Saturday, January 31, 2009

Review: Sybil Unrest by Larissa Lai and Rita Wong

Sybil Unrest
Larissa Lai
and Rita Wong

Published by Linebooks

Reviewed by Sophie Mayer

Sybil Unrest begins with “shrinkwrapped pushy / condemns on sale” and ends with a red dress that is redress for all the unnatural crimes of late capital, a flaunting of the “unnatural crimes” of “embodied love goddesses” engaged in “cell culture’s defiant drag.” Like Joan Roughgarden’s Evolution’s Rainbow, this is a book that says not just we’re here, we’re queer, but we’re everywhere. Queerness is not just culture but “miracle sapodilla, durian, lotus leaf, rambutan.” Fruits.

Such “miracle” fertility stands in sharp contrast to the “sadomarketism” that has capitalised gay culture and sold feminism back to young women as pole-dancing. It’s also the premise for this poem in the key of “we”: verbal fecundity cancels out the leaching of meaning that has poisoned poetics under Bush and the stuttering, sputtering neocons. It’s hard to play language games as postmodern as Donald Rumsfeld’s “known unknowns.” But Larissa Lai and Rita Wong, friends, colleagues and collaborators, find in adulterated adspeak a ticker-tape, twitterpoetry that – because it’s more than 140 characters long – makes meaning out of the meaningless.

Its fragments are sibylline, harking back to the first cyberpunk novelist, Mary Shelley, whose (less famous) novel The Last Man ushered in utopian science fiction and apocalyptic scenarios. In that book, she imagines Byron as prime minister in an 18th century England overflown by airships and facing a terrible plague that wipes out everyone on earth but the one man who writes the fragmentary papers found by a traveller many millennia later by the Sibyl’s cave at Cumae (or the Sibyl’s prophecies voicing his story; Shelley plays games with time and gender that equal Kathy Acker). Contravening the cultural logic of the time in which disease came from the East comes from the American colonies; consumer culture, which leaves nothing in its wake but the ruins of Rome.

Sybil Unrest argues that consumerism doesn’t necessarily kill us. It doesn’t have to. It fragments us and puts us back together wrong, galvanised with electrical goods like Shelley’s monster. “the part never completes the hole / under investigation,” Lai and Wong tell us, undoing the logic of cause-and-effect exemplified by the obsession with detective shows where the discovery of a body part attests to women’s continued status as “the hole / under investigation” in Western culture. Several poems also bear witness to the globalisation of that culture in Hong Kong. The language of empire (which is also the language of commerce) erases “intimate vernaculars.”

And what then for poetry? At times, Sybil Unrest reads like a fit of glossolalia, a testifying against the state (of things) that “want[s] the labour without the body.” It asks how sex and love might be possible in a landscape where “fifteen famous porn stars stimulate / the economy” as “corporate cops regulate muscular flows.” Sex is more public than ever – Clinton’s “falacious [sic] fellatio” was nightly news – and therefore more imbricated in the money machine, “a nipple caught in the gears of longing.” Is there an erotic to be found wrapped up in all this cash? One fragment silkily evokes the “spiked mystery” of sm play, another argues that “the posture of packing / cracked patriarchy.”

This salute to the exciting “hailed wonder of being several” parallels the multivocal, polysemic perversity of the text, with its endless hall of echoes and registers and misrepetitions, with queer sexuality. This, in turn, is used to undo the machine as in Lai’s brilliant novel salt fish girl, where a what the Sybils call “a synthetic sister,” a queer cyborg and her clones become saboteurs in the sneaker factory, taking a reincarnated Chinese goddess along for the ride. In that novel, too, durian – that unlovely aphrodisiac fruit – plays a key role, as the carrier that impregnates the protagonist’s mother with the goddess Nu Wa. Lai and Wong fructify cyborg feminism, entwining it with the natural world.

Because, they show, the natural world is already caught in the cogs, almost to its destruction. Whether it’s the sybil reverse hacking spam to reclaim the “fire” in firewall, or the proliferating puns raging in “the bellicose lair of the bush,” they want it back. This punning is a riposte to Anne Carson’s question about Paul Celan’s work in Economy of the Unlost: what do we waste when we waste words? It’s a highly charged question in our contradictory moment of gross capitalist resource-stripping vs. a will to respect and renew a humility about the human niche in the ecology. Puns are words double-mortgaged in one reading; in another, they accrue additional value to themselves. Words, like genes, have become something that can be owned; everyone knows who ‘swoosh’ belongs to. They are traded on an exchange, but puns subvert their fixed value.

Not least, the book challenges the meaning of the word “corporate,” corrupted by capitalism to stand for a faceless entity that dehumanises, disempowers and demeans. For the Sybils of B.C., “uninvited guests on the unceded traditional territories of the Squamish, Musqueam and Tsleil Waututh peoples,” to be corporate is to be collaborative, collective, consensual, and corporeal. It’s to take the “vengeance / of the dispossessed / flash angry breasts … venous on the half shell,” and to recognise that “goddesses sign in triplicate / ‘the pleasures of being multiple.’ ” And in that pleasure is a queer lyric voice that enmeshes erotic and romantic love, (as well) as the love that spurs activism, without compromise:

“i” resurrect “oui”
because the heart
won’t stop
how plenitude
could shatter habit

Sophie Mayer is a writer, editor and educator. Find out more at



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