Mông-Lan in Tokyo


I had to leave the Viola exhibit early to meet my friend Mông-Lan, who I hadn’t seen for several years, even though she lives in Tokyo. Lan is an incredible poet, photographer, and painter (and a dancer too) — i.e., quite simply a talent in the classic sense of that term. Her latest book of poems, Why is the Edge Always Windy?, combines Lan’s brush drawings with her poetry and is an absolutely stunning volume. The first three stanzas of her poem “Light & Seaweed” are knockouts, and though I haven’t been able to space them properly (the first and third stanza are right-justified and there are large areas of emptiness on the page), they read as follows:

having no money they fed on shriveled stars
that had fallen billions of years
ago the suicide’s soul she made a blanket
from its wool
which kept them warm beyond belief

& inside the house they built
from hair thighs calves & shoulders
smooth stomachs longing to perspire
bleeding eyes & savant foreheads
they hung seaweed
curtains of light

where the sun hadn’t touched
the sand under whale shadows
bellowing black shapes
they dazzled themselves with intersteller
dust rubbing
it over their bodies

My reproduction of these stanzas is only half-way adequate, since they’re presented on the page floating in relation to one another. In fact, almost all of Lan’s poems are laid out with painstaking attention to visual spacing and relationships, an attention that produces a floating sense of provisionality and a spacialized temporality that keeps the language suspended, almost juggled, in such a way that cross-spatial relations are emphasized, rather than the restrictions of linearity. Lan’s first book, Song of the Cicadas, which also includes her illustrations and a beautiful cover photograph, also employs what Robert Duncan has called “open field composition” (thanks Ron Silliman) and is equally incredible.

I met Lan in 2001 at Stanford, where she was a Stegner Fellow, at one of the showings of In Company, a traveling exhibit of Robert Creeley’s collaborations with the artists that he worked with over the course of his career. Creeley, my grandfather, always believed firmly in the importance of artistic community and collaboration, as well as in the generous cumulations made available through the use of mixed media. About Lan’s work he had this to say:

Mông-Lan is a remarkably accomplished poet. Always her poems are deft, extremely graceful in the way words move, and in the cadence that carries them. One is moved by the articulate character of ‘things seen,’ the subtle shifting of images, and the quiet intensity of their information. Clearly she is a master of the art.

I ended up being about 30 minutes late for my dinner date with Lan and her husband Joe — which was at an outrageously good French bistro — because the map I had made for myself was upside down. Dinner was marvelous, however, and it was a great opportunity to meet Joe, who I had never met before. At one point I complimented him on his tie — a white silk tie, hand painted in black ink — and he told me that it had been painted by Lan. Of course I should have suspected such a thing, and of course that’s precisely why the tie was so gorgeous. It seems that anything she puts her hands to — any form of ink at all — is transformed into a beautiful precision.


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