Iron Goddess of Mercy.
Donna Haraway’s socialist-feminist “Cyborg Manifesto” famously concludes, “[t]hough both are bound in the spiral dance, I would rather be a cyborg than a goddess” (181). Yet few readers note Haraway’s earlier invocation of the Third World woman: “Ironically, it might be the unnatural cyborg women making chips in Asia and spiral dancing in Santa Rita jail whose constructed unities will guide effective oppositional strategies” (154).
Larissa Lai’s long poem Iron Goddess of Mercy dances this techno-scientific spiral. Ostensibly in numerical order, with sixty-four fragments patterned on the I Ching’s hexagrams, Iron Goddess alternates between furious blocks of prose poetry and atomized not-quite-haikus (a nod to the haibun genre). Taking its name from a strain of oolong tea that originates from the Fujian province in southern China, the poem crackles: “Dear Oolong, if there were no such thing as tea, none of this would have Happened” (141). It would be too easy to say Iron Goddess of Mercy is about anti-imperialism in Hong Kong, Asian North American racialization, and gender violence. But the poem cannot be reduced to these neat descriptions, for it is just as much about casinos, climate change, and cooties. Through it all, the speaker—a “crazy lady” in the maenadic genealogy of Maxine Hong Kingston, Theresa Hak Kyung Cha, and Ocean Vuong—cackles.
This book is impossible fully to understand and makes fun of you for trying. Its controlling form is the epistolary, which vacillates from mocking to loving, from wry to melancholic. Always, the salutation dear tongues the intimacy of violence. Elon Musk, Achilles, and “Polar Bear” are a sample of recipients. Fragment 57 begins “Dear Dirty Knees,” recalling the racist children’s playground chant—“chinese japanese dirty knees” (124)—that makes a joke of Asian agricultural labourers kneeling in fields. But the fragment then inverts the sing-song logic of the chant to poke fun at artifacts of Orientalism and settler colonialism: “mr lawrence we travel belt and road to arabia chanting Om or give me a Home . . . While buffalo dream swarm intelligence no soldiers can solder the four winds” (155).
In a rare moment of unequivocal sincerity, the poem honours The Rape of Nanking author Iris Chang—“here’s a flower for Saint Iris, her live horses the latest casualty of Nanking” (122)—who died by suicide, warning readers against forgetting wars and suggesting that amnesia is a more powerful drug than Oriental opium. The elicitation tenderly draws the reader in, but the next fragment immediately pivots to “$39.99 at Sephora / BB cream on sale / Precious poppy pink” (123), framing commodity capitalism as noxious bloom.
Above all, Iron Goddess of Mercy constitutes a poetic counter-archive of the present, one showing that we live in the ruins of civilizational progress. We have been borne by railways, those engines of modernity built by Chinese labourers: “All the tracks we built, then and now, in Africa, Asia, Turtle Island, could we take them back find another way to survive the dearth the braid the China trade?” (48). But now we sit in the “uber of Alice’s magic mushroom” (121). The reader awakes in the backseat of the American Dream to find that they are actually in an “economic abattoir” (100), a world where Amazon does not primarily refer to the region that hosts forty per cent of the world’s remaining rainforest.
Yet the remains remain and speak back. The line “Dear Chinese Lady, awake in your takeout box” (168) immediately conjures up Afong Moy, the first known Chinese woman in America, who was exhibited as the “Chinese Lady” by P. T. Barnum. We might think of her as an early cyborg woman, a globalized object generating profit for white businessmen. One cannot imagine Moy sitting in her “Chinese room,” where she played with chopsticks and showed off her bound feet, without thinking about the conceptual and discursive boxes into which Asian women are continuously being stuffed. Indeed, timeliest among the poem’s targets is managed diversity: “Dear Pluralism, thick fish without history, managing my difference, finding the soft chair at the unequal table, squishing your wish for justice. You beat the socks off white nationalism, I guess” (100).[i] As diversity, equity, and inclusion workshops proliferate while critical race theory is banned, neoliberal multiculturalism is revealed as an engine of capitalism rather than its antidote. In this sense, Moy is the exception that proves the rule of anonymity characteristic of Haraway’s cyborg women, and so is Lai, who leaves us with a final image, a diagrammatic sketch that can be read multiple ways: “[Y]esterday / the future / arrives” (179). It is arriving, raining debris upon us, still.
Haraway, Donna. Simians, Cyborgs, and Women: The Reinvention of Nature. Routledge, 1990.
[i] On managerial approaches to difference, see Roderick Ferguson, The Reorder of Things (2012); Jodi Melamed, Represent and Destroy (2011); and Kandice Chuh, The Difference Aesthetics Makes (2019).
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