Why grief is political for poet Muriel Leung

Poet Muriel Leung learned early that language went hand in hand with power.

Growing up as a non-native English speaker in Queens, New York, Leung spoke Cantonese with her family. But at school, she began to understand that learning English involved new types of power exchanges.

“I was trying to wrestle in my mind with how language worked, especially when confronting authority figures who were very impatient with silence and wanted you to speak, and wanted you to speak in a particular way,” she said. “It was a lesson for me in the power of withholding,”

Now, Leung applies those lessons to arresting, abstract poems. In college, she began writing about loss following the death of her father. Addressing this grief through poetry, and from the perspective of multiple marginalized identities, became a political act, she said.

“I was a queer Asian-American woman in the world facing a lot of racism and other discrimination on campus and outside of campus, and then applying the role of politics to the personal grief of loss was very important work to do,” she said. “It became a way of understanding this loss as tied to a history that’s larger than me.”

Writing about her family was a way to address this history, she said. “Writing about my father became writing about immigration history, because he was an immigrant himself, and he labored all of his life,” she said. “I also inherit this history, of people moving across borders.”

In “All My Specters in a Box in Terrified Light,” Leung writes about the effects of this history and failing to fulfill the myth of a “model minority,” both as an Asian-American and as a queer person. The poem looks at how that failure, and the experience of living under oppression, affects people’s abilities to maintain relationships, she said.

“I was thinking about just my particular relationships that are queer and trying to love queer people,” she said. “There are so many obstacles that make it hard for that love to be performed when there’s so much baggage attached to each of us. Our rational understanding is that it isn’t a failure, it’s just the reality of living with oppression. … I think that leaves you with such a deep sense of melancholy.”

Leung is currently earning an MFA at Louisiana State University and co-edits poetry for the literary journal Apogee. Her new book “Bone Confetti,” which comes out this fall from Noemi Press, uses the myth of separated lovers Orpheus and Eurydice to address personal loss.

You can hear Leung read her poem or read it below.

All My Specters in a Box in Terrified Light

Leaving or To be left behind–both versions falling out
someone’s ash mouth. Leaving is a car unraveling
at 90 mph. To be left behind is the color red as in
alarm. Stop. Bracket that feeling. A hole the size
of yellow. She swore to me on two cities. Two ghosts
bright beyond the canyons. I love her even without.
Her flesh intervening in the perpetual motion
of my days. Laughter comes out hard and pelts
the dusk. I laugh to dampen the riot like some people
laugh over clowns or accidents. Avoidance or filling
a room with noise to erase an absence. The radio sings
with such clarity. Omit me here. She has left me.
Left as in someone had propelled forward in an act
of leaving the other behind. Someone suggests You’ll live
and that is all I need to poke holes in the current.
What they really mean is You’ve failed. I have grown
too accustomed to static. All my specters
in a box in terrified light. I try and pretty it
but my trying is a version of failure shimmying up
the curbside. What happens now: to keep or relent.
To pool over the silence. I don’t want to be here.
Always carrying these spools of her. Cavernous
and sifting through a blur. The alone too terrible to ignite.

Muriel Leung is from Queens, NY. Her writing can be found or is forthcoming in The Collagist, Fairy Tale Review, Ghost Proposal, Jellyfish Magazine, inter|rupture, and others. She is a recipient of a Kundiman fellowship and is a regular contributor to The Blood-Jet Writing Hour poetry podcast. She is also the Poetry Co-Editor for Apogee Journal. Currently, she is completing her MFA in creative writing at Louisiana State University. Her first book Bone Confetti is forthcoming from Noemi Press in October 2016.

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