"The sound I've been trying to hear"
by Keith Taylor
Early in Burnt Offerings, his second collection of poetry, Timothy Liu writes: "All my life / the sound I've been trying to hear is the sound / of my own voice." It is perhaps too easy to put that as a kind of epigraph above all the various identities that make up the themes of this poet's work, but it does help a new reader understand him and his work.
Liu is Asian American, and he often refers to writers from the classical Chinese past, and occasionally to Buddhism. He was raised a Mormon, and while there are direct references to the Mormon faith in his work - some not too kind - a more generalized religious sensibility pervades almost all his poetry, giving even the simplest poems a metaphysical longing. Liu is also one of our best-known gay poets. The anthology he edited, Word of Mouth: An Anthology of Gay American Poetry, sets standards against which other thematic anthologies should be measured. His own poems are often frankly and vividly erotic. At their best, they can combine the erotic and the religious in a sensuality that borders on ecstasy.
Although these themes are certainly important, they are not the measure of his achievements. Not yet forty, Liu has become adept at the use of understated images to express emotional states. In his recent fourth collection, Hard Evidence, he includes this tiny poem, "Legend":
| No sign that you were coming after me. |
An hour glass tipped over. That spine
I cracked on a book of sex discarded
under the bed. Knives left untouched
in the cutlery block. Only that sound
of apples falling into an empty well.
I get a very clear sense of loss or absence in this poem. I imagine the speaker has had a quarrel with his lover and already regrets it, yet is not willing to return, just as the lover
is not yet willing to follow. It is a signal of Liu's abilities that I get this whole narrative and a very real and understandable emotional state out of only six lines.
On the other hand, Liu can sometimes be wildly extravagant. The same book that offers the vivid and delicate little poem above also includes "Many Mansions," a verbal free-for-all stuffed with all kinds of Latinate words that spill down the page in a complicated syntax. Here's the beginning:
| Lacking gravitas, disillusioned yuppies |
in a faux-Etruscan theater, acting out our
for concatenating tactics intended to shock
a brazenly chic high-styled public. . . .
I can imagine the poet enjoying himself quite a bit when he was getting those words down on paper.
Timothy Liu reads his poetry in Hale Auditorium at the U-M business school on Thursday, January 24.
[Originally published in January, 2002.]