A Return of a New Medea

Myths of heroism and desire in Laiwan’s Tender
By Rebecca Peng

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Tender by Laiwan
Tender by Laiwan, Talonbooks, 2020

The culmination of four decades of thought, Laiwan's Tender collects poems written between 1986 and 2019. Ten of the poems are collected from artists books, magazines, and anthologies, but Tender also contains new work and several of the poems are accompanied by photographs. While readers may be familiar with Laiwan's imaginative multidisciplinary art practice—which includes, but is hardly limited to, footage of Vancouver skyscrapers laden with barnacles, installations composed of bus transfers and light, and toilet paper turned into guerrilla art objects—the book's biographical note shares that it is through poetry that the artist, writer, and educator attempts "[to] make sense of things."

This framing is perhaps too modest for the collection's vision and confidence. Though the writing comes to us from a wide swath of time, the thematic concerns Laiwan grapples with are deeply relevant to 2020. The questions she attempts to make sense of include how one finds life and meaning in the face of boredom and numbness, conditions Tender asserts are brought about by capitalism and alienation. These conditions shape our desires. Laiwan's poems would be a rewarding read under any circumstances, however the realities of life under a global pandemic imbue Tender's persistent attention to the tensions between automated economic decisions and body at its most minute, cellular, and unabashedly physical with additional resonance.

In the poems "to gut and a rise," for example, Laiwan collates newspaper headlines and offsets these quotes and clippings with poetic commentary. Consistent with an artistic practice rooted in assembling and reorienting everyday materials, the poems use collage to weave together narratives of fear, displacement, gentrification, and resource extraction. Brought together, the fragments underline the intense pace of modern media, the suffocating volume of these narratives, and the self-serving qualities these stories collectively valorize.

Tender is chiefly concerned with breaking free of these conditions. In "on heroics," the speaker mounts an argument against the heroes "fed to [them] since kindergarten," raising a skeptical eye to everyone from Mother Teresa to Jesus Christ and condemning the colonial ideas of success packaged in figures like Cecil John Rhodes and Christopher Columbus. It is this thread that ends up being one of the collection's most captivating, not least because Tender does not simply raise pertinent questions, but suggests refreshing alternatives.

In repudiation of the heroic, one of Tender's most captivating poems "LUNG: towards embodying" explores the figure of Medea, an infamous "barbarian princess" from Ancient Greek myth, the daughter of King Aeëtes of Colchis and a direct, and therefore divine, descendent of the Sun. In the eyes of the Greeks, Colchis is far and foreign, uncivilized. Jason and his Argonauts sail to its distant shores in order to retrieve the golden fleece. It's a standard heroic quest: wiley kings, meddling gods, impossible tasks.

A witch by trade, Medea is (in)famous for ruthlessly aiding her lover Jason—embarking on a path of magical murder and treachery that culminates in Medea murdering their children, once Jason has arranged to leave her for a Greek princess. It is no wonder Laiwan is drawn to her. Medea is unconcerned with sentimentality, complacency, or redemption, the very qualities Laiwan wrestles against in "on heroics."

Laiwan's Medea is not a murderer, princess, or witch, but a dancer, spinning ever out of reach and out of control. In doing so, she spurs "a re-embracing of bodily being." The sovereign force Laiwan sets her up against is the "laser Cycloptian eye" of the Media, and the near homophone of these two figures is both delightful and speaks to Laiwan's precision. It is a delicate dance between Medea's freedom and Media's "current pace and pant… fast spin of words and tales," all "with a patrialogic to keep the citizenry in place."

In the face of succumbing to a rapid, overwhelming and numbing technological force, Laiwan invites us to read Medea as aspirational. She is the figure Laiwan suggests is able to break through, reach out and seize new possibilities. "Yet, how do we imagine what is yet to come? How do we learn this imagination?" the poem asks. Rebellion, disruption, and destruction are skills, and ones that require a modicum of creativity. Laiwan deems the Greek King who opposes Medea "macinative," entirely governed by his fear of what Medea might do. Jason is hardly better. Though ambitious, Jason is forever working towards the most traditional ideas of success, betraying love for well-worn patterns of fame and power. In Tender, neither of these archetypes are aspirational.

Instead, in Laiwan's Medea, one may read a call to go further than subversion: to create new desires. The mythic Medea managed it. She sacrificed her traditional, cultural desires for Jason, and then sacrificed her new family for an unprecedented form of freedom. Each exchange came at an exacting price, and so by engaging with the figure of Medea, Laiwan's poetry urges us to consider that cultivating new, un-numbing, liberating desires may be deeply challenging work, and yet:

Medea is of the world, alive, orgasmic, savage, straightforward, honest, and passionate with conviction. She is not in awe of telelogics and its distancing machinations… enraged, engaged, critical and nourishing a new curiosity: killing passivity, inviting engagement, collaborating in the world without a need to fix, own, contain, control, convert, or detain, but aspiring to a community of freethinkers who love monstrously and viciously to keep awake / while she, in turn, is loved /

It's a compelling alternative, and one Tender makes no secret of linking with the figure of the underdog, the Other. We observe the "fierce defiance and ferocious vulnerability" of the scotch thistle, an invasive and noxious weed, and the "defiant and straightforward" posture of the speaker's modest immigrant relations. These are the places where Medea's legacy thrives. These are the figures to whom Tender attends.

We do not need to be heroes or even witches, we do not need to be ambitious or fearful; Tender implores us only to be alive and generously so. It is this seductive, emboldening current that guides the entire collection—and makes for a deeply rewarding read.

In the face of algorithms, numbness, boredom, and isolation, Laiwan's poetry moves between myth and minutiae with bright, buoyant optimism. Tender's precise observations invite one to re-engage with one's body and one's values. In doing so, it opens up the possibility to throw aside old narratives and usher in something wonderfully, dangerously new.

Rebecca Peng
Rebecca Peng is a writer, currently living on the traditional, ancestral, and unceded territory of Musqueam, Squamish, and Tsleil-Waututh Nations.
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