Carlina Duan is incredible at something that I find very difficult: building enormity and emotional honesty from a seemingly average moment. There are many places our work can come from—trauma, love, etc—so often, I consider a poem an event. When I read poets like Mary Oliver or Aracelis Girmay, I see that we can make an event through the poem; Duan does this, as well. In Alien Miss, Duan’s second collection, the work shines when crafting a poem from a moment that would have been forgotten otherwise. “POSSIBLE,” my favorite in the collection, carries a wonderfully giddy energy; the speaker begins, “now my dress smells like rain & all day long: I’ve been / eager to get back to my book.” This an impressive intimacy cultivate through the look of the poem, with its even-lines, lowercase letters, and ampersands. The speaker tells us about her book, the speaker tells us about the sounds she hears, crafting rhythm from repetition and onomatopoeia—we get the “stick, stick, stick” of the mind, the “thump, thump, thump” of clogs hitting a rain-soaked ground. Duan builds a beautiful little world in this breathless poem, small details building off of each other in a game of association, leading to this wonderful moment:
This turn takes the poem from associative musings and into gratitude; with an em-dash-ampersand combo, Duan conjures such an elegant, gentle moment of sitting with oneself. I loved this poem, dearly, and I will admit it made me cry.
At the heart of Alien Miss is people—Duan’s classmates, her sister, her grandmother. Sections LINEAGE OF and INHERIT WHAT YOU CAN render environments so effectively, from the warm chaos of a holiday meal to the quiet grief of witnessing a loved one’s health decline.
I am always drawn to cooking; much of Duan’s work is rooted in the meditative, and the way she describes meal preparation is ripe with it. In “DO YOU HAVE A GRAMMATICALLY CORRECT RESPONSE TO THE QUESTION?” the poet recounts a moment in which a person shouts racist comments from a car. The poem is formally irregular, not necessarily visually fragmented, but disrupted the same: this works well in representing that dazed, hurt confusion of a random but familiar occurrence. There is this gorgeous passage:
“I will eat leaves and pour vinaigrette
Slow & skinny. I will feed the low opal of my mouth. in times of /
distress, I will turn on the stove. Garlic will be fried in a river
of yellow oil. I will eat my letters, crunchy and fat. angry
and swollen, soft and slathered in old-fashioned oats, I will
try to pull up the words.
Hit me she did. Hurt me I am.
Language she did.”
Again, Duan is meditative; she builds a regular action into the profound. The sensory detail in this stanza is, quite literally, delicious—but this is not a food descriptor in service of warmth, as it so often can be. The poet’s language is doubted, and so the response is to chew the words and throw them out anew. The way she uses food to access memory, too, is masterful; in “BABA ENCOUNTERS KNIFE AND FORK,” the poet details her father’s early American experiences by food: “supermarkets sell plastic packs of bacon / by the pound,” “spiral of cucumber,” “remember / the tea leaf eggs smattered with soy sauce, cracked / so gently with the backs of spoons. recall stems / of bok choy deflating in the saucepan”; it is so simple to remember that everyone eats, but this weaving is beautiful, and something I am always attuned to.
Sections two and three are alive, grounded in the contemporary and the poet’s recent history. Section one is alive with a different sense of history. In the eponymous ALIEN MISS, the speaker of each poem takes on a multiplicity of voices, embodying the pain of early Chinese immigrants in the US and the trauma of the Chinese Exclusion Act. Persona poems are difficult, both to execute and to receive—Duan side-steps a conventional persona poem, however, and goes for a more Greek-chorus style compounding of experiences. There is an oscillation between a fictional Duan, as she specifies in her notes, and the voices of the past. It’s clear the aim of this section is to link the experience of our ancestors with our present, to remember how violent Sinophobia in 2021 is not incidental nor isolated—this harm has a legacy.
The finishing trio of poems, “ALIEN MISS CONSULTS HER PAST,” “ALIEN MISS CONSULTS HER FUTURE,” and “ALIEN MISS CONFRONTS THE AUTHOR” set up a worthy interrogation and a wonderful formal transition into the next sections—the precision that is so productive and indicative of care in the later poems appear here more prominently as opposed to the others in this section, that take on a more speculative, surreal feel.
The main difficulty I had with Alien Miss was the poem “POEM FOR CLARA ELIZABETH CHAN LEE”; the poet memorializes the first Asian American woman who registered to vote, and draws a line with her vote to the speaker’s voting in the present. This poem is startlingly out of place, especially alongside killer lines like: “Don’t fall for this Western Façade / Even if it is jade filled, it is still a cage” from “ALIEN MISS AT THE IMMIGRATION STATION,” or “I’ll bleed when I’m bit, I’ll pledge blood / but not today, not to this country with its history making blood / sport of our oceans & wrists” from “SITTING ON A U.S. BENCH, A MOSQUITO TAKES MY BLOOD”. The commitment to the denial of the state, in these moments, is weakened by an ode that romanticizes the participation in the very systems that enable and perpetuate harm. Duan writes, “first woman in the polling booth, choosing;” With election cycles continually, assuredly pitting warmongers against each other, I wonder: what choice is there in empire?
My criticisms are not to detract from the strengths nor to discourage readers—Alien Miss is an excellent work, especially as a second book with themes continued and nuanced from I Wore My Blackest Hair (Little A, 2017). There is an enormous history at work in Alien Miss and capturing the full breadth of its reach is impossible; the moments that Duan zooms into the hyper-specific is where the work thrives, and where I feel the most loss in the places that contradict it. These contradictions, however, do not spoil the whole. I recommend this book, and I know I will be giving it many re-reads, as her precision deserves.
(UNIVERSITY OF WISCONSIN PRESS, 2021)
You can keep up with Carlina Duan’s work here.
Summer Farah is a Palestinian American poet and editor. She co-writes the biweekly newsletter Letters to Summer. Summer is a 2019 RAWI WHAAS fellow. Her work has been published in Mizna, LitHub, hooligan mag, and other places. You can connect with her on Twitter @summabis.