Confessional poetry is the gateway drug of verse. Everyone, especially any semi-artistic person online or in school, will pen navel-gazing sonnets or couplets. I did as much on MySpace during the antediluvian age. It is de rigueur for art hos and art beaus. Most of it is dreck, but occasionally something good slips through the woodchipper. That something good (and very good) is Stephanie Yue Duhem's Name and Noun (2022). Published as a slick chapbook by British press Selcouth Station, Name and Noun is twenty-six pages of modern American poetry with heart, soul, and sometimes memes.
Name and Noun is a strong showing for a poet trending upwards. One can read the progression throughout. The first entry, "blue light," touches on topics familiar to anyone who has ever sat through (suffered through...?) a creative fiction or contemporary English class. "blue light" enters the mind of a young Chinese woman as she grapples with the perils of identity. It is a poem about living in a country where you are an outsider.
when baba learns to drive and speak english / years later he will say / sorry / i did not know about high beams or how / for years your dreams will be draped in blue / i did not know how to split infinitives / like tiny segments of road
"blue light" makes use of road imagery, which in my low-brow mind may be a slight nod to the racialist stereotype of the poor Asian driver. Or it could not. Either way, one of the prominent features of the early poems of Name and Noun is the poet's relationship with her parents and their immigrant background. For instance, in "Star Anise," a scene of communal cooking feeds into worries about race, belonging, and the ever-present desire to appease one's elders.
first day on the job their wife is
chinese too just smile to please them
do not cuss just rise above do
not share the races of one-
time significant others while
their faces drop to the ground as
if you are a pinch of pepper-
"break fast" similarly examines the poet's conflicted sense of self, with one being the good Chinese daughter and the other being the weird moonchild of poetic inclinations. "Neighbor's Boy" is likewise a snapshot of young life spent between fences that exist to separate and divide.
|The author, Stephanie Yue Duhem, looking like a serial killer|
Speaking of oddity, or at least weird feelings, the thoroughgoing element of Name and Noun is melancholy. "a witch named melancholia," which is my personal favorite of the collection, ruminates on sadness and its ability to bewitch without warning. The poet sees herself as lacking ("lack pretty / lack skinny / lack money"), and this feeling floats on, apparition-like, to "Remind Me" and "The Witch." The use of supernatural imagery is ironically rational to anyone who has ever suffered infinite sadness. The blues, melancholy, the downs -- they all often appear without warning, and as "The Witch" notes,
Such romance wafts in waxing waves,
sedating as the scented sea
which murmurs blessings out the caves
yet flushes green with mean envy.
Name and Noun features lots of play with text, as Ms. Yue Duhem mimics the capitalization preferences of e.e. cummings with the often cut-up presentation style best exemplified by the Vorticists and Futurists of the early twentieth century. (Name and Noun may look like a Futurist text at times, but it does not deal with similar subject matter, nor is Ms. Yue Duhem known for a love of fast vehicles, war, or Mediterranean strongmen.) Frankly, this style does very little for me. I looks nice and can work at times, but mostly it comes across as unnecessary art-for-art's-sake. Name and Noun could have been written in standard English and with proper punctuation, and never once would it have lost its power. Even saying that, one of the clever tricks that this chapbook pulls off is the transition between "oh the water" and "the bell-throat." "oh the water" ends with "to love," and the very next verse is "of the ocean" in "the bell-throat." Sea images permeate both, thus giving them an easy symmetry.
Name and Noun is damn good. Ms. Yue Duhem writes openly and honestly without coming across as self-obsessed or maudlin. Her use of symbols and metaphors is top-flight, almost as if Name and Noun has a occult center that is too esoteric for small minds (see: me) to fully understand. One hopes that Ms. Yue Duhem continues down this path. I eagerly await her Aleister Crowley period, or at the very least her first chapbook-grimoire.
Give this book a buy. Appreciate it. Savor it like 麻婆豆腐 during the summer's first rain.