Larissa Lai’s latest book is a masterful long poem that spins in and out of chaos and order, charting the movement of the Furies, the three Greco-Roman goddesses of vengeance and retribution. Joy is enjambed with grief; words tip over the edge of meaning, returning back into the fold only to be spun out again.
Iron Goddess of Mercy is magic and revelation, divided into 64 pieces to represent the 64 hexagrams of the I Ching. Lai writes in the tradition of the Haibun, a prose form originating from Japan, in which each travel diary entry is sealed with a haiku. Lai’s haiku variants breathe and provoke, offering moments that still the mind into contemplation: “naked blade / open wound / read red redress.”
The poet leaves all the tabs in the mind’s browser open, her lines are hectic with references to pop culture, racism, occupation, colonialism, politics, and everyday encounters. Lai tears at the seams of what it means to be Asian, and what it means to be an ally. Influenced by the pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong, Iron Goddess of Mercy speaks to how history revives and reveals itself in the present, of how a word can open a wound: “Dear Migrant, Rita had all the language to help you but I couldn’t because I flushed my mother down the assimilation drain, I’m sorry I saw you as the ghost of Christmas past and present and I was you and you were me but we weren’t all together.”
Language here sings and stings, the urgency of the moment palpable in every pause the poet chooses not to make, in every image that bumps up against the next one. Lai commands words to bow to her, the language of oppressors becomes fragmented and reassembled, serving as an act of resistance in itself. Within the breathlessness of terror, there is play — surprise alliteration and mirrors of homonyms are placed next to each other, becoming reflections themselves.
One cannot read the title Iron Goddess of Mercy (the literal reference is to a type of oolong tea) and not think of the bodhisattva of compassion, Guan Yin, who, in some depictions, keeps one leg up, ready to stand at any point to respond to the cries of the world. Lai grabs the reader by the heart and pulls us into the cry. As we become the cry, we are also challenged to respond to the cry.
Iron Goddess of Mercy unravels the knotted thread of being defined and defining, reminding us that as uncomfortable as it might be, we occupy many spaces and realities all at once. And while it may be impossible to make sense of what will never make sense, how we choose to respond is an act of resistance all on its own.