The Universe of Lo Kwa Mei-en’s The Bees Make Money in the Lion: A Review
by Madeleine Wattenberg
Unmade, unmake, unsung, undress, unpin, underfoot, unbearable, unwar, unwound, unthinking, unmapped, unslit, unforgiven, unhurt, unspeakable, until,
Lo Kwa Mei-en’s second collection of poetry, The Bees Make Money in the Lion, is a collection of un-verse. It presses language in its attempt to undo itself, its speakers, and the systems in which it necessarily operates. A shifting lyric “I” sings at the centering of this undoing. “The reverse of the universe is round—a ground with a ceiling,” Mei-en writes. A trap: the universe overturned is the universe. There’s no up or down. Instead, the poems’ speakers orient themselves towards the red horizon of mars, of citizenship. They’re spliced through data, embodied and stamped as girl, outsider, immigrant, alien, cyborg. It’s an orientation toward a constellation of past, present, future—dead light guiding.
At a recent conference, I had the opportunity to ask Lo Kwa Mei-en what it means to “write after.” She urged me to consider instead: who receives this after? Who will get to write the “after” and have the power to frame and define it? Who will watch from earth as those white enough and wealthy enough rocket through pollution and border-as-violence to colonize mars? Who will undergo inter-planetary transport already shaped to their purposes of procreation, production, service, slave? The Bees Make Money in the Lion explores these questions literally and figuratively. Space exploration maps exploration on earth—the future will make a map of the past. The future is a ripple outward from origin, not a linear trajectory toward a new beginning:
. . . So fair is the bright nuclear summer’s bateau,
us sweetly inside. Thus, reflect. The reef is glass, the chain is deaf
gold, and the future is bright, this bright, but flashing in fright,
the mild bloom like a child in bloom, like a world refracting.
The narrative is a sci-fi adventure, and thus a romance, and thus the narrative of colonization. The Bees Make Money in the Lion is concerned with systems. Sequences of sonnets, elegies, aubades, and pastorals populate its universe in layers of constraint. Additional rules of the abecedarian or repetition doubly bind these forms. Speakers are forced to generate utterance and movement within the insistence, even violence, of this constraint (“I would run my finger down your seam”). Because Mei-en’s speakers operate within these limits, they must multiply inward and into language to establish agency. In a sequence of “Babel” poems, both the first and last words of each line repeat: “After falling, an economy is taut to eject the body, to break” becomes “After rebelling, the light was good, if original. I love winter, fit to break” in the subsequent poem. The collection is one of formalist maximalism—strata of rule and regulation. Yet within the line, the expected “taught” appears as “taut,” demonstrating one way that Mei-en multiplies and destabilizes meaning within the confines of the form. It is in this purposeful slippage that speakers gain a sense of agency.
Throughout the collection, the syntax enacts a process of destabilization within the determined rules by subverting the reader’s expectation. Mei-en is able to predict what words a reader (and particularly, I think, a native English speaking reader) expects in the sentence and exchange them for phonetic similarities—the reader is in this way put in the position of questioning the rigidity of their neural-linguistic coding. Here, bees make money, not honey. This work toward multiplicity is also necessary for the ongoing conversation of identity and space. “I too have acted like an America,” the speaker confesses. One small article (“an”) stands against the monolithic conception of America—there are as many Americas as Americans, and “Honey in a foreign girl’s roar is the key to auto / -fable, and here be lions.” Honey (or is it money?) is the means by which to fashion a self-made myth.
At times the speaker is lion, at times the speaker is bee—the promised body, the colonized body. In her poems, Mei-en performs an interrogation of hierarchy. “My monarch is feral,” she concludes in the opening poem. By the collection’s middle, the speaker inhabits the lion in multiplicity. In rhetoric of proclamation and self-address, she states, “Lo, I am lions.” Turn the page, and the lion degrades, an undoing of the undoing: “when I diminish the lion I start at her tail, for love of what I demolish.” The reverse of the universe is the universe.
In contrast to animal kings and kingdoms, the honey and cage, many of Mei-en’s speakers inhabit the language of technology. In these poems, bodies run programmed scripts of race and gender, speakers practice a mechanized art, soon swept away in a data wash, and “glib gears reproduce my body in www but not in / world, not yet.” Infomercials, chat forums, textspeak—the “computer nightingale” sings. In “Aubade for Non-Citizens,” citizens compete on reality TV for the title “colonist,” and this is “[t]he future, the TV / vectoring the colonists’ self-portrait.” We already live in a world where viewers vote their favorites into the colony. Mei-en highlights how we’re living this future. In “Pastoral for Colonial Candidacy,” the speaker declares, “I have a futurist’s job . . . a mechanic / who shows up for what was long since determined.”
Some poems, such as this one, engage in dialog, signified by white space, italics, or shift in tone. The abecedarian “Elegy with Status Quo and Albatross” begins:
Arbiters of beauty’s immortal orbit are the rich. They know a buzz
beelining the bikini of the universe if its kicks them in the essay,
collective conscience says [on stage]. Doves collapse the hat (the hoax
du jour) and [in the wings] belles go wild, wild, wow—
even past take-off, I’ll dance for love of the leitmotiv
for one big step for— [The business of] take-off:
The order of the English alphabet is the status quo. The layers of performance through which the speaker constructs and deconstructs longing, the advertisement appealing to “love of something bigger than—.” This is the log of citizenship, sailing to American-Dream-Turned-Martian-Dream and the new motherland is the motherboard: “X-ray this, motherfucker, socket / circuit twinned, sex on a memory stick . . . I am a kill switch. I mean, I want to be still // and retrieve my obedient self to unlearn.” The lineage of the android is computer mediated DNA.
In the “Babel” sequence, the speaker takes on myth of language: “The legend screws us like we came together in a loving tongue.” As she rejects the monolithic nation, Mei-en rejects the mono-language of humankind. “So unscrew it,” she says, inviting her reader to join her in this process, loosening the system’s nuts and bolts.
What can be affirmed in the un-verse? It’s a language that refuses to be settled in—that rejects the settler. In The Bees Make Money in the Lion, the undoing is the doing. Despite longing (“Let there be more world to wait for than this in this world”), there’s no wiping clean the hard drive of language. Even Mars is not outside the system—we’ll take ourselves with us when we go.
Madeleine Wattenberg's lifelong dream of writing reviews entirely in emojis feels closer than ever. The words of women and nonbinary writers keep her imaginary zeppelin afloat. Her own work appears or is forthcoming in journals such as Hermeneutic Chaos, Tinderbox Poetry Journal, Mid-American Review, Muzzle Magazine, Ninth Letter, and Guernica. Direct birdcalls to @topazandmaddy.