Review: Silent Anatomies by Monica Ong
Monica Ong’s Silent Anatomies, winner of the 2014 Kore First Book Prize, is an exciting foray into archival memory and translation. Ong, a poet and artist, uses image and text in innovative collaboration in a book that illuminates experiences of gender, migration, and language in consistently surprising forms.
One of the most striking features of this work is Ong’s use of digitally collaged images, in which text is superimposed over ultrasound scans shaped like China or lungs labeled with lyric phrases. Many of the images are drawn from John P. Deaver’s 1899 text Surgical Anatomies, which gives Ong’s work a grounding in medical metaphor and the geometries of the human body; in poems that speak in the tradition of experimental poets like Susan Howe, image plays a significant role in shaping and responding to language. For instance, a set of antique medicine bottles, labeled by Ong on archival paper and beautifully photographed by Steffen Allen, serve as spectacular re-envisionings of how text and object interact.
Ong’s writing is guided by an engaging sense of irony that consistently draws together myth, translation, and inquiry. At the poems’ foundations are family stories and pictures, in many ways as significant as the text in their representations of “perfection” and transgression. Ong’s language has a remarkable power to use definitions and translation to resist both. For example, the medicine bottles, in a stunning sequence, advertise “Ancient Chinese Secrets”—tongue-in-cheek criticisms of gender bias, racism, and xenophobia. For gender, Ong offers “Perfect Baby Formula” that has the impact of “gender correction;” a tooth-whitening solution “noticeably whitens speech.” Even the transmission of family narrative is complicated by the language itself, by generational differences, and by memory: “There are no fireworks when girls are born. My mother is translating her mother.” At times, Ong acknowledges the untranslatability of history, tracing the poems’ English with Hokkien, Spanish, and Tagalog.
Silent Anatomies is deeply engaged with the concept of definition, and some of the most interesting moves in the book come from efforts to represent concepts in new languages, including the visual. For example, “The Attic” places a photo of Ong’s grandfather and his home atop a diagram of the ear, labels replaced with meditations on the inter-generational transmission of language. In the series “The Onset,” Ong pairs family photos with lists of alphabetical dictionary entries; these collaged selections each develop existing themes with surprising correspondences: words like “transparent” and “transpacific” share a bottle, as do “patriarchy” and “patriotic,” “herself” and “hesitate.”
By the end of the book, the swift moves from image to footnote, and from recipe to organ, seem accurate representations of the impossibilities of defining the cultural forces Ong targets in her inquiry. Ong takes each form, from diagram to verse, and presses against its limitations boldly: “Father taught that to succeed in a new place, one must memorize the dictionary. Unable to locate him in the A’s, I would go outside to taste the snow.” Silent Anatomies is a striking meditation on gender and immigration, but also presents fascinating formal experiments that challenge the durability and usefulness of language itself. In the end, we are left, as the speaker is, with the challenge of shaping language and image to illuminate the body—the only tools that can—and to rest with the question, how many ways does translation fail? As Ong writes,
[And who in this white cube
can decipher the endangered dialect
thinning in her throat?]