Jane Wong: Overpour

I learned from The Poetry Foundation that Jane Wong is the author of How to Not Be Afraid of Everything (Alice James Books, 2021) and Overpour (Action Books, 2016), and she is an assistant professor of creative writing at Western Washington University. Overpour is another of the books I’ll be reading in my “Writing Alongside Local Poets” class at Hugo House, and I’m eager to learn more this poet. For now, I’m contenting myself with researching her on the Internet, and — more important — reading Overpour cover-to-cover.

Cynthia Cruz describes Overpour as “Montage-like,” adding: “the poems are also a kind of philosophy by which I mean they are curious. They ask questions of the world” (back cover, and on Wong’s website). I’ve always liked poems that take risks, and I love unexpected catalogues of details. Jane Wong has a gift for this: “Two arms crossed between two tables / My heart crossed between my eyes, out of focus / In January, I looked for winter underneath potted plants / But I found my brother instead” (from “And the Place Was Matter”). There is a story here, but like an abstract painting, the poems refuse to tell the story in an autobiographical, linear way. It’s haunting, haunted by a brother and mother, by ghosts in China. I’m intrigued with how Jane weaves what seems like the world I occupy (too) together with something far more surreal and surprising: “At twenty, I halved caution / and called it Jane” (from “Twenty-four”). I often imagine discussing a poem with a class, and I can’t even imagine what my freshman and sophomore college students would have said about this. It defies explanation, invites an explosion of imagination.

I know I’ll learn more — or I’ll cultivate a useful bafflement — in the class. For now, here’s a one section (notice the 14 lines) from the long poem titled “Ceremony”:

A flower blooms in a parking lot, creating a field in need of water.
When the water comes, I pray to the falling and fall asleep.
I pare down the self — thin sliver of apple on the tongue.
For comfort, I slump into the soft concrete.
For cleanliness, ants and cigarettes wash my hair.
Vice has marked me with the footprints of ants.
The impassable stillness of the heart, pocked and pursed.
To swallow one’s self whole, simply look in the mirror.
At the market, the mouths of herring hang open.
I touch my jaw, the ice counter, my temples, the counter.
My mother stuffs herring into a plastic bag and ties a knot.
At night, a rattlesnake wobbles out of a storm drain, ready to do my bidding.
I call to it as I call to you.
With a voice mixing flour and water for no reason whatsoever.

–Jane Wong

To see more of her poems, visit her page at Poetryfoundation.org, or this feature at Entrophy Magazineor buy this strange, arresting book.

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