Kore Press, 2015
Reviewed by Miriam Rother
Silent Anatomies—the words framed by a diagram of the lower intercostal nerve—is the title of Monica Ong’s first book, which was selected by Joy Harjo for the Kore Press 2014 First Book Award. Ong, the daughter of a Chinese mother and a Filipino father, is a visual artist and writer who claims more than one country as home.
As an immigrant and choreographer who has myself moved through the world, I was certain that Silent Anatomies would prove a compelling read. And, in fact, the book offers more than a reading experience: it is a journey through an art installation. Most of these installations are housed in a single room, a series of spaces, or a defined outdoor area. There’s also text, family photographs, scans of artifacts, and medical ephemera.
The Glass Larynx introduces the character Medica, the agent through which the artist/daughter speaks. The prominence of medical material—diagrams, collectibles, etc—is perhaps a nod to Ong’s father, a physician. Medica’s words stand opposite those of the 3rd century BC Chinese philosopher, Chuang Tzu; on one side of an anatomical drawing is the fragment, “shards in a.” On the other side, from the philosopher’s Action and Non-Action, is the phrase “still water is like glass.”
In the next piece, Bo Suerte, we see a well-preserved family photograph of a nanny, along with four boys and three girls. But in the poem opposite the picture, the reader learns that there were in fact five daughters born to this family:
Suerte, is Catholic for Karma, cruel as hunger, heavy as stone.
The fact of five daughter was of the immutable kind.
Payback, perhaps, for an unsavory ancestor in an imperial court?
In these opening pieces, it’s as if Ong is cautioning her readers to pay attention to images, words both ancient and modern, and to the kind of poems that divulge family secrets.
The reader would do well to heed the artist. Several pages later, in Catching A Wave, Ong presents 6 ultrasound scans taken during her pregnancy (ultrasound, a machine that operates by means of sound waves, has been banned in some Asian countries, as it is considered an accurate predictor of gender). “The practice of aborting baby girls has altered the gender balance such that there are 124 boys to every 100 girls … some estimate the disappearance of baby girls at 100 million or higher,” Ong writes. For Ong, waves themselves are feminine, and the female wave is in danger. “When a wave recedes into the ocean, she looks for the next place to emerge. Many like her are short, choppy, smashed into rocks. Obliterated,” she writes at the top of the first scan.
Each image is bordered by single words or phrases. Next to an image of the head of a fetus is written:
Chances of (%)
This raises the question of whether there will be celebration or death for this unborn child. The reader rides the wave of rising action, until she reaches Ong’s most difficult test of grasping the image/text link.
In The Onset, the artist presents pictures of antique medicine bottles, each decorated with a family photo. Under every photo is an entry taken from an outdated Chinese English dictionary. Below the photograph of Ong’s paternal aunt is the label Hers, followed by a string of words (“hers, herself, he’s, hesitating, hesitant, hesitate”) translated into Chinese. The reader then comes upon two blank pages, each ending with a single numbered footnote.“I was almost thirty when diagnosed with acute filial piety,” one note reads. In another
Memories tango, are tangled in plaque fibers twisted tau. All of us mangled by the nothing train that spreads from nerve to nerve. A gliding whisper without brakes.
In Profunda Linguae there are a series of anatomical diagrams of the tongue, onto which the artist has layered recipes, handed down by her mother, that have been typed onto her father’s prescription pads. The Attic, the final piece in the author’s installations, is a collage composed of a diagram of the inner ear, accompanied by a family photograph of her paternal grandfather in front of his home in the Philippines. Family wisdom—the kind that’s meant to be handed down to the next generation—is stored in the highest room in the home.
Under the title Auricle, Ong writes:
When I say in the first tone lai tiah,it is me
asking you to bring your warm body to the
family room, heart within heart.
In the poem Membrane Timpanyi, we learn the phrase Hokkien, tiah, which means “to listen.” At the end of the journey, though I may think and re-think the links between image and text, I feel a resolution penetrating my anatomy, going through my skin and muscles down to my bones. I, too, wonder if the next generation will listen—and, at least at times, return to the family room.
Canadian born and Israeli trained, Miriam Rother is a dancer, choreographer and teacher. Since 1975, she has worked in Canada, Israel, Malawi, Thailand, Hungary, Switzerland and Kenya. She is the co-founder of Danse-Habile, an inclusive dance company and non-profit disability arts association, and the founder of the Pamoja Dance Group, a company made up of disabled and non-disabled dancers. She is currently completing her Masters thesis for the Shaindy Rudoff Graduate Program in Creative Writing at Bar-Ilan University.