Metaphors and Manifestos

Cutting Time with a Knife, Michael Leong (100pp, $15.00, Black Square Editions)

Part anatomy lesson, part science textbook, and part credo, Michael Leong's innovative new poetry collection invokes looks to scientific discourses as a source of insight about literary history. Just as chemist Dmitri Mendeleev predicted the various chemical elements "by virtue of his table's novel organization," Leong attempts to predict "the future contours of literary history" by examining, dissecting, and reassembling the various parts of "the poet" as defined by history and culture. The resulting poem, as visually stunning as it is thought-provoking, renders the manifestos of past literary movements (particularly Surrealism) compatible with a contemporary artistic landscape, offering readers a beautiful interplay between form and content all the while. 

Leong's claims about literary history are not only enriched by his stylistic innovations, but in many ways, are made possible by them.  Throughout the book, he presents metaphor as a foundation for poetic thought, something that must not be discarded as writers test the boundaries of form and genre. Indeed, Leong conveys the importance of this literary device with subtlety and grace. He replicates the visual appearance of Mendeleev's periodic table of elements, replacing chemical substances with evocative, carefully chosen metaphors. Just as the chemical elements remain irreducible, Leong underscores the necessity of this literary device, even in the most innovative literary undertakings. Consider this passage,

                  The tooth of the
                                             poet is the
loom of

The careful visual presentation of the poem subtly inscribes boundaries for literary experimentation.  Just as scientific knowledge must be verifiable, testable, Leong implies that these boundaries are objectively knowable.  Throughout the book, formal decisions like this one compliment, and more often complicate, the spare, finely crafted text itself.

In many ways, Leong's use of form is itself a metaphor, suggesting that the future of poetry is circumscribed by its past.  Cutting Time With a Knife
is filled allusions to the author's predecessors - which include T.S. Eliot, Sigmund Freud, William S. Burroughs, and Shin Yu Pai - who ultimately make possible Leong's project.  Much like Marianne Moore's description of literary tradition as "a conversation," the poems in this collection present pieces of history, literary, and culture as foundational for one's own contribution. Leong writes,

          The superego of the poet is the
                  of erbium.

Just as the elements present in the periodic table circumscribe the possibilities for more complex chemical substances, one's literary past simultaneously inspires and limits one's own poetic contribution. The book is filled with finely crafted poems like this one, in which form gives way to myriad possibilities for interpreting the text itself. In short, Leong's new collection is as innovative as it is thought-provoking. 

   Kristina Marie Darling 2012