Wednesday, August 5, 2009

On Making Statements and Timothy Liu's Poem "The Decision"

Here is Timothy Liu’s poem The Decision:

When I removed

the ring I had
been wearing for

a decade, a ghost

ring remained
underneath — the skin

slightly paler

where the gold
had been — my finger

cinched where it

had been constricted
as I prepared to

step into the night —

How comforting it is to not be forced in a poem to deal with any periods! No declarative statements, sentences. There's no complete sentence in Liu's poem of overt political statement. Which is about a mandate which in its own way sentences gay men to an unfair punishment. Queers can't marry.

I see Liu's poem as a re-enactment of a tragic gesture. Not a statement.

Liu's poem is clever, no?

More than clever I say. His poem is kindness. It provides temporary relief in a pause, a rest.

That's what makes poems special. It can offer something other than a statement.

We need more poems. As well as useful, political statements. Sometimes those things are the same, some times not.

Appearing in the July issue of the Harvard Review, then August on Poetry Daily, no doubt the decision is The Decision-California’s “decision” (thank you Timothy for not naming it directly; it hurts sometimes to hear) to allow the killing of gay men. The Decision is Proposition 8. Which says you can’t marry; you don’t exist; please go and die.

Liu knows discursiveness, no matter how ultimately lyrical, has its drawbacks. Sometimes he uses it, sometimes he doesn't. Here in this poem he doesn't.

Discursiveness yields a whole lot of statements. And then someone, if they’re engaged and usually if they disagree, offers a lot of other statements. Statements accumulate. They really do. And they do quickly. No matter how hard you try, there’s always another statement, perhaps a necessary one, perhaps not, that’s going to get past you.

That frustrates me. I like to think I can capture all the statements about a particular subject and put them in a list.

That’s why I like grocery lists. It’s nice to see things stacked, as they are in a list.

Think about all the wonderful things you can stack: library books, pressed shirts, Legos.

Maybe Legos aren’t that good for a gay man to think about. If you can’t marry, it’s hard to adopt. No kids, no legos. I always preferred Playmobile.

Liu’s poem also makes it clear that one of the horrible things about Proposition 8 is that you can’t completely explain what gay men have lost as a result of it. No statement can sum it up. Statements should be able to do that, no?

Proposition 8 taught gay men that you need to make a lot of statements to fight inequality. You can’t really make enough. At the same time you can only hear so many. Everyone needs to stop at some point. Or else you need to go into your room, lock the door, and play Enya.

Even without a lot of statements badgering me, I do that.

I love Enya. I listened to her all the time when I took my Latin exams.

Proposition 8 affirmed gay-haters that you can make an inaccurate statement and, as long as it’s a statement, one made with conviction, you can capture and murder. Making statements make you feel one of two ways. Like you’ve been pinned down or that you can throw someone against a wall. That's why you make your own statements. This isn't to say in any way you shouldn't make them. It's just that everything hurts in its own way.

Liu knows periods can be dumb. He knows statements can be useless. For this particular poem, Liu has the solution. His solution is not a statement. It’s a dash. A dash is a pretty good thing if you don’t skip over it. A dash looks like something you can sail away on.

That's what how I think of Liu's final dash in his poem anyway.

You can glide away on it. Past Proposition 8. Past all the statements. You just keep on moving. Away and “into the night-”


  1. Is this an overt political statement? I think it's an interesting interpretation, but the immediate connections I made were either to Liu's poems about closeted bisexuality (like the poem "Bisexuality") or his poems on the widowhood of his father/loss of his mother. The title "The Decision" strikes me as (probably deliberately) oblique.

  2. I can never rember who's gay or not so it's hard for me to read this poem as political. I agree with Phoebe, and you to an extent, that the poem isn't overtly political. In fact, it may only be the dash and the lack of periods that are the overt political parts. Overtly political poems suck--like the one I once wrote about the Sudanese war or current ones about Iraq war prisoners--where the hell do I get off writing about blood diamonds or genocide, at least overtly. Even now, I think I'm always writing these radical environmentalist poems and a reader thinks, "oh, what a lovely fertility poem. Do you love babies too?"
    I blame it on two things--my resistance to overtly political, one-note poems and the fact that people read via my biography. It seems that only in the subtle moves, that of the dash or the lack of periods, can one sustain a biographical reading, a political reading, and close, close reading that equals more than the predilections of the author or the reader.

  3. Nicole,

    Even if the poem wasn't written by a gay man, I would think that's what it was about. Especially considering when it was published--the now.

    I don't know if the poem would have as much gravitas (this is the new word I'm employing for the school year, last semester it was jejune--it really impressed my students). Other than in a Robert Creely kind of way. Which is a pretty cool things I suppose. But still.

    Am I wrong for that?

  4. No, you're not wrong; I agree with you. But I also think that if Creeley had been gay, I'd read his many "Love" poems differently. Or, more to the point, I read his poems as political treatises about political statements--which is how I see your reading of the Liu. It's not so much the easy image of "ghost" or the many ways of reading "constricted" but that the poem is loose at the ends--making, and this is where I agree with you, a political statement that isn't too deadened (or "merely" topical) in the end.

  5. That word constricted is great. I didn't put it in my post, and I should have.

    I thought it implied an ambiguity. On one hand, there is definite loss, but at the same time, perhaps a relief from the restraints of "marriage", no?

  6. Like the dash for the period--freedom from.

  7. I love your reading of the dash in this poem, and though I wouldn't have thought of the Prop. 8 context, I find it a persuasive reading--and, in Liu's poem, I love the "ghost-ring." What a beautiful and sad image.

  8. Hi Lisa B.,

    I love ghost ring, too. I should have mentioned that.

  9. Backchannel me.

    Apologies, Steve, for the very belated response; I did look through your archives, I just find this as a primary reading of the poem one that's fairly unsubstantiated in the text, particularly when holding it up against Liu's other works (full disclosure: I was a student of his, which was a boon--I got plenty of his totally terrific books for free. Though you might say that these older poems lack gravitas, I feel they're incredibly effective.)