Poet and visual artist Monica Ong opens her debut book Silent Anatomies with the larynx, a vintage anatomical illustration from 1899 showing the musculature of the throat. Unlike a normal medical diagram, however, this larynx is not labeled according to its parts. Instead, on one side of the page are lines from 15th century Chinese poet and philosopher Chuang Tzu, an explanation of how the sage’s quietude originates not from his will to be silent, but from his internal peace with his environment. The other side shows a poem from Ong, a series of jagged, lyrical bursts breaking the speaker’s language into shards that seem at once terrible and tender: “lips part / disrupt / the rapture of / our falling,” she writes, the words arranged more in smithereens than lines of poetry (1). Read together, Ong’s words and those of Chuang Tzu collide and meld, becoming a single poem that can be read across the illustration while maintaining their two distinct individual voices, Tzu’s calm and wise voice heightening the alarm and emotion in Ong’s speaker, and vice versa. Through this sophisticated play with text and image, Ong transforms the larynx into a physical object separating her words from Chuang Tzu’s, while joining her voice with his across the centuries.
This many-layered complexity makes “The Glass Larynx” the perfect opener to Silent Anatomies, which was selected by Joy Harjo for the Kore Press 2014 First Book award. Harjo calls the book “a kind of graphic poetry book,” and acknowledges that there is much more to the book than that descriptor. Silent Anatomies is not a collection of poems accompanied by illustrations; nor is it a collection of visual art and ekphrastic poems. Weirdly, it’s both of these things and more — the magic of the book is the way that Ong fuses visual art and poetry into a hybrid form that challenges our ideas of what the experience of reading poems should be. These poems interlace family secrets and cultural histories with questions about how Chinese, Filipino, and American identities can co-exist within the same body and spirit. All of the diagrams and medical scans and photo collages — as well as the many physical artifacts that Ong has created — constantly force us to reevaluate the relationship of text to image, as well as the relationship of ourselves to the book.
In this sense, while most poetry books deliver complex sensory data solely through language, Silent Anatomies creates a multi-modal experience that uses its visual design to allow us multiple entry points into the book’s material. We see a diagram of the tongue at the beginning of “Profunda Linguae,” and instead of a taste sensation map or anatomical structures, the drawing is labeled with specific foods like soy sauce, jackfruit, siu mai, and pigs’ feet. On the following pages, we get more illustrations of tongues superimposed over recipes written on prescription pads. As we move through the poem’s eight parts, we must relearn how to read the drawings and how to understand their relationship to the text with each section. The result is a reading experience that feels disorienting at times as we have to figure out how to approach the book page by page — this is a good thing as it reflects the way the speaker is constantly reorienting herself to her relationship with her father:
At the table, we do not speak of ourselves,
never learned the words for daring or disappointed
don’t know how to say
have no idea if you’ve missed me these last few years. (71)
The core of the book is disorientation and alienation, not only in terms of family or an Asian identity under siege by cultural histories and a desire to fit in with Western culture, but also in terms of the alienness of the body to the self. For example: one of the book’s many medicine bottle poems, “Yeong Mae’s Oral Whitening Rinse” shows an empty bottle, the label of which promises that “consistent use over a period of four weeks can dramatically improve one’s chances of becoming articulate” (20). The graphic of a young Asian woman’s face appears on the bottle, her mouth hidden behind the words “100% Engrish Free.” The medicine proclaims Asianness to be an illness that can be cured, and in taking the medicine, the imbiber becomes complicit in her own marginalization as her desire for a cure becomes a prejudice against the self. The bottle’s label challenges our notions of what poems are and how they are read: is it a poem or a satirical indictment of the English language as it sounds spoken with a foreign tongue? Is it a corrupting promise or a self-loathing wish? The answer to both of these questions is yes because Ong has built for Silent Anatomies a hybrid space in which paradox is sometimes the best answer, in which the simplest possible meanings contradict more than they provide insight.
Or see the way Ong juxtaposes text and images in “The Onset” in ways that subvert our expectations not just of how poems work, but in how text and images work as we normally read a book. In this sequence, Ong presents us with another series of bottles, the labels of which juxtapose family photographs with excerpts from an old Chinese-English dictionary. A lone woman poses with a child while behind her a crowd of people, perhaps someone else’s audience, seems unaware of her presence. The bottle’s label says Chinaman, and beneath that, childhood, childish, and childless. A boyhood photo of Ong’s father looks morosely at us while the bottle is labeled mutable, and beneath that, mutant, mutate, and mutation. It’s as if the bottles contain an elixir or an impossible essence of that which appears on the labels. The next pages are blank, save for numbered footnotes at the bottom, as Ong refuses us access to any primary text or image, and instead leaves us with notes with no source: “Memories tango, are tangled in plaque fibers of twisted tau. All of us mangled by the nothing train that spreads from nerve to nerve” (58). The power in this and other sections lies in the silences, the gaps between the physical objects (or in this case, the lack of graphics altogether) and the text that accompanies them.
Silent Anatomies is a book that defies a reader’s attempt to find easy meaning, a viewer’s desire to capture a scene in a single image. The book’s final poem “The Attic” centers on a medical illustration of the external and middle ear collaged together with a photograph of Ong’s grandfather in front of his house in the Philippines. The four sections of the poem are each named after a structure in the ear. Central to the poem is the word tiah, which we learn is a request to come home, a command to listen, a word that describes ache, and a word for love (81). That word is all of those things, like Silent Anatomies is all of these things.about the author