Iron Goddess of Mercy by Lambda Literary Award winner Larissa Lai (for the novel The Tiger Flu) is a long poem that captures the vengeful yet hopeful movement of the Furies mid-whirl and dance with them through the horror of the long now. Inspired by the tumultuous history of Hong Kong, from the Japanese and British occupations to the ongoing pro-democracy protests, the poem interrogates the complicated notion of identity, offering a prism through which the term 'Asian' can be understood to make sense of a complex set of relations. The self crystallizes in moments of solidity, only to dissolve and whirl away again. The poet is a windsock, catching all the affect that blows at her and ballooning to fullness, only to empty again when the wind changes direction. Iron Goddess of Mercy is a game of mah jong played deep into the night, an endless gamble.
Presented in sixty-four fragments to honour the sixty-four hexagrams of the I Ching, Iron Goddess of Mercy also borrows from haibun, a traditional Japanese form of travel writing in which each diary entry closes with a haiku. The poem dizzies, turns on itself. It rants, it curses, it writes love letters, but as the Iron Goddess is ever changing, so is the object of her address: a maenad, Kool-Aid, Chiang Kai-shek, the economy, a clown, freedom of speech, a brother, a bother, a typist, a monster, a machine, Iris Chang, Hannah Arendt, the Greek warrior Achilles, or a deer caught in the headlights.
Finally, a balm to the poem's devastating passion and fury, Iron Goddess of Mercy is also a type of oolong tea, a most fragrant infusion said to have been a gift from the compassionate bodhisattva Guan Yin.
Summoning the ghosts of history and politics, Iron Goddess of Mercy explores the complexities of identity through the lens of rage and empowerment.
About the author
Larissa Lai is the author of two novels, When Fox is a Thousand, shortlisted for the Books in Canada First Novel Award, and Salt Fish Girl, shortlisted for the Tiptree Award, the Sunburst Award and the City of Calgary W.O. Mitchell Award; one book of poetry Automaton Biographies, shortlisted for the Dorothy Livesay Award; and a chapbook, Eggs in the Basement, shortlisted for the bp Nichol Chapbook Award.
Through the 90s, she was a cultural organizer in feminist, GLBTQ and anti-racist communities in Vancouver. Now, as an English professor at the University of British Columbia, she teaches courses on race, memory, and citizenship, as well as on biopower and the poetics of relation.
Rita Wong teaches in Critical + Cultural Studies at the Emily Carr University of Art + Design, Vancouver, BC, Canada, where she has developed a humanities course focused on water, with the support of a fellowship from the Center for Contemplative Mind in Society. She is currently researching the poetics of water, supported by a grant from the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada: http://downstream.ecuad.ca/ .
Her poems have appeared in anthologies such as Prismatic Publics: Innovative Canadian Women's Poetry and Poetics, Regreen: New Canadian Ecological Poetry, Visions of British Columbia (published for an exhibition at the Vancouver Art Gallery), and Making a Difference: Canadian Multicultural Literature. She has a passion for daylighting buried urban streams and for watershed literacy. Wong can be found on twitter at https://twitter.com/rrrwong.
Iron Goddess of Mercy is magic and revelation ... a masterful long poem that spins in and out of chaos and order.
-Quill and Quire
Dear reader, I'm always impressed by the power of Lai's imagination to dislocate us from reality in order to reattach us more meaningfully. Neither her worlds nor her words behave as they should. She liberates everything she touches to recombine with whatever it pleases. Billie Jean King can live next to Michael Jackson's 'Billie Jean.' Strands of Indigenous, Black, and Asian movements merge into recombinant DNA. Dear reader, in this intense, sustained long poem, Lai finds a form for everything we don't want to talk about -"smile now I don't understand why you're so upset" - but must. -Ian Williams, author of Personals
Iron Goddess of Mercy confronts a nightmarish inventory of the costs of human desire and ambition. Yet Lai's 'poethic' vision thrives by a poetry of grand imagination and sonic depth. Hidden scenes of unjust histories are spun out from modern life's random narratives of fanfare toward the stabilizing richness of epiphany. Here is mourning and celebration as Lai deals hard-won blows to the limiting strictness of reason. Here we emerge with better names for common things in their hypnotic globe of urgent transformation. -Canisia Lubrin, author of The Dyzgraphxst and Voodoo Hypothesis
Where does thinking go? We worry about the island of plastic growing in the Pacific Ocean, but what about the cyclone of thoughts that gather in our collective third eye? In Iron Goddess of Mercy, Larissa Lai is breaking her way through language pileups, hooking syllables onto syntax, looping modernity over history over time. What doesn't hang us we might weave into a haibun, that most magical of forms that allows all the sprawl of prose and all the precision of the haiku. 'What if, in spite of everything forgotten, the whole fabric remains swimming or stitching in fish form?' This is a tale of renewal: in the future we will all need to carry much, much more, and we really need to make light of it. -Sina Queyras, author of My Ariel
Lai charges through a wide range of subjects, including Asian stereotypes ("when does my slant/signal untrustworthy?"), capitalism ("glorifying blonds and bonds/in markets and mansions") and her family ties to Hong Kong and "the gashes of the past." The result is both polemical and wildly inventive. -Toronto Star
Lai allows a tumble of history to seethe through Iron Goddess of Mercy. The high energy of her playful, cutting prose poetry is counter-posed with restful, concluding lyrics, with the two becoming one in a short sequence of visual poetry at book's end. A full banquet of poetic synthesis, serving up 'the long now' and 'the wide I' - a very satisfying poetry collection. -Joanne Arnott, author of Halfling Spring
Lai's bold technique of addressing and re-addressing the big legacies of the twenty first century points to the kind of work it takes to stay alive and conscious ... Through it all, she uses the slippages of syntax and sound to highlight the inadequacy and power of speech, the saying with unsaying, to speak truth to power about the load-bearing pressures on a body. Listen to the Iron Goddess: she knows. -Arc Poetry
Dear Reader, I don't think I've ever experienced the intensity of an epistolary 'voice' performed with such impact as this Iron Goddess jamming through the syllables of an explosive imagination, then landing, simply, on a haiku. Larissa Lai's writing in this book is a phenomenal instance of improvisation that attracts and challenges our readerly dexterity. Dear Reader, Dear deer in the headlights, Dear 'people of the on/ off switch' - Stop, Look, and Listen. -Fred Wah, author of Music at the Heart of Thinking
Iron Goddess of Mercy is a work of fierce, mad genius. Composing with equal parts chaos and precise form, Larissa Lai weaves the English language, the love letter and the haibun, historic violence and contemporary geopolitics, pop culture references, unrelenting rage and wicked humour into a polyphonic storm of meaning and emotion, like an ancient sorcerer bending the elements with many arms. With seemingly effortless virtuosity, the author spins us through a kaleidoscopic view of how empire building, occupation and revolution shape the individual and collective soul. No poetry lover, activist, historian or spiritual seeker could possibly fail to fall to their knees before Lai's Iron Goddess. Take heed, readers. These are the words of a master. -Kai Cheng Thom, author of a place called No Homeland
Other titles by Larissa Lai
The Tiger Flu
Slanting I, Imagining We
Asian Canadian Literary Production in the 1980s and 1990s
Tracing the Lines
Reflections on Contemporary Poetics and Cultural Politics in Honour of Roy Miki
Salt Fish Girl
Bringing It Home
Women Talk About Feminism in Their Lives