friday feast: hard to swallow


“The future will be gorgeous and reckless, and words, those luminous charms, will set us free again.”  ~ Carole Maso


This week I tasted some unforgettable gruel, courtesy of Chinese American poet, Marilyn Chin.

It wasn’t what I was used to, since it didn’t nourish or comfort.

This was a powerful bowl of painful awareness and realization that caught me off guard. The speaker in Chin’s poem, “Gruel,” addresses the reader directly:

Your name is Diana Toy.
And all you may have for breakfast is rice gruel.
You can’t spit it back into the cauldron for it would be unfilial.
You can’t ask for yam gruel for there is none.
You can’t hide it in the corner for it would surely be found,
and then you would be served cold, stale rice gruel.
(from The Phoenix Gone, The Terrace Empty, 1994)
(Read the rest here.)

Diana Toy represents the subjugation and powerlessness of the Asian female, who must thrive on sustenance commonly associated with the poor. Moreover, she is the stereotypical exotic Oriental, passive and submissive, a sex toy coveted by white Western males.

“Gruel” is a good example of some of the prevailing themes in Chin’s work — intercultural identity, assimilation, social oppression, and above all, feminism. Her poems shock the reader out of complacency. She believes that poetry must do something:

I don’t quite believe in art for art’s sake. I believe there must be a higher order. What we write can change the world. That may sound a little idealistic but I feel it’s very important that poetry make something happen.

Born in Hong Kong and raised in Portland, Oregon, Chin confronts the reality of a minority culture bumping up against the dominant one. Are Asians the “model minority” or are they “inscrutable” and “duplicitous?”

What I like about “Gruel,” in particular, is how it resonates on a universal level. One need not be Asian to know inferiority, invisibility, or the feeling of having to settle. Later in the poem, when “nothingness will shine into the oil of your mother’s scrap-iron wok, into the glare of your father’s cleaver, and dance in your porcelain bowl,” I see the dominant Asian belief that what an individual does reflects on the entire group.

Chin also sees a degree of complacency, a “suburbanism,” in the choice of topics and forms used by some of her fellow American poets:

I have a problem with American poetry being self-satisfied, not pushing the limits. I write some ‘suburban’ poetry also. That happens to all academic poets in academic settings. I just think that poets need to relate to their work. I think there needs to be a dedication both content-wise and form-wise. I just think that poetry is a vibrant art, vibrant and complicated. But I don’t think American poets have taken advantage of the many possibilities that poetry can offer.

Just one bowl of “Gruel” has given me a lot of food for thought. After all, one need not be socially oppressed or politically motivated in order to write with an “activist” agenda. Words are the most powerful weapons we have. To what end are your efforts directed?

Today’s Poetry Friday Roundup is at writer2b.

“Men, their rights and nothing more; women, their rights, and nothing less.”
~ Susan B. Anthony

11 thoughts on “friday feast: hard to swallow

  1. Wow. There’s so much to “chew on” here, gruel notwithstanding. Thanks for such a thoughtful post.


  2. I am totally in love with “Gruel” (the poem). Chin conveys so much through the use of the food metaphor – of subordinacy based on gender and age and on the individual’s relationship to their clan/tong, and of the emphasis on doing as one’s told, all the while making clear that she doesn’t like some of those elements. And then, the closing: shine, shine, shine. So, so great.


  3. You’re so right. The food metaphor works on so many levels. Gruel usually connotes poverty, yet in Asian cultures, rice gruel is associated with healing the sick, a restorative. So it’s positive and negative at the same time. And then the ending: however little or much we’re given, make it shine — there’s that indomitable human spirit.


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