Continuous Frieze Bordering Red
Michelle Naka Pierce
78 pages, 8.5″x8.5″, perfectbound
Fordham University Press 2012
Reviewed by Thomas Fink
Michelle Naka Pierce’s long poem, Continuous Frieze Bordering Red, examines how others identify the poet’s speaker based on social structures of racial differentiation and hierarchy, as well as how she entertains strategies of self-identification or resistance and identifications. “Born in Japan” (back cover), Pierce is the daughter of a Japanese mother and “white” “American” father.
At the outset, Pierce builds in a formal resistance to ordinary reading. Like most books, Continuous Frieze Bordering Red gives no instructions about how to read it vertically and/or horizontally. But as soon as I tried to read the first page in the “normal” way, I found an especially severe disjunction—both grammatically (a preposition followed by a capitalized subject, then a verb) and thematically—between the third line and the one below it, and after that, frequent patterns of disruption. This is the first page:
This is an inauspicious way to begin, inside your country bolt on, oxygen feeding the cellular
[elapsed turquoise] around the wrinkled eye. Tourists here are on a steady diet of art
non-breathable sweaters. Referred pain emerges in the shoul[der] behind the scapula: you are
You confuse the other word for carrot with the other word for onion. You don’t know the
languages taste, though “synthetic” comes to mind. Self-portrait transfer. You arrive on
Thursday or (1).
Some trial and error ensued, and then I discovered that ordinary syntax and greater flow are preserved if I assume a continuity between the first line, read from left to right, and the first line of the next page all the way to the book’s end, and then follow the second line from page 1 to 68, and so on, until the fifth and final line. And yet the bottom of pages 21 through 32 each feature two to four vertically proceeding lines of verse, often with multiple indentations, near the bottom of the page.
Even after one makes the adjustment, one has to “leap” much more frequently than usual from one page to one adjacent to it and to turn a right-hand page to the left one very often; it is harder to hold in mind whatever flux of meditation and/or narrative the reader can find. Our longstanding habits do not permit the transition to be seamless. And as I present further quotations from this book, my quotations will never be faithful to how the passage looks on the pages. Further, Pierce’s text about hybridity itself might be considered a hybrid of two kinds of poetry: monostich lines in the top section that stretch to the end of each page of this horizontally-oriented book (and thus mimic the sweep of prose-poetry without being organized as prose) and the vertically-proceeding verse section from 21 to 32 in the lower portion.
Pierce’s poem announces its “inauspicious” beginning with travel: “Though not your first/// crossing, you are on the outside, inside this once removed zone, just beyond the city. Underground you/// hear languages not easily recognizable, and the sounds are muffled, as though submerged. All around/// citizens rush to their destinations, minding gaps and such” (2-5, vertical line 1). A subway or a transit system within a large airport is a place of process where “multiculturalism” can be experienced without necessarily being much “understood”; whatever interpersonal communication occurs during the perpetual “rush” of multitudes is fragmentary at best. And yet, in this processual site of interpersonal negotiation about identification, the speaker can’t help but listen.
Just about the entire poem features a speaker addressing a “you,” narrating fragments of that individual’s experience and meditating on it. It becomes apparent that the “you” is a way of the speaker to engage in self-reflection, to double the “I” in self-dialogue. Successive sentences often bear some relation to one another but do not supply the direct progression of a story or thesis resulting from meditation. They are as frequently “about” disruption or questioning of comprehension as they are “about” the achievement of tangible insight: “When a nervous twitch begins again in the inner ear, you wonder whether motion sickness is a loss of/// equilibrium or a loss or a loss of self. The dislocation. The relocation. The problem of location itself” (16-17, vertical line 1). Physical travel proves disconcerting: continual kinesis puts stability into question and serves as an analogy for “the problem of locat[ing]” a “self” as means to individual psychological “equilibrium.” Existence “within” an actual body does not provide a solution but is part of the challenge: “You arrive within an unfamiliar season and have difficulty embodying the space of ‘I.’” (53, vertical line 3.)
Pierce’s “you/ I” utilizes historical knowledge to show how “the problem of location” involves the displacement of a seemingly determinate racial, ethnic, and/or national origin. A trope placing a mirror-“encounter” and linguistic translation in relation to one another does not become a tool for the solidification of identity but a sign of defamiliarization (dis-orient-ation): “You hear your text [a taxonomy of cultural products] translated into another/// language and find it’s like being introduced to yourself in the mirror, only you don’t recognize that it’s/// you” (7-9, vertical line 2). Which “you,” however, is “it”? Is the “you” represented “in” the language of one’s country of origin more “authentic” than the “translation” into the language of where one lives now, or is it just “alien”? The poet continues: “This is your plight,/// which reminds you that moving from one country to another just after birth doesn’t allow for roots to set/// in: they are exposed, as you are, dangling from a terra cotta pot” (9-11, vertical line 2).
It seems as though Pierce is saying that if the “you/I” had been allowed to stay in the country of her birth long enough to absorb the culture, then the individual’s cultural identity would be properly established, and the transplantation is a cause for lament: “you can’t remember the last time you dreamt in your mother’s vernacular” (68, vertical line 1). Part of the difficulty is that the second country’s culture tends to challenge the child’s identification with the mother, and global politics often exerts an impact: the “you/I,” as “the daughter of an immigrant” mother and a father native to that country, has “had barriers established for [her]. Not by [her] mother necessarily, but the union/// Not the union exactly, but the war and the occupation that followed” (12-14, vertical line 2). Such circumstances may coax the child into favoring the socially more powerful parent unconsciously: “Initially, unbeknownst to you, there is a subtle rift between you/// and your immigrant mother and an unintentional alignment with your citizen father. [Concealed/// assimilation due to site-specific development]” (36-38, vertical line 4). Here, the speaker sounds like an art critic or urban planner, and the poem features various modes of intellectual or professional discourse as a counterpoint to more emotionally charged passages. Narrative chronology in this text, to the extent that one can discern it at times, is not linear; evidence that the offspring’s relationship with the parents undergoes a change after the point described above is presented in an earlier passage, where the “you/I” speaks of a “new unknown./// Which is the intolerable present. Which is the year your father dies” (10-11, vertical line 4).
Sometimes, the hybrid offspring has a sense of guilt at letting down the Japanese mother, because American customs dominate her experience: “You can no longer taste the subtle flavor of sticky white/// rice and are ashamed, sitting across your mother with apologetic longing” (48-49, vertical line 3). In Japan, the “you/I,” who knows that in her mother’s city, she “will always be a gaijin or yank” (21, vertical line 2), stands out because of her “inability to bow properly when meeting strangers on// the street” (52-3, vertical line 3). Awkwardness with Japanese culture, of course, often comes from insufficient knowledge of distinctions in what, for her, is a foreign language: “Cinch the akai mado. You forget the other word for carrot./// You confuse the other word for carrot with the other word for onion” and cannot distinguish “between the other words for mushrooms and yam noodles” (68, vertical line 3 – 1-2, vertical line 4).
The reception of the daughter’s double ethnicity, her ethnic hybridity, by both cultures may pose a greater problem than the fact of early deracination from the land of origin, and this reception elicits her anger: “Under your breath you let out an expletive: fuck the hyphen. Then louder. Fucking/// hyphen. Can you translate authority?” (41-42, vertical line 2.) Ironically, she who has been caused to assume “the hyphen” has come into being on account of “fucking.” If authority governs translation, there may be hope that alternative modes of translation can counter this coercive “authority.” While Pierce wishes to deny that imprecise language and specific institutional forms can circumscribe a complex person, the tone of indignation tacitly acknowledges the frustrating force of persistently invoked conventions: “You do not identify as combined words, linked grammar, division/// of recognized sloth. You are not some checked box on a limited census form” (42-43, vertical line 2).
Next, the poet makes the daring move of forging a direct association between her actual “I” and the “you”: “There is no dash between/// Japanese and American, nor after your middle name. Which means just that: center, middle, inside” (43-44, vertical line 2). Though her Japanese middle name—Naka—literally assumes the center between the Anglo-sounding “Michelle” and “Pierce” and does signify “center,” the historical center of white privilege in U.S. history excludes it, as was made egregiously evident in the Asian Exclusion Acts of earlier eras and the U.S. government’s use of internment camps during World War II. Therefore, in that sense, “Naka” does not anchor the two Anglo names but engenders a decentering hybridity.
At times, Pierce mouths the pseudo-scientific “evidence” (accompanying arbitrary prejudice) for the ethnic hybrid’s subordinate status in various cultures—the U.S. and Japan included—in order to expose its inadequacies and harmful effects: “The notion of the anterior pure [junsui] is a construct, but the hybrid offspring [zasshu] has/// difficulty observing this. Your body doesn’t understand ‘less internal variation.’ It absorbs the pejorative/// connotations cultivated in your saliva. While your stock does not lead to inbreeding, it does not yield/// ‘refinement’ or ‘conventionalization’ of traditions either” (29-32, vertical line 3). Genetic “stock” is figured as possessing a cultural “yield” in similar ways to those of items of exchange in the stock market. If the “hybrid offspring” has trouble recognizing the identity-slot of those considered racially “pure” and, by extension, the one imposed on her as a socially constructed designation, then it is due to the effectiveness of dominant forces of social representation in “cultivating” widespread acceptance of the biological “naturalness” of a hierarchy of differences: “Internalized oppression penetrates the casing and confiscates reason so that there is nothing but/// center with your skin on the outskirts” (19-20, vertical line 3). Ideologically charged reification of the hybrid’s body and especially her skin “confiscates” actual reason to the extent that some can miss the absurdity of the passage’s last two prepositional phrases.
Small gestures of disapprobation and discipline reinforce the sense of the hierarchy’s “natural” validity: “The placement of your left hand is corrected/// as you eat gohan with your right” (32-33, vertical line 3). (“Gohan” means “lunch” or “meal” in Japanese.) Thus, although cross-breeding is often seen as an advantage in the development of healthy, adaptable animals and plants, the human “hybrid” tends to be stereotyped as “crude with unrefined manners, regardless of heterosis.” (33, vertical line 3), as though only particular forms of “refinement” can be validated. Indeed, the hybrid offspring, we read, is considered “ugly and deformed, except when a child” (28, vertical line 2), and the poet refers to various semi-violent intrusions on the young hybrid’s physical autonomy by “neighborhood teenage/// girls” (28-29, vertical line 2) and others (30-32, vertical line 2). Nowhere are pseudo-scientific assertions more ridiculous than in the juxtaposition of two particular sentences: “The hybrid offspring cannot culturally reproduce./// You are missing DNA” (34-35, vertical line 2). Of course, “heterosis” can be said to produce a greater complexity of cultural elements, and what is reproduced entails repetition and perhaps imaginative synthesis within variation. The idea of “missing DNA” is a tropological distortion masking prejudice against a pattern of racial “mixing”; no “normal” component is actually missing. One could imagine the Third Reich propaganda bureau using such rhetoric to communicate their terror of Jewish “dilution” of Aryan “purity.”
Pierce’s poem was published during the last year of Barack Obama’s first Presidential term, and so an equivocal statement about “whiteness” has a particular resonance: “You are not that which is not white. But then again, maybe you are” (37, vertical line 2). In the early twentieth century, Virginia and Tennessee passed legislation affirming the “one-drop rule” “protecting” whiteness and policing the border between blackness and it, and something of the attitudes about race in general and hybridity leading to the enactment of those laws still seems to exist. However, the kind of speculation that the poet is presenting about destabilization of categories prompted by the figure of the hybrid may prove a way to disrupt the persistence of white privilege in the post-Civil Rights era U.S. Later, Pierce echoes Luce Irigaray’s challenging of western philosophy’s negation of female sexuality in relation to positive masculine existence, “This color which is not one,” and then adds: “Which is not monochromatic intensity. Estranged: searching for overlapping/// elements” (44-45, vertical line 5). Since “color” is a social construction occluding a substantial range of hues in what is constituted as a given racial group, the genetic mixture of two cultures cannot quite be represented by a color name that can dramatize and reify the “new” group’s characteristics. “There is no place, really, where you are not alien” (46, vertical line 5), because the “you/I” cannot be fixed on the “color map.” (One of the book’s two epigraphs declares: “I am other to myself precisely at the place where I expect to be myself. Judith Butler.”) The hybrid’s alienation results from the conceptual limitations of those with the social power to perpetuate the crude concepts that they have inherited and those who follow them: “’You are as white as a non-white girl can get.’ Or: ‘In this/// moment, you seem very Asian to me’” (13-14, vertical line 5).
“Racial fluidity, as you/// know it, is a myth (43-44, vertical line 1) because much of what “you know” is rigid categorization that has dominated both of the “hybrid’s” cultures. Yet one can also think and dream for oneself. Pierce’s text records continual changes in the speaking subject’s sense of the solidity and fluidity of the representation of race as contextual frames are successively manifested and supplanted: “As if concentric circles in pebble-pond/// theory are at once put into practice. Disappearance. That is, the self feels static, then not. Then seemingly/// static again” (45-47, vertical line 1). In addition, though, multiple environmental influences can make the “hybrid” individual seem “in place and displaced simultaneously” (48, vertical line 1).
At certain points in the poem, the “you/I” utilizes her encounter with the late painting of Mark Rothko to reflect upon hybrid identity issues: “You are thinking about murals these days and how to address/// the unstable border” (40-41, vertical line 3). On Continuous Frieze Bordering Red’s front cover, we find Rothko’s “Black on Maroon,” part of the Tate Gallery collection. Rothko’s late canvases often have a good deal of red, and the word “red” is not only in Pierce’s title but is repeated often and embedded in other words in the text. On the one hand, the borders do not clearly separate all of Rothko’s soft-edged rectangles, yet the overall effect of the works can be characterized as a “continuous frieze.” The poet continues: “You spend your time abstracting: a gloss of ochre spreads across, layer after layer;/// the frame turns and paint drips in multiple directions. This is how one navigates new geographical/// locations. Not directionless: polyvectorial” (41-43, vertical line 3). The “you/I” is preoccupied with “abstracting” to cope with all the “concrete” difficulties of social exchange surrounding identification. Apparently, Rothko’s process included rotating his canvases to produce the extremely few drips that are discernible; such an action fits the poet’s own sense of cultural exploration.
Those who put tape between rectangular sections to maintain the “purity” of borders may fail to achieve the goal because of the particular properties of the four interacting materials (paint, brush, tape, canvas) in question: “A border is not clean. When the tape is removed, the paint has/// seeped under, forced in by the brush” (4-5, vertical line 4). The word “brush” puns on distinctions between a painting implement, an encounter, and the process being ignored (“brushed off”). Not only do Rothko’s borders “bleed,” but they seem to “float,” and the “you/I” relates this optical illusion to her mother’s immigrant experience in a passage with an intricate associative drift: “You are thinking of the degrading banks. The intense indigos and maroons. From your/// peripheral vision, you feel you could skip into the pockets [into the shadowy glass] and disappear. But/// you do not. Nothing is inert or dominant. Not these borders that float. Not the one your mother crossed” (7-9, vertical line 4).
Even if the “you/I” is interpreting late Rothko, “the panels” seem to “examine” (55, vertical line 3) her. The powerful psychological impact of the work makes the gap, what is currently inexpressible, something that interpretation needs to “sew up,” to promote the viewer’s healing: “The threshold/// becomes a suture to thread” (55-56, vertical line 3). Time vanishes for the beholder: “While the palette darkens, the years terminate” (56). “Despair punctures the body,” and the subject, though “there are numerous people,” confronts the canvas “quite alone” (57). The “borders” between colors suddenly dissolve: “When you see red on plum on black over orange, suddenly/// purple and brown appear” (58-59, vertical line 3). There is an analogy between the reading of Rothko’s painting as a process of registering shifts in perception of color and shape (without the eventual coalescence of a stable image) and a similar continual oscillation in the reading of her hybrid ethnicity. The passage continues with impressions of vertiginous movement among sharp geometrical shapes and effects of blur: “A silver haze. Squares inside rectangles inside squares and suddenly electrical/// outlets and heating radiators materialize. Followed by soft edges, blurry. Like water damage. You are that/// dot of paint. That fleck pitched by a stray bristle” (59-61, vertical line 3). The abstract painting proves to be such a catalyst of agitation that it morphs for the viewer into menacingly concrete objects of mundane experience.
If one desires to combat harmful depictions of oneself as an ethnic hybrid, it may be necessary, the “you/I” suggests, to identify oneself, even if imperfectly, in order to “swim” in a social atmosphere where labels have material consequences: “In establishing some kind of pool to wade in, you take/// the place of the name. Or the name takes the place of you. Then resides inside your mouth, between/// cheek and gum, to avoid getting chewed up by questions” (26-28, vertical line 1). In this passage, the would-be swimmer suggests that even self-location through naming frequently results in others’ confusing a mere designation for the complex entity in process that it represents. Abrasive questions are themselves rhetorical enough to be signs of that distorted, alienating perspective of one whose questioning is more of a bid for power than for understanding. To speak of her “polycontinental transexperience” (43) may, in some sense, seem accurate, but it can easily seem obtuse to those others who other the “you/I.”
The questions, “Can/// you reclaim ‘mongrel’? Strain the semantic residue off” (54-55, vertical line 1), are hard to answer, as perceiving others may stubbornly cling to residual interpretations. Pierce’s next sentence reads: “A slow dispersion of katakana begins” (55).
Katakana, the third syllabary after kanji (Chinese characters) and Hiragana, “translates” words from other languages into Japanese, whereas Romaji is the direct use of the Latin alphabet: “There are breakages in the conversion of romaji” (18, vertical line 2). The “hybrid offspring” is acutely aware of where even well-intentioned translation does not succeed.
While it has been obvious that part of the project of the “you/I” is self-protection against others’ definition of her, as in the sentence, “Your speech pattern slows way-the-fuck down against identity/// theft” (13-14, vertical line 1) and in the idea of “paying” as little “idiom tax” as possible, probably her most significant task in being “other overcoming otherness” (22, vertical line 2) is to establish a flexible self-understanding of that “identity” that is not based on reifying concepts: “… never is/// there enough time to pack. Because how do you know what to bring as you meet yourself in another/// country—especially when you feel that you haven’t quite met yourself in your own” (46-48, vertical line 2). Echoing Wallace Stevens’ “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird,” the poet has communicated much of the discomfort and, at times, “the comfort of inflections or innuendos” (66, vertical line 5), “preference” being moot, and realizations about the positive aspects of hybrid identity do not seem to have an opportunity to accumulate in ways that acquire sufficient momentum.
Close to the poem’s end, Pierce puns on her “white American” last name while intimating that she can and cannot hit her target: “Without describing the exact location, you pierce the// seasonal periphery” (67-68, vertical line 5). The adjective “seasonal” gives pause, and the poet may be referring to the point in airplane travel where one is about to enter a zone where seasonal qualities diverge from those of the region just left. An even more basic question, though, is whether the “piercing” of a “periphery” leaves its peripheral identity intact or instantly transforms it into a “center.” Amid such uncertainties, the few instances of affirmative insights for the “you/I” seem to be temporary oases. After some elaboration, one of them turns out to be a question—not necessarily rhetorical: “Instead of faulting yourself for going outside the lines,/// you integrate the veer. A cultural trace is repetition….// But also a swerve from the original, a deviation in trajectory marking atomic turbulence. Can you/// begin with this shift: see yourself as different, not as illegitimate, to reverse the vibrations and their effects” (25-28, vertical line 5). As it involves “shifting” from something prior, “beginning” here is not a magical return to eternal origins but beginning again (repetition with a recontextualization of the “trace”).
Another passage further indicates what it might mean to “integrate the veer,” as the “new beginning” of emotional clarity comes out of what can be (like) a painful disjunction: “Soon a horizon of expectation/// emerges: the equivalent of a rupture [rapture]. And you begin to embrace your incongruent parts, to// sketch a shelter out of fragments. Your ‘struggle is to see [and be seen] from both perspectives at once’” (23-25, vertical line 4). This passage may seem to resemble T.S. Eliot’s “shoring” of “fragments” “against” Eliot’s “ruins” into what New Critical explicators of High Modernism would present as a precarious unity. However, whereas Eliot’s apparent intentions were to preserve a relatively monocultural image of European civilization, Pierce’s will to “shelter” “fragments” is to “embrace,” not to transcend “incongruence.” Quoting from and slightly altering Donna Haraway’s “A Cyborg Manifesto,” she insists that the simultaneous perceptual experience of differences can be an enriching complication, a “pliable joy” (30, vertical line 5).
Thomas Fink is the author of two books of criticism, including A Different Sense of Power (Fairleigh Dickinson UP, 2001), eight books of poetry, including Joyride (Marsh Hawk Press, 2013). A chapbook, Former Sestinas, Fink and Tom Beckett’s collaboration, appeared in late 2013 (Beard of Bees). Fink’s work appears in The Best American Poetry 2007 (Scribner’s). He is co-editor of Reading the Difficulties: Dialogues with Contemporary Innovative American Poetry (U of Alabama P, 2014). His paintings hang in various collections.