Brandon Som​ was raised in Phoenix, Arizona, the son of a Chinese American father and a Mexican American mother. His grandfather’s arduous journey from Asia to the US, his grandmother’s time in a microchip factory on the border, his relatives’ work in barbers’, butchers’ and corner shops could form the basis of a memoir, autobiographical novel or case study in pan-American history. But so far Som has written none of these things. Instead, he has built what he knows about his family’s labours into two intricately patterned and formally inventive books of poems.

In The Tribute Horse (2014), Som addressed his Chinese inheritance – Angel Island, refugees, ‘paper sons’ – in quiet poems written in epitaphic blank verse or modelled on abstract photographs. ‘OULIPO’ spun eighteen quatrains of homophonic translation from a single quatrain by Li Po (also known as Li Bai):

So then me and you come
You assured led by the tongue
Dark fall a winding wind
A detour circles song

Drum din when the rain comes
Erasure the song sung
Details wandering in a wren
Ditto cuckoo song …

Trumped again add up sums
Leave sure you’ve had your fun
Dutiful sons wandered here
Laid down bicycles in the sun

Each quatrain sounds like an overhearing, or a mishearing, in English of the Mandarin original, sometimes translated as ‘Night Thoughts’. Homophonic translation, which imitates sound before meaning, comes from the set of techniques advocated by the Ouvroir de Littérature Potentielle. But Som’s title also asks, in French: ‘Where (où) is Li Po?’ The classical poet of exile, drink and defeat has moved to America, making his uncertain way among the immigrants who have had to wander, detour, circle back or erase their real names.

Som’s new collection, Tripas (Georgia, £17.95), is more story-oriented; it holds more reported details, more nods to English or European forms, more multilingual puns. The book’s Spanish title can mean ‘tripe’, ‘intestines’, ‘innards’, ‘trivia’ or the pages of a document. Som also uses the word to figure the intricate, winding lines of the ‘circuitry my grandmother inspected//nights at Motorola’. ‘Tripas’ points to other circuits too – circles, tropes and connections that our eyes and ears may complete. A suite of memorial poems – each composed of ten lines of ten syllables – ties the project together through ‘the ear’s yearning, oír in memoir: Ng Ng,/ Yeh Yeh, Nana y Tata’, ‘syllables like/ teething stones’, like a ‘wren’s song in Tata’s hand’. The capitalised nicknames signify grandmother and grandfather in Mandarin and in Mexican Spanish. Alert rereaders may hear (‘oír’ in Spanish) the way the ‘ng’ and ‘n’ sounds in the family names metamorphose into the song of the wren.

These harmonies echo laments from older poems. ‘My nana mourns in the Spanish word luto,’ just like ‘Orpheus with his hollow-bodied,/plucked-string instrument’, whose stretched vibrations remind Som of ‘butcher’s/twine’. Luto means ‘mourning’, but also gestures to Shakespeare and Fletcher’s song from Henry VIII: ‘Orpheus with his lute made trees/…/Bow themselves when he did sing.’ Such poems allow patterns of pattern-making to overlap and inform one another, from butchers’ precision to woodcuts to singing to scribal practice. ‘My father’s cuts were calligraphy too./What ink print would his butcher block make?’

American family elegy has rarely found such multilayered wordplay. Irish poetry certainly has: Som’s ‘Novena’ (complete with Catholic overtones) inherits the mission of Seamus Heaney’s ‘Clearances’ (‘I was all hers as we peeled potatoes’), as well as its pentameters and analogical patterns. The rosary itself reminds Som of ‘old rotary phones’, ‘a direct line/to heaven.’ If Heaney focused on personalities, Som pays more attention to the interpersonal and the international systems that shape people, following the money, or the records of memory. One sonnet, ‘Chino’, looks at family ‘photos – niños and nietos –/where I’m the only chino. How might I/see through my family’s eyes – an owl’s eyes/in ojos’? The graphemes in ‘ojo’ resemble an owl’s eyes and beak: that vision comes to Som while mixing cornmeal for tamales, ‘that worn folio for field corn’s field notes./What does that dark eye in the ear’s husk see?’

Lesser poets might treat such sonic effects as ornamentation, icing on the cake of the story they told. For Som they are the cake. ‘Hearing, it’s said, is touch at a distance.’ These aural offerings become ways to touch the dead, to keep in touch with family, to stay in touch with reasons to live, even when economies (or white ignorance) might try to diminish or kill. ‘Órale, my mom texts,/but autocorrect sends oracle instead.’ ‘Wow’ or ‘OK’ or ‘Pray’ she tries to say; instead she ends up making an empty prediction, her oral communication (with her phone) transformed into Som’s future printed words, along the lines of commerce and communication that also brought his family to America.

These figures for communication, circuits and transmission run all through the book, along with other figures for sound waves, acoustics and electronics. Low-riders – modified sports cars favoured by Mexican Americans – boom out bass-heavy music in a Day of the Dead parade, ‘serapes over a subwoofer’s/low hum for loved ones’. Multiple pages celebrate the early electronic composer Pauline Oliveros, whose minimal hums and tones insist that we ‘listen to everything all the time’. The Chinese characters for ‘gramophone’, Som’s grandmother’s most prized possession, predict his technology-savvy Orphic poems, since those characters literally mean ‘song machine’. Questions about how to fit in, and who to become, become questions of style, like the permanent wave Som’s uncle gave his father, using caustic bleach that ‘burned down his neck./Solution suggests/a problem’s fixed.’

Such scenes show Som’s forebears changing themselves to fit their adopted country. Other poems celebrate ‘Resistors’, like the woman who led a protest against the Mexico-US border wall, making a speech ‘from the bucket/of a front-end loader’, placing ‘her body where dirt goes’. ‘Her body is the land the wall wants to eat,’ so that ‘the defiant mic this woman makes,/ resonates with her body beneath the digger’s teeth.’ (This poem also adapts Renaissance elegiacs: each stanza comprises seven, then six, then seven feet.) Other resisting ancestors ‘tended field corn’: the grandmother’s ‘hermanos’ manos had maseros/tattooed in the half-moon between/ thumb & finger …/the word green like a hand’s vein/–as if blood swelled to cursive/their gang name.’ (Maseros make masa, the cornmeal for tamales.)

We may rebel against particular systems, but we must live inside others: languages are themselves such systems, arbitrary and interlocking, like the exchanges Som overheard in his father’s shop, ‘learning/the paper in all names’. A ‘paper name’, important in The Tribute Horse, is a fake identity once used by Chinese Americans to claim ancestry within the United States and circumvent exclusion laws. These fake identities enabled immigrants to establish durable real ones, much like the fictions embedded in poetry, the false or merely aural connections among similar sounding words.

‘I grew up in these households where Chinese was primarily spoken or Spanish was primarily spoken,’ Som told an interviewer in 2016. ‘I grew up really hearing the music of these languages more so than understanding their meaning.’ In Som’s work, music and meaning cannot be picked apart. His poems bring together what everyday life and expository prose would separate. And if sound makes language, and hence conveys feeling, sound is also a material, made of waves in moving air. Alongside issues of social history and immigration, Tripas also takes up ideas about matter and energy – the physical sciences, with their capacitors, semiconductors and resistors, their particles and waves. Som’s breakdancing cousin, ‘a phoenix kid’, used his body to make his own

in a desert like dunes wave
out west on 8, past Yuma,
or like the screen waves
on the machines his mom, Chita,
monitored for Motorola.

The ‘waves’ of an undulating breakdancer are mathematically akin to an oscilloscope’s wave, a sound wave, a wave on the sea. All waves except electromagnetic waves (such as light and radio) require substrates: patterns can only form given raw materials – people for politics, water or sand for waveforms, hardware on which software runs. ‘Lines of force’ on diagrams of magnetism resemble, in Som’s view, ‘the echo/in the hecho’ (Spanish for ‘deed’), ‘how within parallel circuits/currents increase across increased resistance.’ As Som writes, ‘there’s gold in the pun.’

There are moments of more straightforward resistance in Tripas too – and not just in the digger’s bucket at the would-be border wall. ‘Fuchi’ points out the ‘toxins in electronics plants’ like the one where Som’s grandmother worked, ‘chemicals that poison, cause cancers,/numb the senses’. In the same poem, Som recalls something many other Asian Americans may recognise: ‘Growing up chino/the question I was most often asked,/ besides what are you, was do you know/ kung fu.

Som’s poems refuse to confine themselves or their forms to any one thing. All of them enfold and link multiple topics, injustice among them. He writes, as well, to honour people who endured, who made their own way. That roster includes his father, his grandmother at the Motorola plant, and his ‘tata’ or grandfather, a veteran and a worker in the building trade who ‘failed to have a career at all’. In this he resembles the failed bureaucrat and exile Li Po, becoming the

Li Po of loppers, extension cords & carpenter’s pants –
hammer’s claw snug in its loop. Li Po of roach clips …

Li Po of aloe & layups. Li Po of scrap metal, miscut
lumber saved for the day when you needed them –
his futurism.

His future becomes manifest in the lines of the poem, in the loops of Ls, Ps, Cs and Rs: another ‘echo in the hecho’, like the alliterative play of children ‘pulling pigtails of transistors, leaping code switches’ from English to Spanish, school to home.

Som has spent his adult life in Southern California. Tripas belongs to the literature of the border and the Southwest, to the still under-studied poetics of the polyglot melting pot. It is, of course, Asian American poetry and Xicano/a, or Mexican American, poetry too. It belongs to a literature of labour and labour organising – ‘Cesar Chávez’s hunger strike and Dolores Huerta’s activism in Phoenix’. It points, as well, through its incorporation of thinly sliced reportage, to investigative journalism about ‘semiconductor production, toxic hazards, and so-called clean rooms’.

And yet it is none of these things consistently. Its politics lie in the way it makes, follows and elaborates its patterns, so that its cognates and false cognates, diagrams and circular reasoning, Great Circle routes from China via Colombia, made by humans and making humans in turn, add up to ‘what diagrams me’. We too, the poems say, have emerged from systems that we may interrupt or intercept, amplify or resist, once we recognise them: patterns such as capitalism and family expectations flow through us as the ‘amp & trough’ of sound waves flows through ‘cell towers over chevrons/of ocotillo’ in Som’s Southwest, a landscape and a vocabulary that his readers may keep hearing, or imagining, long after their first circuit through his Tripas.

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