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Broken Chord: Sounding Out the Ideogram in Marilyn Chin’s Rhapsody in Plain Yellow
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This essay examines Marilyn Chin’s revisionary work on the aural, visual, and racial aspects of writing the lyric in the “Broken Chord Sequence” from her Rhapsody in Plain Yellow (2002). Addressing the interventions of the American modernists and Asian American activist writers in the relationship between the Chinese ideogram and the lyric in English, the lyric voice created by Chin is both divided from the unity of the self and palpably distinct from the other, linguistically enacting the condition of the immigrant, who not only lives as a foreigner within the boundaries of her adopted country but also creates the past as a foreign space by assimilating a second culture. The ideogram first became a poetic strategy in English in the work of Ezra Pound, which played upon the foreign to express the native self. As Josephine Nock-Hee Park, David Leiwei Li, and others note, Pound’s adoption of the ideogram constitutes a particular problem for Asian Americans, especially Chinese Americans, whose native language has been made American, troubling both assimilation and ethnicity. Chin’s exploration of sound in the previously silenced ideogram develops the possibility of translating the aural and visual effects of the ideogram. Chin adapts a form of traditional Chinese wordplay that operates through association by sound into a poetic device that hovers between English and Chinese, between writing and speaking. Through figures such as the broken chord and an ai that represents love, loss, a way of perceiving, and the self, Chin articulates the complex relationship of the always foreign self to the lyric. While the difficulty of voicing the I is a problem fundamental to the lyric, the tension between ai and I is specific to the border between English and Chinese, an aural answer to the Imagist appropriation of the ideogram. The displacement of metaphor to the border between Chinese and English, like the I existing on the border between Chinese and English, articulates and obscures the ghosted manifestation of the diasporic subject.

Ai, Ai, Ai, Ai

Frank Chin, Jeffery Paul Chan, Lawson Fusao Inada, and Shawn Wong named their 1974 anthology of Asian American writers Aiiieeeee! in the spirit of protest. Fronted by the brown and yellow image of a screaming man resembling Chinatown-Hong Kong-Hollywood native Bruce Lee (deceased only the year before), the anthology verbally and pictorially stages a stereotypical image of an inarticulate Asian man erupting with mysterious aggression. Drawn out—literally—with three Is and five Es, punctuated for emphasis, the cry “aiiieeeee!” is the “picture” of the “yellow man,” “more than a whine, shout, or scream”; “it is fifty years of our whole voice,” declares the preface. But it is also the voice given to the Asian American by the radio, the cinema, the television, the comic book, and the “pushers of white American culture,” a single utterance chosen to encompass being “wounded, sad, or angry, or swearing, or wondering,” a cry of adaptable amplitude and expression (F. Chin, Preface ix–x). “Aiiieeeee!” is an invented voice, a battlecry in the Babel of Chinese American, Japanese American, and Filipino American writers assembled or recovered in 1960s and 1970s America, these disparate voices necessarily united in order to be heard. It is the despised, recognizable, and expected expression of the yellow man in white popular culture, yet it is also the measure of his discontent phrased in the idiom of the understood. Metaphorically and linguistically, the diphthong articulates a multiplicity of tones in a space not fully excavated for their expression.

Despite its parodic bent, Aiiieeeee! “turn[s] a dying cry into a shout of resistance and triumph” (Shawn Wong 91)—like the “very stereotypical bamboo lettering” (93) marking the volumes of “Asian” literature hunted out by Wong and Chin in bookstores in early 1970s San Francisco before there was a recognized difference among “Asian,” “Asian American,” and their imitations. The name is a sign imposed on Asian America through the crude approximations of mainstream American culture that becomes the means by which its members recognize and elect themselves. “Aiiieeeee!” is overwritten: it is more vowels than can be sonically depicted; its line of increasing vowels makes up for the long silence of its...



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