Waking Occupations by Phoebe Wang

Poised between clarity and complexity, precision and ambiguity, Phoebe Wang’s poems capture the dilemma of unsettled citizenship. Her second collection, Waking Occupations, is divided into four carefully structured sections: “Partings,” “Still Lives,” “Brief Encounters,” and “Without Elegies.” An opening poem, “Night Scene for a Revoked Citizen,” gives a sense of the poems that follow it. “In a dissolving country I petition for entry,” an entrance not just to a Canadian landscape, but more specifically to the company of Al Purdy’s Roblin Lake in Prince Edward County, Ontario. Both country and petitioner are in a state of dissolution through a night scene where the “sky slides to pitch and the moon goes grainy / over cloud counties    crown lands.” Not the pitch and slide of baseball, but the nocturnal blackness that is caught and released in a series of alliterations, assonance, enjambment, and double breathing spaces that serve as blank caesuras.

            The poet’s declaration, “I’m tired with doubleness,” signals not only double identity and personality, but also double spacing scattered throughout the poem, and parallel lines that delineate landscape and speaker. A part of this natural setting, yet apart from the scene, she feels exiled: “But I have no birthright here, no chain of title.” Despite her “irreversible exile,” in the end, she manages to recover, until the revoked citizen reverses to a recovered citizen.

            During her rite of passage, she undergoes a transformation. The oxymoronic “tender dogs rave / at my vagrancy” shift to “I tender the yellow leaves,” those aging and aching pages of poems. Part of her unusual metamorphosis involves a seal-like attachment to the land: “I glide into solace like a selkie into her real clothing.” On some nights, “each stroke is an embrace in reverse”; other nights, she is “tethered … to the perimeters, and never loosened / to the centre.” She begins to recover through darkness: “Light drags me through an aperture, / publishes me on the filmy paper of renewal.” The developed photographic image is part of a larger pictorial pattern where Wang paints words on paper, edges, and perimeters, to find an opening into a general blankness. From “the caesura of myself, / dripping with … dispossessions,” she infiltrates “the site of resuscitation    of mending.” She wakes to recover all the colours, country, and undercurrents of Purdy’s lake.

            The first poem in the “Partings” section, “for The Split Self,” begins in the interrogative without any question mark: “Why do I cling to it, that shadow-country, / … a veil, / … easily cleaved.” The poet splits between self and country, a complex cleavage where metaphors of migration render maples mapless and interrogate territory, gate, window, and door – boundaries and borders of parting and transience.

            “Interlude with Figures in Passing” recovers Marc Chagall’s painting, Over Vitebsk (1914). Wang delineates at least two kinds of countries in her trans-cultural mapping: “There is the country that accepts our bodies / on washed cotton, that logs our hours in blue columns.” In contrast to the bodily country, “There is another that arrests our spectres / so we cross over without the weightless drag / of wounded villages.” Chiasmus and transcendence are the means of negotiating and navigating the oxymoronic world of migration. Chagall and Wang “keep flying / over rooftops,” figures passing timelines and waymarks. Painter and poet traverse villages and continents, crossing global ancestral paths: “whatever you are fleeing, we have also fled.”

            The daughter of a painter, Wang is an ekphrastic poet par excellence, painting diverse canvases with deft strokes of metaphor. The longest poem in the collection, “Still Lives,” is a minor masterpiece, a domestic epic that plays upon the ordinary plural of still lifes, to highlight the stillness and ongoingness of art. She threads metaphors and tercets: “The vault is cool as a grotto. / I descend into eggshell, mineral tunnels / that open into carved chambers.” During her descent with liquid l’s into colours, she paints lessons for life: “There are lessons in shade and tone and value.” These life lessons instruct us in the ways of her lines: “Lessons in highlights and how they sharpen / when a dark hue is adjacent.” Repetitions increase incremental understanding of her lyrical and narrative quest: “I’m still using that trick, placing objects / in oblique relation to each other.” Wang’s oblique juxtapositions form the serious tricks of her writing. That she “still” uses that trick points to the repetition and lasting quality of still, while reminding us of the stillness of still life – “Steamed bass on a blue patterned plate.” Once again, her alliterations add to the synaesthesia of painted sound patterns.

            Patterns of family history and painting overlap obliquely. Parents and daughters watch the film Camille Claudel (1988), which features Rodin’s model-turned-mistress. Drawing on parallels, the poet layers historical perspectives of marble and granite, wondering if Camille “cracked the roles she was cast in.” After Rodin she immerses herself in metaphors, whether in nature or in galleries – a cicerone of irony, ambiguity, and serious humour.

            Wang has been influenced by her father, who is a painter, but she finds her own way and breaks new ground. Of her migrant experience, she writes: “A series of still lifes, but nothing / held still for us.” She breaks from tradition and focal points of the Old Masters, and replaces them with “cross-hatched tones and scribbled false starts / rejecting the veneration of influence.” Indeed, her father’s “restless squiggles” form the cover design of Waking Occupations. John Wang’s painting, “Skyline of Cranes of Yaletown,” occupies sites of construction and destruction in Vancouver. The inked design spills over to the first blank page and carries on to the back cover, suggesting urban sprawl and artistic scrawl. These strange feedback loops characterize his daughter’s metaphoric associations and drawing hands.

            She concludes “Still Lives” with: “I arrange myself into a frame as easy / to dismantle as a genre, as a pose, as girlhood.” Wang’s dismantling irony demonstrates that her sophomore collection is anything but sophomoric. Waking Occupations awakens the reader to the riches of keen perception, emotional insight, and brief encounters.

            Her final section, “Without Elegies,” begins with an affirming paradox, “Yes, we were awake and not yet awake,” and ends with “the gifts of futurity.” With a full inheritance, she bequeaths an even fuller future. Guided by A.F. Moritz on one side, and Dionne Brand on the other, Wang takes few, if any, false steps.

PHOEBE WANG is a writer and educator based in Toronto, Canada, and a first-generation Chinese-Canadian. Her debut collection of poetry, Admission Requirements was shortlisted for the Gerald Lampert Memorial Award, the Pat Lowther Memorial Award, and nominated for the Trillium Book Award. She is a poetry editor with The Fiddlehead Magazine and served as the 2021-2022 Writer-In-Residence at the University of New Brunswick.

  • Publisher ‏ : ‎ McClelland & Stewart (March 22 2022)
  • Language ‏ : ‎ English
  • Paperback ‏ : ‎ 112 pages
  • ISBN-10 ‏ : ‎ 0771099398
  • ISBN-13 ‏ : ‎ 978-0771099397

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Poetry Editor

Michael Greenstein is a retired professor of English at the Université de Sherbrooke. He is the author of Third Solitudes: Tradition and Discontinuity in Jewish-Canadian Literature and has published widely on Victorian, Canadian, and American-Jewish literature.