Book Review: Automaton Biographies

I’ve just finished reading Larissa Lai’s first full-length poetry collection, Automaton Biographies. I’ve worked with Larissa before, some of her wonderful poems were included in “Swallowing Clouds: An Anthology of Chinese-Canadian Poetry”, and I’ve read her amazing novel, “When Fox Is A Thousand”. Haven’t grabbed “Salt Fish Girl” yet!

I found the book so interesting and engaging that I wanted to write a bit about it, but on the other hand, I didn’t like all of it, and feel slightly reticent to put that in a public space – but then, I recall an essay on Australian poetry that commented that because everyone knows each other, it’s hard to create a critical dialogue. Everyone is being nice. So, I hope that contrasting what I liked and I didn’t like offers something that is more truthful and useful.

Wanting to see what others said about the book, I had a quick surf online. Jacqueline Turner was complimentary in the Georgia Straight in a review that included 3 other books: “Her playful pulling of pop lyrics and manipulation of movie scenarios are filtered through the depth and importance of documenting possible shifts in what it means to be human in an era of increasing technologization”. rob mclennan mostly lets the work speak for itself, including a long poem in his review, and commenting, “What appeals about this collection of four sequences is in how they all seems wrapped up in a similar question, on existence, stripping down the boundaries of soul, social expectation and language.” In fact, that helps my own conceptualization of the book. Mark Callanan is quite cutting: “Lai’s meditations on a post-human world proceed with an unsettling machine-like efficiency stripped of human vitality.”

Lai’s book is in four sections. The first speaks in the voice of Rachel, the cyborg, from Blade Runner. The second section, nascent fashion, addresses war, the third speaks in the voice of Ham, a chimpanzee sent up in space, and the last is an autobiography of sorts. The poems in general are challenging, they bring in references from dozens of sources, break down syntax and narrative, and are often fragmented [proviso: my tastes lean towards more traditional lyric and free-verse poetry and away from language poetry and more contemporary, experimental forms]. I expected to connect the most with the last autobiographical section, but while I could make my own allusions to a Cantonese heritage, and project my own stories into different lines or images, I found it too impressionistic. I was more engaged by the playful humour in the section on Ham but also found it difficult.

I liked the opening section more. My friends are always saying in incredulous voices, “you’ve NEVER seen [fill in the blank, popular or well-known movie]”. Get thee to the video store, Andy. But I didn’t mind not knowing the character from Blade Runner  but being introduced through this poem sequence which lays down key themes of the book: machines, technology, duality.

The second section, on war, is what I really want to talk about though. I think that poetry is often not suited towards more political statements – an ideological viewpoint standing in opposition to open-ended allusion, so I admired the passion of this section, its bravery to be political and its success. The poems in this section often make verbs out of nouns (“I joy our small”, “I language my body”) and while I had to expel the fridge magnet poetry set from my mind (which encourages similar playfulness), I thought that the new language that Lai created here was energetic and engaging. There is also a wonderful variation in tone – moving from rap-like slam poetry rhythms (“mask delusion’s massive protrusion / misunformed in tight uniform”) to quiet and straightforward lines like “we entered the desert/ we thought it was empty” (this is from my favourite poem in the section, which tells me I could challenge my bias towards accessibility…).

Here is where I’ll correct what I wrote above. The poems here are not “challenging”, they just require a different way of reading. What I loved was in fact how readable and accessible they were, the lines flow beautifully and the images and references felt to me as if on a large canvas, placed in different parts that at the end of a poem, displayed the full painting. Images are disturbing and original, intimate images of the body “miraculous / pulse and warm” are next to language of business and technology, women appear as both subjects of violence and goddess-amazon-fox tricksters. In fact, it’s a way of explaining our own lives, that our references and stories and histories are disparate and can’t be reduced to simple narratives. This, and the coherence in vision and themes of all four sections make me appreciate the book as a whole. And besides, it’s staying with me, it got under my skin.

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