Alien Miss: Poems by Carlina Duan
Alien Miss (University of Wisconsin Press, March 2021)
Reviewed by Maria Isabelle Carlos
Carlina Duan’s second collection of poems, Alien Miss, begins and ends with language in the mouth: tongue, teeth, and lips muscling around syllables and phonemes; power structures endured and enacted through speech. The eponymous first poem, a loose ghazal with couplets ending in variations of the word well (welled, stairwell, swell, dwelled), opens the book with a “part-fictionalized, part-autobiographical figure composed of [Duan’s] own reading, research, and personal experience” (“Notes,” p. 93). “each syllable welled // into a small coin tucked into gums,” the speaker says of Alien Miss, “if she spoke the words right, / the bus deposited her body at the proper street. spoke the words well // and she’d get the fattest fish at the supermarket…” (p. 3). The book unfolds around questions raised by this opening poem—questions of race, power, and womanhood, of immigration and assimilation, of pledging and belonging, of the range of rage and softness that can inhabit a body.
With each poem, the speaker draws power from Alien Miss, from ancestors named and unnamed, from kinships imagined and real, from a well of women swimming inside herself: “[I] conjure back the language for who I am, what // I know, my lips rounding into diphthongs, / my tongue taming itself around a word’s slick bead” (“Say A Little Prayer,” p. 87). The final poem’s couplet formation, imagery, and themes echo the opening title poem, creating a circular unity and cohesion across the collection; here, the poem’s speaker brims with blood, gratitude, and a reclamation of voice made possible by lineage, inheritance, and deep, self-aware questioning. Refusing to yield to the old adage, History repeats itself, refusing to be silenced by racist and sexist stereotypes and oppressive systems of power, the speaker transforms her rage into critical interrogation of the past, inviting redemptive possibility into her present and future.
As spirited and sharp-tongued as her first collection, I Wore My Blackest Hair (Little A, 2017), Duan’s second book reaches new levels of clarity, rhetorical complexity, and sheer beauty, with her expanded and nuanced historical excavations, explorations of mythology, and experimental forms. Alien Miss is divided into three distinct sections: the “Alien Miss” series, “Lineage Of,” and “Inherit What You Can.” Ghazals, sonnets, broken sestinas, and golden shovels all find homes here, alongside free-verse and long sequence poems that stretch down and across the book’s broad pages. In Duan’s work, silences speak volumes through gaping white spaces; humans transform into animals, the being-ness of plants are honored, and commonplace objects and gestures of kindness are lifted and celebrated—Duan’s world and the worlds of her speakers are rich and alive with the living and the dead, the small and the large. As with the crackling intensity of her language, the specificity of her imagery, animacy abounds.
The “Alien Miss” series is richly textured with intertextuality, borrowing language from letters and transcripts, legal and historical documents, words etched into the walls of the Angel Island Immigration Station barracks. “the past is in the future,” asserts the speaker in “Alien Miss Consults Her Past,” a poem examining the language and ideas espoused by the United States’ pledge of allegiance (p. 9). Indeed, within this section—and throughout the book—lurks fluidity between the ancestors and the living, between China and the U.S., between past, present, and future.
The section culminates in a long sequence, reminiscent of Tarfia Faizullah’s Seam—poems like “The Interviewer Acknowledges Desire” or “The Interviewer Acknowledges Shame”—in the way Duan’s speaker reverses the line of questioning onto herself: how have her origins, opportunities, and experiences in the midwest limited and expanded her understanding of Chinese-American history? Uncertainty and fortitude contradict themselves within the speaker and on the page:
fffffffffffffffffffffffffffffffwhat gives me the right
child of the Midwest. born
fffffffffffffffffffffffffffffffto cornfields, suburban rabbits skittering
fffffffffffffffffffffffffffffffthrough summer lawns…
ffffffffffffffffffffffffffffffffor my body to become some body
fffffffffffffffffffffffffffffffit had to understand
ffffffffffffffffffffffffffffor my mouth to carry English it needs to understand I am
beholden to other hands
I don’t belong to
I can’t help but think of the “Alien Miss” series as a crucial mapping of analytical and rhetorical thought: if we are to fully understand and uproot, and ultimately replace, archaic and ineffective structures of power, thinking, and living, we must train ourselves to look, and to look backward, forward, outward, and inward simultaneously—perhaps inward most of all. We must learn to acknowledge the ways in which we are all endowed with blessings, beauties, and burdens.
Alien Miss’ second section entitled “Lineage Of”—the poems at the heart of the book—introduce the speaker’s family. Here, gestures and patterns of love represent a collective family dynamic that challenges American ideals of extreme, boot-strap individualism. Through these relationships, Duan braids different types of lineages: roots of blood, of course, but beyond that as well, joy, resistance, pain, mythology, injustice. There is somber living as the speaker mourns her elders’ declining health; peaceful, even joyful, dying as ghosts dance fluidly between worlds.
Near the end of this section is “I Make a New Song for Myself,” another long sequence poem, and one of the book’s most tender and powerful pieces. As the speaker and her father journey down I-90 toward her sister, he shares narratives, pieces of himself: “when I came to this country, my father begins, / but I know it is not his first beginning…” (p. 52). Again and again, Duan finds language for what is unsettled inside me, and inside other children of immigrants, I’m sure—indignation against the archetype of the “grateful immigrant,” against the short-sighted notion that life in America is the only beginning that matters, and an instinctual yearning to know and to honor all the moments that constellate the lives that made our current living possible. In the poem’s final section, the speaker and her father make a quick stop at a store on their way:
ffffffffffffffffffffffffffffffffull of white people pushing carts down aisles
of frozen casseroles, drumsticks, peas, & I
fidget with my mask, feeling outcast
ffffffffffffffffffffffffffffffffffand embarrassed. what?
my father says, then sticks out his hands, bends
an elbow, a leg, beginning to makeshift dance,
lift your head, he says…
fffffffffffffffffffffffffffffffare you ashamed of? he asks. you can choose
fffffffffffffffffffffffffffffffto be small, or you can choose to be brave.
Like many other Asian Americans, the COVID-19 pandemic rendered me lonely and afraid to leave my house, to walk my dog at crowded parks, to don my mask and purchase groceries. In the speaker’s father I hear my own, and my mother, and my siblings, all reminding me to choose, to choose bravery, to live.
The collection’s final section, “Inherit What You Can,” delves into language, linguistic power, and linguistic violence. It opens with a poem recounting an instance of Sinophobia: the speaker’s pain, horror, disbelief, and fury are encapsulated by the underlined white space of the redacted ethnic slur. Duan’s lyricism and use of repetition in “Do You Have a Grammatically Correct Response to the Question?” forces the reader to relive the moment over and over again—not unlike the way those of us who have been unjustly wronged replay memories, interrogating every angle, questioning our own real-time reactions and emotive responses. After the word is hurled at her, standing at an intersection, the speaker wonders:
fffffffffffffffffffffffffffffffffwhat was that boundary? where were my legs? why did
I stand there, without a word, holding the straw in my ice-
cubed drink as the liquid turned warm & illegible between
Too often, we as a society dismiss the dynamic power of language, how words become seared in our brains and on our hearts, shaping our reality and sense of self—but not this speaker, not this version of her:
fffffffffffffffffffffffffffffffffflater, I fed the story back
ffffffffffffffffffffffffffffffffffto my mouth. later, the syntax
ffffffffffffffffffffffffffffffffffwas rewound in a reel, set aside,
ffffffffffffffffffffffffffffffffffand I composed a new body
ffffffffffffffffffffffffffffffffffof roman letters…
ffffffffffffffffffffffffffffffffffand raised them to touch
ffffffffffffffffffffffffffffffffffthe edges of a face, a page,
ffffffffffffffffffffffffffffffffffto cure and hold and praise…
I cannot conclude this review without an admission of bias: Carlina Duan is a graduate of the MFA program at Vanderbilt University, a former editor of Nashville Review, and a sister to me, perhaps not in blood, but in language and in love. The first poem I heard Carlina read was “Alien Miss,” the opener of this collection, in our first workshop together in fall of 2018. That day, we were asked to present a poem that best represented our writing style, aesthetic, themes, and influences. It was there that I first heard about Carlina’s poetic interests, about Angel Island Immigration Station and the Chinese Exclusion Act.
No matter how hard I try, I can never be an impartial judge of Carlina’s writing. But I can say with certainty, with the utmost confidence, respect, and admiration, that the quality of her work is undeniable. To me, she is and will continue to grow as a leader in the writing world of Asian American literature, of intersectional feminism, and of linguistic activism. I cannot think of Carlina’s book without conjuring whole worlds: shimmering images and inspiring forms, language miraculous in sound and specificity, shiny-skinned eggplants, rattails jazzing in my periphery, faces, faces, faces, and all the people who make me possible, too. In the fresh bloody wake of Asian American women murdered in Atlanta GA, this book is a lamplight in a time of darkness, refusing to shy away from what angers and bruises us, shining a light on the best parts of ourselves, on the difficult but necessary pathways forward.
In one of Alien Miss’ final poems, “Possible”—a poem I turn to often, and most especially in times of need—the speaker declares:
ffffffffffffffffffffffffffffffffff… —& oh, I am possible again. I am
ffffffffffffffffffffffffffffffffffa fragrant, silly self. today I thank
ffffffffffffffffffffffffffffffffffthe worms who eat the dirt who
ffffffffffffffffffffffffffffffffffbreak down the soil who make
ffffffffffffffffffffffffffffffffffthe lilacs possible and young, forever
ffffffffffffffffffffffffffffffffffpurpling, forever cradled in my palms as I cross
ffffffffffffffffffffffffffffffffffBlakemore Avenue and it rains, rains rains…
(( (p. 76)
Alien Miss is a book about history, but also its holes, slants, and shadows. It is a book about cages, and the enduring resilience made possible by those bars, the limitations held over and around us and those we hold within ourselves. It is a book about inheritance and what is lost, filtered across borders and through time. But above all else, it is a book about joy—about insisting on love, on the expansive and minute acts of care and kindness that fill our daily lives, and on what is possible, despite.
Maria Isabelle Carlos is a writer from Missouri. Winner of the 2021 Tennessee Williams/New Orleans Literary Festival Poetry Contest and the 2020 Penelope Niven Creative Nonfiction Award, her work has appeared or is forthcoming in Passage North, Pleiades, Tin House Online, Hyphen Magazine, and elsewhere, and has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize, Best New Poets, and Best of the Net. After receiving her B.A. in English from UNC-Chapel Hill as the Thomas Wolfe Scholar, Maria bartended in New Orleans for a few years before attending the M.F.A. program at Vanderbilt University. She is the editor of Inch, a quarterly series of micro-chapbooks from Bull City Press, and resides in Nashville, Tennessee. Read more at www.mariaisabellecarlos.com.