Poems by Russell Leong
West End Press: Albuquerque, New Mexico, 1993.
69 pp., $8.95 (paper).
Russell Leong's The Country of Dreams and Dust is an outstanding book of contemporary American poetry. It is also, without question, a "Buddhist" book. The poems themselves are not formally or, for the most part, even in spirit Buddhist, but the humanistic and inclusive tradition of Buddhism clearly stands behind them all, giving them a context, a luminous complexity, and perhaps, finally, a moral authority that is lacking in most twentieth-century Western poetry. The poet's new-found Buddhist understanding makes this book a single work of art rather than merely a volume of "selected poems."
Marked by sparkling imagery, the poems are consistently delivered in the phrasing and the rhythm of the spoken language of contemporary urban America. To read them aloud is to discover what a musical language that can be.
The first section of the book, "Sphere and Lotus," establishes a specifically Buddhist tone. The dust and dreams of the title appear transformed to mud and illusions. In "Aerogrammes," the long poem set that follows, Leong dwells in the mundaneness and disillusionment of a visit "home" to China. An engaging and funny poem full of "palmettos/ pigs and orange groves," it finds the poet by turns curious, sentimental, practical, bemused, penultimately almost cynical, and finally, in the face of the worst that Third-World "free market" development has to offer him, resigned to remain open and loving. The pungently Californian voice ofthe poem's final lines makes use of a clash of diction to draw attention to the clash between the poet's attempt at unsentimental "modernity" and his lingering desire for the old-country values. "I swore off! grimy ancestral markers," says the poet, as if they were a vice. "I wrote of filial piety," as if it were a bad debt.
The second section of the book, a long poem of the Chinese-American diaspora, gives its title to the book as a whole. Here Leong encapsulates a hundred and fifty years of Asian-American history, and forty years of his own, in less than thirty pages. He builds the section around quotations from I. M. Condit's English and Chinese Reader, a nineteenth-century missionary textbook of English and Christianity. The interplay among the biblical quotations and the dramatic subject matter of the sections that follow is often painfully ironic. There is great pride, and real rage, as the poet ranges from the dreams that sent his ancestors to dig and to build in the dust of Calif.ornia, into the schools of the missionaries, and finally to the ghettoes of Chinatowns when the work was done. Each time the words dream and dust recur, their meanings increase in depth and ambiguity: dreams as aspirations, dreams as illusions; dust as the substance from which the Christian god created man, and the "red dust" of the defilements of the world. In a truly powerful final page, Leong resolves the tensions of the poem and discovers the way of spiritual return, magnificently expanding his time frame beyond this century—
I drink snow water
that falls from high Sierra
bleached by white shellcaps
and whale bones. Petrified waves
fathom the past
and plumb the future.
—to come home at last to the temple of the present, where
The monk in the kitchen
is cutting cabbages
on the nicked Formica table
and finishing, perhaps to absolve even the predatory Christian missionaries, with a final quotation from Condit:
We must eat
In order to live.
The book ends with "Unfolding Flowers, Matchless Flames." Having been given the Buddhist name "Calmness Reached," the poet returns to the world of dreams and dust, through the warring territories of the streets of the City of Angels, remembering the words of his teacher, and reaching for his name.
Russell Leong has long been an influential activist in the Asian-American community; since 1977 he has edited UCLA's Amerasia Journal. This volume of poems, his first, makes it clear that he is also a formidable poet. Taken as a whole, this collection of sharp and colorful poems is a picture of consciousness in development, of a man searching, in the dream of the world and the dust of history, for enlightenment. If he has not yet reached his goal, he is nonetheless clearly on the way.
J.P. Seaton is a Professor of Chinese at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. His most recent book is A Drifting Boat: An Anthology of Chinese Zen Poetry (White Pine Press).