“There Are No Angels — Only Heavy Islands”: On Claire Meuschke’s “Upend”

By Taneum BambrickMay 30, 2020

“There Are No Angels — Only Heavy Islands”: On Claire Meuschke’s “Upend”

Upend by Claire Meuschke

“SOMEONE CAN REPLACE someone with a like or as / someone can replace someone without a like or as / replacement can mean literally relocated / or figuratively placed in a hole / birds made homes out of trees and then we did,” Claire Meuschke writes in her debut poetry collection, Upend (Noemi Press, 2020). Through its searing attention to both the environmental and the human, this collection works to highlight how the function of a metaphor mirrors the violence of imperialism, displacement, and government-mandated erasure. In Upend, each poem navigates with a resistance to metaphor while still, unavoidably, relying on it. This resistance creates an abundance of images that admit and lament their own complicity within the fraught system of language, of poetry. “I learned English on top of an estimated fifty buried languages,” the speaker admits. “I can dig just inches down and find obsidian and shells.”

Alongside gestures of self-critique, Meuschke foregrounds the speaker’s unwavering compassion for the self, the family, the earth, and the reader. Upend presents trauma in avoidance of shock or surprise. Through precise tonal variety, and a constant negotiation of figurative and declarative language, these poems register as painfully, stunningly true. In part, this is accomplished through abrupt humor. After thinking about the “flammability” of buffalo shit, for example, the speaker notes a park sign that highlights “the massacre of buffalo during Indian Removal Act / not the massacre of Indians.” Any moment of humor is almost always a signal that the poem is about to shift into the dissection of a particular danger. If there is a map to this work, it serves primarily as a method of fierce protection — unavailable in reality — alerting to the reader how and when these poems will engage with violence.

“There are no angels — only heavy islands attached to heavy islands called states, called reservations, called National parks. I use the em dash when I can’t bear for the sentence to end,” the speaker states after discovering the documentation of her grandfather’s immigration trial on Angel Island. Upend is in part an erasure, an expansion, and a reclamation of these documents that teach the speaker about her grandfather, Hong On, an orphan brought from the United States to China by his uncle after the deaths of his parents. Upon attempting to reenter the United States, Hong On learned not only about his own life, but also about the state of his immediate family through a formal interrogation. His mother is identified as “unknown Indian” on his birth certificate. His brother is described as “given away.” The em dashes in this section suggest a strong resistance to the finality of this history, the dehumanizing lack of space given for the grandfather to react. Upend does not attempt to react in his place through persona. Through the deconstruction of this document, Meuschke advocates on Hong On’s behalf.

Meuschke’s responses to this immigration document unfold throughout the text, erasing and repurposing its language and symbols. Upend begins with the enlarged, intentionally pixilated symbol, “ – oOo – ,” which also acts as either a title or an epigraph to 11 poems in the collection. This symbol is centered on the top of the 27th page of Hong On’s immigration document, above the transcription of his interrogation. In the poem “TO WARD,” Meuschke attempts to define this unexplained symbol: “A protection spell? Imprisonment? Orientation?” She notes misspelled words throughout the document — “deth” in place of “death” — and other errors exhibiting a lack of care, which could indicate that the – oOo – was unintentional, a slip, or another way of communicating that, to the immigration system, accuracy surrounding her grandfather’s case was unimportant. Meuschke inhabits this symbol, describing the smaller o’s surrounding the capitalized one as “children,” “gems,” or “servants,” tying the image to the ideas of generation, stolen property, and exploitation. Upend refuses the confusion of government documents by enlarging them at their most obfuscated points, allowing a lack of meaning to juxtapose with the reality of Hong On’s imprisonment, and the imprisonment of the many he represents.

While identifying both the potential and the risks of documentary poetics projects, poet Philip Metres, in his essay “From Reznikoff to Public Enemy,” claims, “Their power resides in their negotiation between language of evidence and language of transcendence.” Upend, as a documentary poetics project, creates a language of transcendence, in part, through its employment of withheld evidence. On three occasions, for example, the image of a paint swatch from the Sherwin-Williams fan deck is included as its own page. Each is a swatch of gold — “Golden Gate,” “Independent Gold,” “Empire Gold” — which forms a list surrounded by white space. Isolated throughout the text, the colonial implications of these names are called into question. They connote the California gold rush — “golden state” — the enslavement of black and Indigenous peoples, genocide of Indigenous peoples, and the destruction of place that occurred during that time period. The speaker does not reveal until the long essay “Mechanical Bull” toward the end of the collection that her father worked as a house painter in the Bay Area during the 1970s. Once we learn this, the prior accumulation of imagery becomes more complex. Oddly and violently racialized paint titles (such as “Well-Bred Brown” and “Resort Tan”) juxtapose with the father, who brags about his German last name painted onto his work truck and mimics the mother’s dead mother by “switching l’s and r’s” during a conversation at the dinner table. In Upend, paint is an odor the speaker loves but resists loving. The fan deck, which is designed for cursory perusal, symbolizes the way in which people of privilege engage with histories of colonization.

One of the many triumphs of this collection is its ability to illustrate the layered problems resulting from categorical language. In “Mechanical Bull,” the speaker states, “[A] cashier at El Cometa speaks to my twin and me quickly in Spanish, to which I say sorry for my ambiguity. That I refer to you as cashier. You as machinery.” Blame shifts throughout this section. The cashier’s misunderstanding is interpreted immediately by the speaker as the fault of her appearance, a reaction that indicates a lifetime of internalized microaggressions. While there are many moments like this in which the speaker is victimized, targeted, or harassed, Meuschke always, within the space of the same poem, includes others where the speaker is also an accidental aggressor in her actions or her thinking, demonstrating not that we are all victims to structures of power, but that we all have the agency to observe where and how power is at work.

In Upend, the three poems that share the title “Altar” act as spaces of rest, respect, and self-critique — mirroring the complex internal process of prayer. These moments are some of Meuschke’s most declarative. The second “Altar,” for example, is a couplet that reads: “[A] place that imports its marble as mass kitchen and grave alike / is no place for me yet here I am handing myself a sponge.” The last two “Altars” call back to the idea of material origin: the mountains that the granite was mined from. Here, the speaker, by identifying her positionality, admits that she is the agent of this metaphor. Through her, the contradictory uses of this stone are interpreted and reacted to. In cleaning the surface one might eat off of or be buried under, the speaker embodies the risk of the poet: acting as a conduit for flawed comparisons.

This inescapable complicity is further complicated by the speaker’s research into her family’s history, which causes her to know headstones not only as markers or “altars” for the dead but also as evidence. During his trial, Hong On was held longer because he was unable to verify aspects of his own story, including that his mother had passed away. A letter that Meuschke provides from the “Chinese Inspector” to Immigration Services states that Hong On’s case would not close until he was able to “furnish a man who [could] point out the grave of the alleged mother.” In part, these altars are for her, just as Upend is dedicated to the great-grandmother “who the archives elide.” How tenuous is a system where a person’s deportation or imprisonment depends on one’s ability to produce a grave? Upend, in its hybridity and documentation, is transcendent in its engagement with elided archives.

This is a collection of scattered paint swatches, of complicated cemeteries, of altars made into altars by people speaking silently toward them. Meuschke writes against the idea that the poem can only accomplish so much, can only contain so many intersecting subjects. For what it refuses, for what it celebrates, and for how it challenges whatever we think we know about genre and the possibilities of a single text, we owe this work everything we have to give as readers.


Taneum Bambrick is the author of VANTAGE, which was selected by Sharon Olds for the 2019 APR/Honickman First Book award (Copper Canyon Press).

LARB Contributor

Taneum Bambrick is the author of Intimacies, Received (Copper Canyon Press, 2022) and Vantage (The American Poetry Review, 2019). Her poems appear or are forthcoming in The Nation, The New Yorker, Pen, and elsewhere. A 2020 Stegner Fellow at Stanford University, she is a Dornsife Doctoral Fellow in Creative Writing and Literature at the University of Southern California and co-editor of reviews for Pleiades magazine.


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