with critique by Jendi Reiter
it seems pointless to speak of individuals
when there are so many of us
with lines blurred between one and the other
a chain of unremarkable events
in China from the train every town was the same
with one main street and its colored flags
identical to all the others
and if the town was big enough
a mob of Citroens and rainbow colored lights
every village was a repetition of fields
(no wonder the Chinese call the world "thirty fields")
any mule in the field the same as one
in the streets of Beijing
every red brick identical and
green and blue glass strewn in great reefs
from high rise to hovel
every Russian tourist
was the same
being a molecule from which it
is possible to extract many units of sameness
consisting of a man with a gold watch
a bleached blonde and a red-tinted brunette
each in mink coats
a friend asks me what was the most surprising thing about China
because he wants me to say it is so much like America
but he doesn't realize I already knew this
and couldn't see the novelty in
the disappearance of Beijing's nameless neighborhoods
once hidden in the labyrinthine groves of sycamores
their ghosts behind miles of grey cement
"They're just like us in so many ways," he says.
Copyright 2009 by Ellyn Scott
Critique by Jendi Reiter
Ellyn Scott's "Reseau" intrigued me on a first reading and revealed new dimensions when I returned to it. It's a cleverly self-undermining poem whose believable depiction of foreign landscapes and their inhabitants is at odds with its theme of human uniformity. This embedded contradiction should prompt us to second-guess our own impressions of the people we see through this opinionated narrator's eyes.
The online dictionary at Answers.com defines a "reseau" as "a reference grid of fine lines forming uniform squares on a photographic plate or print, used to aid in measurement", or "a mosaic screen of fine lines of three colors, used in color photography". In the context of the poem, the reseau may be a metaphor for the interpretive framework that the narrator seeks, in which she can organize her impressions of people who seem quite distinct from her, yet monotonously identical to one another. The idea with which she opens her travelogue—that the collective is more real than the individual—is her "reseau", the grid whose regularity perhaps makes it a foregone conclusion that she will see uniformity wherever she looks.
It seems more than coincidental that the two nationalities she mentions, the Chinese and the Russians, were both under Communist rule for most of the 20th century (as China still is, at least in name), and both are currently governed by regimes that would be described as authoritarian by Western standards. A common cultural stereotype during the Cold War represented Communist countries as peopled by faceless masses, unlike the free and diverse individuals of the United States.
Thus, when the apparently solitary narrator asserts that "it seems pointless to speak of individuals/when there are so many of us/countless likenesses," to what extent are her observations of China already conditioned by subconscious expectations of this political difference between their country and hers? Overlaying her "reseau" on their lives seen "from the train" (i.e. detached from them, merely passing through), she unconsciously mimics the leaders who hoped to impose scientific, modern, impersonal administration on a nation of peasants.
An entire stanza of abstractions is often a weak beginning for a poem, which is why "Reseau" did not completely win me over on first reading. My interest was piqued when Scott began telling me things I didn't know about the Chinese landscape, those unexpected details that seemed to carry the authority of first-hand observations: the "one main street and its colored flags" and the "mob of Citroens and rainbow colored lights". The local idiom ("thirty fields") and the quaintly incongruous Beijing mule—something we would hardly find in a major American city—are further proof that we are hearing about a real, and different, country. Upon rereading, I had more appreciation for the opening lines as a framing device for the facts that follow.
I had mixed feelings about the description of the Russian tourists. While plausible and amusing, it had a whiff of unfriendly caricature that made me question whether the author was reaching for an easy stereotype, in contrast to the fresh observations of the Chinese. However, as a character in the poem, the narrator may be projecting onto the Russians her contempt for the tourist's role that she and her friend also occupy. Certainly the poem takes a sarcastic turn here that continues to the end, though not without a touch of tenderness for the "ghosts" of "Beijing's nameless neighborhoods". Who is the subject of the lyrical lines of the penultimate stanza? That is, which of them (the narrator or her friend) "couldn't see the novelty" in the erasure of traditional neighborhoods by ugly cement behemoths? I would suggest changing "and couldn't" to "he couldn't" or "I couldn't" to make this clear.
As I interpret this section of the poem, the narrator's friend means to compliment China, in a patronizing sort of way, by comparing it to America: "They're just like us in so many ways," a cliché the narrator lets stand without comment, assuming its fatuousness will be evident. Meanwhile she herself observes a more unwelcome similarity between the two nations: "[I] couldn't see the novelty" in China's transformation because we Americans are equally prone to pave over our natural treasures and disrupt settled folkways with urbanization.
Can we, perhaps, find in this poem the suggestion of a further difference, between two styles of uniformity—the pre-individualist culture of the rural poor, which yet has some austere beauty, versus the cold mechanical "reseau" of modern urban planning and the market forces personified by the crass, moneyed Russian tourists? Or does any collective generalization by an outsider underscore the separation between the interpreter and her subject, no matter what she concludes? Scott's poem teases us with its well-realized characters and setting, while making us question whether what we see is really another culture or a reflection of our own preoccupations.
Where could a poem like "Reseau" be submitted? The following contests may be of interest:
Ascent Aspirations Poetry & Flash Fiction Contest
Postmark Deadline: February 28
Canadian literary webzine offers prizes up to C$100 and anthology publication for poetry, prose poems and short-shorts; previously published work accepted, but no simultaneous submissions
Connecticut River Review Annual Poetry Contest
Postmark Deadline: February 28
Long-running contest from the Connecticut Poetry Society offers prizes up to $400 for unpublished poems up to 80 lines
Tiger's Eye Poetry Contest
Postmark Deadline: February 28
Semiannual journal offers top prize of $500 for unpublished poems
Oregon State Poetry Association Contests
Postmark Deadline: March 1
Twice-yearly contest offers top prizes of $50-$100 in categories including traditional verse, humor, open theme
Oberon Poetry Prize
Postmark Deadline: March 14
The Oberon Foundation, a nonprofit arts organization on Long Island, offers $1,000 for unpublished poems up to 40 lines; no website; email Claire Nicolas White or see the profile in Literary Contest Insider for details
National Federation of State Poetry Societies Awards
Postmark Deadline: March 15
Founders Award of $1,500 plus 49 smaller prizes for poems in various styles and themes (some are members-only); no simultaneous submissions
Fish International Poetry Prize
Entries must be received by March 30
Irish independent publisher offers prizes up to 500 euros and a reading at their West Cork literary festival; mailed and online entries accepted
This poem and critique appeared in the February 2009 issue of Winning Writers Newsletter (subscribe free). If you'd like a chance to be critiqued, please email your poem to firstname.lastname@example.org. Please send your poem in the body of your email, rather than as an attachment. One poem per month only, please.
Several of our critique poets have asked me whether their poem would be considered "published", and therefore ineligible for most contests, after appearing in our newsletter. My guess would be yes, but check with the contest coordinator just in case, because some publishers may treat print and online publications differently.