One Eternal Round: A Review of Timothy Liu's Luminous Debris: New & Selected Legerdemain, 1992-2017
(Barrow Street Press, 2018) 1
Since the release of Vox Angelica, Timothy Liu celebrates twenty-five years of publishing poetry with Luminous Debris: New & Selected Legerdemain, 1992–2017. The collection presents 122 poems, twenty of which are new, all arranged within a tarot schema. Luminous Debris is a rich collection from a unique voice that deserves attention in serious discussions of twenty-first-century American poetry, gay poetry, Asian-American poetry, Mormon poetry, surrealism, confessionals, animal rights, polyamory, family studies, torture studies, and beyond.
First worth noting is Liu’s erudition. Direct poetic influences include a host of contemporary writers—Louise Glück, Linda Gregg, Jean Valentine, Gustaf Sobin, Charles Wright, Leslie Norris, Richard Howard, Gordon Lish, Allen Ginsberg, Adrienne Rich, to name a few. Less direct yet nevertheless vital influences flow as well from the Greek lyricists, Anglo-American Romantics, and sundry continentals, whether Celan, Boito, or Chekhov. His style is direct, but he allows himself the occasional line of French, German, Italian, and even Latin to enter into the verse. Beyond writers, a perhaps more significant impact ought to be credited toward classical painters, dancers, sculptors, and especially composers. To adequately summarize Liu’s body of work, one would need to steep oneself in Bellini, Brahms, Ginastera, Hindemith, Rachmaninov, and Alfano, for starters, and wander for hours through European museums.
One place where I especially feel at home with Liu is the King James Bible. Jacobean cadences resound throughout, often subtly, and may at times be lost on some readers.
Here are some key passages to his poetics:
The words I speak I cannot revise.
All art is an afterthought,
an attempt to interpret a dream
like a dream that will dissolve,
a childhood you never had.
You ask me why I think of death.
I have no answers, only flowers
that have not finished their song—
(“With Chaos in Each Kiss”)
Liu makes good on his claim in line 1 of the first passage. This detail is relevant. It signals something firm at the bottom of the poet’s universe, something moral despite being ultimately beyond reach where dream is the primary category and art is epiphenomenal. Liu returns with the reader to someplace neither has been, where death is past the point of words and makes contact with the waking world only through inaudibles. Liu uses poetry to gloss the unknown—in the sense of mouthing and tonguing—hence the emphases on music, osculation, anilingus, fellatio, and prayer.
Reading his books I am haunted by the image of ouroboros—the snake that eats its own tail. Leaving aside for now the autoerotic implications of that identification, what strikes me most is that in Liu there is a carousel relationship between religion and science, science and esoterics, esoterics and magic, and magic and religion. In practice, each of these areas draws on the others, even explicitly, but hardly ever does one wholly submit itself to another. And yet, I find Liu wrestling productively with all four and always, from what I can tell, without creating jealousies between them. Thus the soul of this vision is anchored in sex, but sex as an all-encompassing reality including and not reducible to the pornographic, romantic, violent, opportunistic, pathetic, ritualistic, casual, possessive, or academic. And so the vision is both Bacchic and Christian: the experience of compersion and the rediscovery of innocence through transgression. Incidentally, the image of ouroboros finds one expression in Liu by way of the phrase “one eternal round,” an allusion to the Book of Mormon among other things.
Now to the book itself. Not counting his recent prose opera, Kingdom Come, nor Word of Mouth, his anthology of gay American poetry, Luminous Debris reproduces material from each of Liu’s previous books, with only minimal textual changes. Beginning with a three-part overture in the form of “The Lovers” + “Ariel Singing” + “Invocation,” the book is followed by a series of six parts, or movements, with their own set of twenty pieces each. The first five sections contain the reprinted material, and part 6 (“Stones”) is the newly collected verse.
One thing that sets Luminous Debris apart from other works in the “collected/selected” genre is its table of contents. The Collected Poems of Ai, for instance, offers what is perhaps more typical: the poet’s individual books bound by a single cover and placed chronologically according to publication date, with the poems appearing in the same order as their source. By contrast, Luminous Debris mixes things around and matches poems to sections as the poet sees fit. The order is not fully random, however, and I suspect a deeper intent to the design. On the whole, earlier sections tend to contain a higher number of poems from earlier books, and as a result the later sections weigh heavier with poems from more recent publications. Further, the poems in Luminous Debris do appear, with some minor exceptions, in the same progression as in the books they come from.
forgive those subway rats retreating
into a subterranean lair, only to be
found in the densely layered nimbus
of some recurring dream—luminous
debris from a life so badly spent. (65)
The poems in the collection have been published in such venues as The Pushcart Prize, Best American Poetry, The Nation, Paris Review, and The New Republic. Naturally there were those that had to be omitted due to space limitations, though I miss many many older pieces such as “She Sings in All Her Seasons,” “Billions Served,” “Survivors” and “With Chaos in Each Kiss.”
Many of the new poems I remark on below reflect my own aesthetic bias, which bends toward euphony and dissidence. I find the barb in “be mindful of where you put / that prick, what century you find yourself / living in” (“Fucking Ass in the 19th Century”) to be as compelling as the assonance in “Bromance”:
the station at Lake and Clark
with mercury dropping
in early-winter dark, he leaned
to kiss me, his neck scarf
woven by a Peruvian woman
grazing my cheek . . . .
I could feel my future
being taken apart. (185)
What else halts me are portraits such as these:
And your face had the look
of a crushed saltine
underneath a whore’s heel—
(“My Cock Had a Taste of Postwar Iraq”)
clothed in nothing
but safety matches
struck on her teeth
as she colored in
my moon with pieces
of broken chalk—
(“A Gift Horse”)
I would note as well “Deal Breaker,” as it carries forward Liu’s engagement with animal ethics, this time defending a porcupine who chewed off tire treads and received a shotgun shell in return. Most impressive is a poem like “Bromance” (202), which I would quote in part but for the fear of spoiling and would quote in full but for the fear of stealing Liu’s intellectual property. But it really is good enough to encourage memorization.
Whatever the reader’s particular aesthetic, there is enough in Liu for everyone to enjoy something, experience illumination, and feel a sense of emotional enlargement. Schools will object to his obscenities, but the real problems I see are (a) the unorthodoxy of his craft and (b) the unspeakability of taboo topics, especially US foreign policy and our complicity in animal slaughter. That said, what I find endlessly refreshing about the man is a talent to put his own hypocrisy on display, and never, I feel, with hem-hawing ambivalence. He simply states a contradiction, ponders aloud possible modes of response, speaks with a therapist, blows a trucker, then writes more poetry. On a personal note, I met Liu for the first time earlier this year. I must admit I was expecting someone broodier and fraught. But to the contrary, he struck me as one of the kindest, wisest, funniest, and most emotionally well-adjusted human beings I have ever met. For those reasons, and for the quality of the verse, I will inevitably finding myself returning to Luminous Debris again and again, and recommending it to others continually.
Bert Fuller did doctoral work in medieval studies and poetics at the University of Toronto. He is now an independent scholar. Recent writings of his include poetry review essays in the Winter 2017 and Spring 2018 issues of Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought.