BILL SCALIA Reviews
Mao’s Pears by Kenny Tanemura
(Tinfish Press, Hawai’i, 2011)
I can’t speak to the historical Mao, nor to Mao as a political figure or cultural icon; neither am I qualified to address the cultural tensions developed through Tanemura’s book in a political or historical context. But I can address the ways in which Tanemura develops these tensions aesthetically, by which he offers us a kind of anthropology of these kinds of human tensions. Tanemura’s overriding theme is the discord between traditional China and the incursion of Western cultural imperialism. However, Tanemura plays out this theme in the most basic human terms; that is, while he examines Maoist doctrine, he does so in relation to human experience – and thus deflects the book from political agenda into poetry.
In the book’s opening poem, “Mao’s Pears,” Mao tells a comrade:
If you want to know
of a pear, you must
change the pear
by eating it yourself . . .
That is, if we want to experience the pear as a pear, we can only do so by changing it (by eating it); that is, if we accept that a pear has a telos (like the other food examples Mao offers: eels, green peas, wafers, tomatoes), that it exists as food to be eaten (consumed might be a better term), then we cannot separate the pear in its teleological capacity without our experiencing a change in the pear. Or, we cannot separate our experience of the pear from the pear itself, since our experience of the pear as a pear necessitates changing the pear. Similarly, Mao offers the comrade the example of an atom; in order to understand its structure and properties, you must first change it. This example, of course, has more far-reaching consequences (changing the structure of an atom by splitting its nucleus can have much more damaging consequences than eating a pear), but it is significant that Mao, in this case, responds to a specific question from the comrade: is it possible to know a lover without changing her? (It is, the comrade reasons, an atomic question. We see here a version, perhaps, of the Heisenberg Uncertainly Principle.) Thus Tanemura humanizes the exchange. But, he takes it two steps further.
When the comrade stills seems confused, Mao offers one more example:
. . . If you
want to know
the theory and methods
you must take part in the revolution.
Surely the poet is clear as to his purpose: revolution is change, but a knowing kind of change, and change in the structure of a society. If Tanemura closed the poem here, we would see his (and Mao’s, I assume) purpose. But he does not end here. Tanemura sends the comrade home to address his lover, asking her to change so that he might at least know her (clearly he hasn’t understood Mao at all), and Tanemura allows the woman the most beautiful three lines in the book:
I am like the pear
that is never eaten, she said,
I am the atom unchanged.
A deep and abiding human mystery lives in this response, a mystery of knowing and unknowing, and unknowingness, that escalates the work into poetry.
This woman, the unchanged atom, reappears in various guises thought the book’s five poems; she’s in the personalization of Old China vs New China, in “Mao’s Old China”:
Old China is more memory
than presence – look around you,
distilled to a menu, or TV,
you’re mistaken. Where, then,
is the new China,
a needle in a haystack,
strands of noodles
in the latest Michael Crichton
book, an upscale college town?
I saw Old China
In front of a cash register,
Looking over her shoulder
wondering which China
was waiting in line, looking
the future to explain everything
to him . . .
She is in the distinction between (and confluence of) “a propped up idea / for red lanterns / and neon logos”; “involuntary / self-definitions – / tea bag, blue lamp, / hands in the pocket”; in the image of Mao in “Requiem for Mao”:
Mao comes from a place he can’t pronounce.
When the shipbuilders gave him a big contract
he played the race card so he could
listen to the Beatles instead of work.
Mao was never what I imagined.
The Beatles, of course, mention Mao in the song “Revolution” (“if you go carrying pictures of Chairman Mao / you ain’t gonna make it with anyone anyhow”).
In the end, Tanemura’s message for “Mao” is cryptically stated:
Mao doesn’t need to be called back, so don’t look
so conspicuous walking around the factories
on the periphery of the town – he is beyond the magnified
prisms he tried to guide me through.
Mao doesn’t need to be called back because Mao never left; he is omnipresent. Also, Mao is beyond calling back, beyond the “prisms” he established. That is, Mao, as qualified in the poems, is both the author of the culture, lives in the culture, but also exists outside (and beyond) the culture, and an examination of the culture of Mao changes the culture itself. To take part in an understanding of Mao (both the Chairman, the personification in this text, and the book Mao’s Pears itself), one must change it by entering into conversation with it. Tanemura’s book is an index of the nature of that conversation.
Bill Scalia holds a PhD in American Literature from Louisiana State University. His most recent essays include “Toward a Semiotics of Poetry and Film: Meaning-Making and Extra-Linguistic Signification” (in Literature / Film Quarterly) and “Bergman’s Trilogy of Faith and Persona: Faith and Visual Narrative” in the anthology Faith and Spirituality in Masters of World Cinema (Cambridge Scholars Press, 2008). Bill teaches writing and literature at St Mary’s Seminary and University in Baltimore, MD.