Loving Death

Jane Wong’s Work Brightly Haunts the Frye

The poet’s new museum exhibition invites you to the table to engage physically with history and its ghosts.

By Stefan Milne May 29, 2019 Published in the June/July 2019 issue of Seattle Met

Image: Tori Dickson

When she was 23, while on a Fulbright fellowship in Hong Kong, poet Jane Wong traveled to her mother’s rural village near Taishan and celebrated Grave Sweeping Day: Families go to cemeteries in spring to honor their ancestors. They clean the graves and feast and burn money as offering.

She’d celebrated the holiday in the U.S., driving to a cemetery in a country where this is not a dominant tradition, but here in America, she says, the practice is “sanitized.” In China, villagers bushwhacked to mountain graves, hauling a whole roast pig. “That was a major party; firecrackers this way, funeral money that way, yelling, eating.” After this feast the village would return to frugality, and this convergence of lost ancestors, bounty, and scarcity resonated with Wong. She had only just as an undergraduate learned of China’s Great Leap Forward, the Maoist industrialization campaign from 1958 to 1960 that starved between 20 and 45 million people to death. Wong’s mother was born at the end of the campaign and their ancestors were likely among the dead. But her family won’t speak of it.

These ingredients—elided histories, ghosts, hunger and gluttony, immigrant cultures existing between worlds—are now fundamental to Wong’s writing. This June, After Preparing the Altar, the Ghosts Feast Feverishly opens at the Frye Art Museum. In 2017, the Frye and Artist Trust named her the year’s James W. Ray Distinguished Artist, an honor that often includes a show at the museum. In her exhibition, Wong will array an altar with flowers, family photos, oranges, money. She’ll display a prose poem written for the show, about an orange rotting over 80 days. Color will fill the space to illustrate, in part, what she calls “going towards the ghost”—the dead with us, not against us.

The exhibition shares its name with a long poem Wong published last year. Narrated by her ancestral ghosts, it’s a litany of appetites, yet often the foods they name slip away into metaphor: “We want / the marbled fat of a steak and all its swirling pink / galaxies…. Order up! Pickled cucumbers piled like logs for a fire, like fat limbs we pepper and succulent in.” Finally, the ghosts address a little girl in her American prosperity. “Did our mouths buckle at the sight / of you devouring slice after slice of pizza and / the greasy box too? Does this frontier swoon for you?” The Frye show’s centerpiece is a large, gilded table covered in bowls. Visitors will gather around the table—like a family—to consume the work. Wong will break the poem among the bowls, so when reading people will share space, likely missing pieces of the text and losing parts of even her imagined history.

A bowl from Wong’s Frye exhibition.

Image: Jueqian Fang

Wong’s life is itself full of omission. She grew up in her parents’ Chinese American restaurant in New Jersey in the 1980s. She made wontons, cleaned the “poop vein” from shrimp. She thinks the restaurant was named after her now-estranged father, but even though she worked there until fifth or sixth grade, she isn’t sure. “Maybe that’s wrong,” she says. Her parents were in an arranged marriage and split up. “My mom refuses to talk really about the restaurant.” All the photos—save one, a close-up on her and her mother—are gone, too.

“Food and silence,” she says of how it relates to her work. “That’s the two things, constantly.” Near that restaurant was a library where she’d wall off for six hours at a time to read. Eventually she went to Bard College, then to Hong Kong (“life changing, living abroad and fucking up Cantonese”), then to the University of Iowa Writers’ Workshop, then to an English PhD at the University of Washington.

Childhood photos, at an uncle’s restaurant and her grandparents’ apartment.

As she graduated in 2016, she published a poetry collection, Overpour, and a virtual dissertation project called The Poetics of Haunting in Asian American Poetry, both of which explore many of her Frye exhibition’s themes. Through video, text, and photos, the website brings together contemporary Asian American poets like Sally Wen Mao and Cathy Linh Che who make a “productive, intentional act to go toward the ghost and rewrite forgotten histories.” Overpour unfurls in a montage of sometimes lovely but often brutal imagery (bones, animal blood). It’s engaged with feast and famine, with her family history of poverty and American pastoralism: “Sometimes, I think: Can Walden exist in China? / Returning to nature is a luxury we keep.”

Now, at the Frye, she’s able to further transform her project. I’d been wondering—reading her work and thinking of how it might change when translated to tactile, physical space—if ghosts and language somehow correlated. A word rarely signifies a single thing: Orange, for instance, can refer to pieces of fruit of various size and taste, and the word still applies long after the flesh of each has rotted. So can words themselves haunt?

“I feel very much the opposite,” she says. Words for her are a sort of ballast, physically felt, manifested on page (line-broken, consciously shaped) and in a mouth’s movement. On that altar in the exhibition, she’ll also project her poems, the words as objects—like burnt cash—to be offered up.

► After Preparing the Altar, the Ghosts Feast Feverishly, June 1–Sept 1, Frye Art Museum, Free

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