This week's poem is by Minneapolis poet Bao Phi. I can't quite believe I've known Bao since he was a Macalester student back in the 90s. He was a promising young poet back then; he's a powerhouse poet now. Enjoy.
No Question by Bao Phi
to the white girl who saw a bunch of us little Southeast Asian kids watch her brother play a video game in the Asian grocery and said "these gooks are surrounding us."
Did we douse you in chemicals that twisted your future generations
to flesh pretzels
strip mine your resources
then fusion fuck your family dinner
Did we light garlands of fire
onto your sacred mountains,
push your people to tiny fingers of dry land
explore what was already found
then name your beautiful landmarks
Did we push your people into jobs
where toxic fumes turned your lungs to scorched wings
your nails breaking on our skin
to paint ours pretty
Did we spin your history to smoke
Hook you on snorting the ashes
Did we convince the entire world your men
have cocks small as minnows
break your legs to
make you taller
Did we gentrify your love life
Did we convince your people
that we taught them the word love
and what it means to be free
Did we redefine torture
for our own benefit
Did we measure ourselves in fathoms
then force you to swim in us
until you drown?
these gooks are surrounding us
that were true.
In this week’s sharp and stunning poem by Bao Phi, lots of things are happening. But I want to begin with the title, something I probably haven’t spent enough time on in earlier posts about other poems. The title to Phi’s poem is “No Question” which is interesting right from the start. After the poem’s ‘dedication’, the first line begins, “Did we….” clearly a question. This structure, beginning each new stanza with the question starting “Did we” is repeated nine times. Immediately, then, the reader sees the contradiction between what the title claims and the poem’s structure. So, if the poem is in fact a series of questions, what does the title mean and what is it doing?
I would answer that by asking who questions and who doesn’t. The speakers in the poem—it’s written in first person plural—are clearly trying to raise questions for the girl in the grocery store who has made the racist remark that starts the poem. They certainly have questions for her. It is she who is so unaware that she is without question: her own ‘knowing’ is such that she doesn’t have to let a question cross her mind. (Somehow I am suddenly reminded of Michele Bachmann, but I’ll just let that thought pass on by….) Because she has made a racist remark and is without question, the speakers’ response to her is furious, rightfully so. Why is it that the ones who continually have to question are the ones who live face to face with bigotry and racism? Why are the perpetrators so unaware of the lives of the people they name and hate? As we ponder the hard questions the poem raises, we see the irony of that title in full force.
Each of the questions the speakers ask is rhetorical. The speakers know the answers even if the girl they are addressed to doesn’t. And each query forces the reader (if not the girl herself) to contend with the long history of colonialism, war, and racism Asian Americans, in this case Vietnamese Americans, have endured. By beginning with “Did we douse you in chemicals that twisted your future generations/to flesh pretzels” the speakers immediately make the setting clear: this country is Vietnam, and the chemical is Agent Orange. The next few lines further the violation. Not only were the Vietnamese burned by chemicals, the country’s resources were “strip mine[d]” and even the most intimate part of a culture—it’s food—has been colonized in the service of high end restaurants who often serve their food to rich, white Americans.
Each of the following stanzas takes on similar issue, posing as questions the facts of Vietnamese American experience that are largely invisible in our culture: nail salons’ toxic working environment, cosmetic surgery to change faces to look more Caucasian, the eroticizing of the Asian woman and concurrent emasculation of the Asian man. By asking repeatedly “did we” do this to you, the reader more and more confronts the only possible answer: no, America did it to you. Even writing this I squirm a bit. I should probably write, “No, we did this to you.” That is after all the structural shape the answer should take. And therein lies Phi’s genius. The reader empathizes with the poem’s speaker; the reader knows the girl in the store is the bad guy. "I’m with you!" the reader wants to say to the speakers.
And yet. For this reader, at any rate, a pause. Hasn't my whiteness granted me the privilege of ignorance? the choice to avoid the difficult questions raised by the speakers in the poem? I don’t want to be the “we” in the answer to the questions. I want “them” to be responsible. But Phi understands that until the reality of racism is seared into us, causing us real discomfort, we won’t understand. And until everyone feels its burn, racism will exist. The calling of names, the stereotyping, is easy when we don’t ask questions. Luckily, Phi is there, pushing us forward with beautiful, difficult poems. No one gets off the hook here. No question.
Bao has a great website where you can read more of his stuff, find out about his book, and generally enjoy his all-around wonderfulness.
and here's a link to his book: