Laura Jane Lee
(Out-Spoken Press, 2021); pbk £8
An engaging addition to her growing portfolio of pamphlet publications, Laura Jane Lee’s flinch & air is a distinctive and deft exploration of Asian female identity. Matrilineal relationships, resilience, and political tension interweave seamlessly throughout the collection, creating interconnectedness between gender, identity, and society at large. Tenderness and violence co-exist in stunning lyricism and observations, profoundly paradoxical, prompting uncomfortable questions about what it means to assert womanhood in a politically broken world.
Divided into three parts: ‘ta’ (she), ‘ngo’ (to ramble or rove), and ‘mothering the land,’ Lee documents the emergence of the speaker’s Asian woman’s identity. Her individual development becomes increasingly tangled in the histories of her elders as well as the external forces of governmental corruption. In ‘wee darling,’ a mother observes:
was just us, wee
one, you and me – you
snug as a bug to the moon-curve
of my small-girl spine[.]
Despite the hostile conditions of the ‘storm-wash eve’ and ‘slum-thunder’ outside, Lee focuses on the tightness and resilience of the mother-daughter bond within. Her use of assonance and hyphenation create a strength of closeness that characterises her whole narrative. What is soft and tender, is also strong and powerful. The ‘moon-curve’ of the womanly body relates to the celestial unravelling present on Lee’s pamphlet cover; significantly, more moons are positioned solidly above the entanglement, a line of individual survivors. Lee’s focus on survival is apparent from the introductory poem, ‘Tang Chu Ching:’
From her I inherited mischief and vanity.
These are some of her stories.
Poetry becomes bio-graphy, creating a sense of immediacy and authenticity. Lee reclaims the role of poet as the role of biographer, connecting and preserving stories of feminised Asian histories. Through subtle references to the ‘Cultural Revolution’ and the idea that Tang’s father ‘was ahead of his time in recognizing daughters as equal to sons,’ Lee immediately establishes a distinguishable setting, culture, and political climate. In ‘this side of the border,’ a stronger political presence builds itself into Lee’s structure:
men waiting to catch
her girlhood in a net like
The poem itself becomes a bordered, divided territory through which we can navigate political unrest and gendered oppression. Each word feels carefully placed, punctuated with a sense of urgency that is impossible to ignore. Even in seemingly safe spaces, such as the setting of ‘a ceramic loss’:
the country is always losing
itself in my bed[.]
The personal and political are here inextricably merged – shadows of the Hong Kong mass demonstrations loom over the domestic sphere, proving that no amount of strength or resilience can impede societal uprisings and oppressions. This tension between self and society is brought to a climax in the penultimate poem ‘In Extradition’:
She was shot in the eye with a bearing ball She framed herself She ruptured her eye while rioting She framed herself She ruptured her eye while rioting She was shot in the eye with a bearing ball She framed herself while rioting She ruptured a bearing ball
Repetition and plosive alliteration paralyses us within this horrific moment. Lee’s crackly, radio-esque rhythm surges her words forward in desperate bursts, a series of statements trapped in a time-jarring sense of shock. This violent scene of a female rioter is replayed on the page like a broken record, giving readers a chance to fully digest the brutality of the situation.
Despite the strength and resilience of her narrators, Lee proves that ‘mothering the land’ is in fact no easy task – rather, it a precarious balancing act between asserting identity and channelling hostile social climates. Tender yet powerful, this collection is not one to be missed.