. Claire Marie has a PhD in English Literature from UC Berkeley, and currently lives and works in Philadelphia.