May 18, 2010

A Moving Vehicle: The Poetry of Margaret Rhee | Jai Arun Ravine

Accidentally, I met Margaret Rhee. An accident can mean either a mishap or a crash.

Crashing on the couch of a friend of a friend, not more than a week fresh in San Francisco, my host took me to a bar in the outer Mission, and ran into a friend who, after meeting me for about two minutes, contacted me a few days later. “There’s someone you should meet.”

When I first met Margaret, she had blue gaffer tape all up and down her arm. I was late (accidentally). She was shooting for her QWOCMAP (Queer Women of Color Media Arts Project) film All Of Me, which would document the formation of an Asian and Pacific Islander (A&PI) drag king troupe, later known as The Rice Kings, of which I would become a part.

Is this chance? Calamity? Collision?

I think of Margaret when I think about my lineage of Asian American poetry, since she ushered me into the queer A&PI community in the bay area and introduced me to Kundiman. I think about all the things that had to be set in motion in order to manifest this accidental meeting.

An accident can mean a nonessential attribute or characteristic, but there is nothing nonessential about Margaret’s poetry. In engaging three of her poems—“the elegy of the trellis” (published in Here is a Pen: An Anthology of West Coast Kundiman Poets, Achiote Press, 2009), “Education in Numbers and Letters” and “My Brutal Algebra”—the strokes are indeed brutal, necessary with an ache, sore and gasping.

My Brutal Algebra” was one of the first poems I heard Margaret read aloud, at an Achiote Press reading in Oakland. Her poem rose in relief from the other readings—I told her how much I was struck by it. She smiled and said, “Because it’s about the body.”

The experience of body as land/scape. As land/scrape. As land/scope. In Margaret’s algebriacs I am flipping through diagrammed amputations and cross sections of live tissue in the process of mutation. The body of the one desired is a living textbook, opening, and we are taking notations—we must take them. “Since scientists never consider those breaths that never leave you. / That is essential to the body,” writes Margaret.

An accident often results in injury or death. In “the elegy of the trellis” Margaret weaves stems and vines into an emotional portrait of her father’s death. At first glance the fragmented lines and spacing give the impression of an airy lightness, yet as I read each word drops like a stone, the spaces gasp and the rhythm surprises. “before blood stroke bed sore and eyes i pleaded open”

In a bio Margaret cites the warm, humid summers of Virginia during Kundiman retreats as the place where she fell in love with poetry. I think about how humidity can usher in emotions either swift or slow but always thick and heavy. The weight of “the elegy of the trellis” masquerades in the tension between its thick, overwhelming fragrance and its bitten phrasing. It disguises itself as small and contained, but actually each space, each breath, is exploding.

An accident is often without apparent cause, involves a moving vehicle or an unplanned event or conception. “Education in Numbers and Letters” was written and read for an April 1, 2010 Solidarity Reading on UC Berkeley campus regarding budget cuts to education in the UC system. Margaret makes connections between the prison industrial complex and the academic industrial complex and talks about teaching research methods to a woman in prison:

She tells me,

Her father “lives under the 80

His address A sign for food”

She poses “why do so many incarcerated women come from poverty”

Then admits, “I love research,”

Three words of longing

Of terror and exuberant possibility

With longing and terror this poem makes me think about the increasing inaccessibility of college education, about the ways school systems lock up students behind gates, urging them to manufacture and mass-produce only certain ideas, reducing them to common denominators in economic transactions.

I think about the severe divide between cultural production and organizing within and outside of academia, a divide that continues to widen until there is almost no cross-communication. I think about how people live inside universities, inside prisons, fed by institutional jargon, becoming more and more isolated.

Margaret demonstrates poetry’s ability to be a moving vehicle. To move the blood in your cells, to move you to action. In her poems the causes are apparent, what is conceived has been articulately planned, each letter and space involves a birth, a change.

(Text may be altered from the original due to formatting.)


Jai Arun Ravine is a trans-identified, multi-disciplinary writer, dancer, visual and performing artist of mixed Thai and white American heritage. Jai received an MFA in Writing & Poetics from Naropa University and a BA in Interdisciplinary Studies from Hollins University. As a Kundiman Fellow Jai has studied with Myung Mi Kim and Staceyann Chin. Jai’s first chapbook, IS THIS JANUARY, is forthcoming from Corollary Press. For more information, visit

Photo by Christine Pan & Mia Nakano Photography.


Unknown said...

love it! MR is the best!

K. Simmonds said...

Engaging, immediate, clear, true. Both you are doing important things!