Silent Anatomies by Monica Ong is unlike any book of poetry I have ever encountered. It’s no wonder Joy Harjo selected it as the winner of the Kore Press First Book Award. An amalgam of poetry and visual art, of family history and feminism, of diagrams and mixed media, in it Monica Ong not only dissolves the boundary between poetry and art, but also the boundary between the heart and the mind. Ong uses her heart to search through her family’s history for clues of what it has meant through generations to be a woman in China and in the Philippines, she uses her formidable intellect to sculpt her findings into a remarkable work of art. This search leads Ong through family photo albums, ultrasound images, medical textbooks, Chinese-English dictionaries, MRI scans and even advertisements to understand a history that is at once personal and political. By weaving in diagrams of nerves and arteries, Ong suggests that this history runs through her body and her blood.
The collection opens with a quote from Susan Howe, “I wish I could lift from the dark side of history, voices that are anonymous, slighted—inarticulate.” This is ultimately the intent of Ong’s entire collection, that gives voice to many members of her family: a delusional aunt who has fallen into silence; a dying grandmother; yet unborn female progeny; a mother who as a girl had to pretend to be a boy in a family portrait. Though Silent Anatomies hovers close to the women in the family, it also works to understand the silence of fathers and grandfathers, to understand what is beneath surface of a tongue. Many of the poems are arranged in series, in “Profunda Linguae” the poems are captions for diagrams that reveal the muscular structures of the tongue, these diagrams are arranged over the Chinese-Filipino recipes her mother typed on her father’s prescription pad when her mother first came to the United States. The series describes memories of meals with Ong and her father:
At the table, we do not speak of ourselves,
never learned the words for daring or disappointed
don’t know how to say
have no idea if you’ve missed me these last few years.
These multidimensional poems look at the layers of complexity in, specifically, an immigrant’s tongue: What words have been lost? What flavors have been retained? What feelings go untranslated in silence? Ong brings her reader into her search for heritage, for origins of dialect, her search for her own tongue which not only turns backwards but forwards into future generations.
As in the striking series, “Catching Wave,” which uses Ong’s and her sister’s ultrasound images to discuss the positioning of girls in Asian cultures. She explains the work in her notes: “The practice of aborting baby girls (in China and other Asian countries) has altered the gender balance such that there are approximately 124 boys to every 100 girls.” In the first image, Ong has imposed the borders of China around the fetus, she gives the child a 49% chance at burial and a 51% chance at fireworks; in another poem her mother has stated, “There are no fireworks when girls are born.” In this poem Ong longs for a girl, perhaps to alter the conversation surrounding girls that she inherited; she writes in her final poem, “The Attic” which is written to her child, “By the time you are born, what I know of this world will be well on its way to extinction.” The image adjoining this poem is of the inside of the ear canal, above this is an image of her grandfather in front of his home in the Philippines; earlier in the collection we learn that in order to be allowed entry into the Philippines her grandfather had to take the papers of a dead man, and this is the origin of their family name: Ong. Though a fraught past runs through the exposed veins and vessels in Silent Anatomies, Ong knows she can “make more room in this attic.” For as Ong notes, in the Hokkien dialect tiah is not only the word for ache and to listen, but with a certain tone, it also means— love.
Ong has certainly ached as she listened to the voices of the past revealing her cultural history, but there she also learned to love, even if at times it was hidden beneath silences. And therefore even when this collection is at its most critical of her culture and the patriarchy at large there is still personal tenderness towards her family. This duality is on display in Ong’s striking antique bottle series which uses clear glass antique bottles filled with various kind of medicinal pills labelled with photographs of her family members and Chinese-English dictionary excerpts that reveal a shadow connection between terms like: patriarchy, patricide, patriotic, and fascism, fascistic, fashionable, to hers, herself, hesitant, and transoceanic, transpacific, transparent. This astonishing series is footnoted with personal reflections on her grandfather, father, mother, and especially her grandmother; Ong writes, “We drift in different dictionaries, often hearing each other second hand.”
Whatever dictionary Ong drifts within, it is one I want to keep reading. It is a shame that so many book contests specifically state that if a manuscript has images, to leave them out; what a loss it would have been if a book as rich and complex as Silent Anatomies were never published do to such constraints. Fortunately, Ong's marvelous collection does exist in the world and so our notions of gender, race, culture, and identity are further challenged with grace and precision. In Silent Anatomies Monica Ong has seamlessly woven a multilayered collection that in its form of combining images and text is in itself a revelation, these visual poems intimately reveal the ways in which our bodies are sewn to our families, and our tongues are sewn to our cultures, but also the way art can transcend any boundary.
Note: Monica Ong also sells broadsides of some of the visual poems in Silent Anatomies on her Etsy site, I had to have one! Check them out HERE. Also check out more of Ong's artwork on her website.
Brunch: I suppose after reading Silent Anatomies I wanted to make one of my own grandmother’s recipes. This is one of her classics, a rather dry European style cinnamon coffee cake which tastes best with strawberries and whipped cream. My mother used to always smash up the strawberries and let some sugar help pull out the juices for a few hours, but I was feeling impatient! This is paired with a cup of truffle hot chocolate.
Paperback $ 19.95