ANGELINE KEK WRITES — To read The Sunflower Cast A Spell To Save Us From The Void by Jackie Wang is to return to familiarity delivered through mystifying means. Within the surreal landscapes that are conjured up by the speaker, we are shown a world largely fabricated by an unhinged mind. Yet, in that we also see a reflection of our own imagination in its most unfettered form: the mind that takes the stage when the body is in a state of slumber. The speaker draws from the universal experience of dreaming and delivers quick, uncaged snippets of muddled dreamscapes where normality is certainly not a priority, as it has never been for wandering minds. Accompanying these morsels of dreamscape are eccentric illustrations by Kalan Sherrard, resembling elaborate cave paintings and can only be described as “Never intact. Always half-dissolved,” much like the rest of the book.
The act of dreaming has long been a perplexing puzzle for human civilizations of any epoch. Ancient Greeks, Romans, Egyptians, and Native Americans, among other cultures, believed that dreams were the mediums through which the gods and the universe relayed their messages to humans, making dreams prophetic tools. Ancient texts from various civilizations detail a process called “dream incubation.” While the specific rituals vary, some common concepts include offering a sacrifice, sleeping in a temple, and involving an oracle as a dream interpreter. In modern science, Sigmund Freud’s theory of psychoanalysis suggests that dreaming is the brain’s way of resolving subconscious desires, motivations, and issues. Accordingly, dreams are the brain’s way of revealing things that are buried deep in our psyche that are begging to be uncovered.
Jackie Wang’s latest poetry collection is a living, breathing example of how Freud’s theory plays out in a literary landscape. As a body of work inspired by the author’s dreams, these poems certainly do have the tendency of unravelling upon themselves. However, this is not to say that there is an absence of strongly defined emotions, issues, social commentaries, and a compelling voice. On the contrary, the dream premise only acts as a maze through which readers arrive at larger ideas. Even though these destinations span across the whole of the dreamscape, many of them return to the themes of trauma and healing, the female minority experience, women’s rights, the value of writing, self-doubt, and the effects of other people’s gazes and judgements.
Within Wang’s pages, the speaker presents a duality of voice that is intrinsic to human nature.
One: the vulnerable, naked voice that explores and discloses every thought fueled by anxiety, trauma, and the weight of existence. This voice is strongly present in “Instead Of Thickening My Skin I Buy A Neon Balaclava,” where the playwright speaker finds themself hiding from an obsessive and hateful critic. Although the speaker runs away from the critic to “escape public scrutiny,” they realize that in this game of hide-and-seek, fueled by enmity and the intent of demolition, there is a sense of fanatical intimacy that only exists between those who care deeply for the other.
As the speaker continues on this game of hide-and-seek with the critic in a mall, they muse over the proximity between love and hate: “As I feel myself seared by his stare I know that his scorn has turned into a kind of love. It is possible I have mistaken his obsessive desire to possess me for love. Repulsion, fascination, hatred, intrigue. This dance of ambivalent reaction, this tense intimacy ensnares me… What I enjoy about being hated the way the interviewer hates me is that he is, in a sense, my only witness.” Being gazed upon and analyzed by others is a double-edged sword – the pleasure of being watched and the pain of being judged are symbiotic.
Two: the voice that sounds as if it is coming from an intercom system cranked up to maximum volume. This voice is fueled by a hunger for justice and radical change. This is the voice that is the loudest at protests, does not shy away from anything, and can be heard in an untitled paragraph: “Instead of opening doors and walking through them, I smash windows and glass walls. Everything is always locked so it has to be this way. I carry a giant ax around with me, which I stole from a fire emergency box. I worry the ax will give me away and I will be caught, but I’m not trying to be malicious . . . I simply am impatient. This mode of entering buildings goes viral. Now there are many of us who carry axes and never wait to be let in.”
Throughout this monologue, the speaker’s voice is unwavering, even in the face of doubt. Imagine the voice of a person who is done sitting around being frustrated by a cruel system and has taken matters into their own hands. Wrapped within this tiny package is a call to action for those who are oppressed and want to take charge and demand their rights, with a clear reference to the glass ceiling that is faced by women and people of color in nearly every professional field. This is the voice of those who fearlessly criticize the tyrannical nature of modern society, those who are unafraid to fight for change.
In an interview with Mask Magazine, Wang speaks on the function of doubt in her writing: “Self-doubt is usually the point of departure for a lot of my work. I always have to write through that doubt … a lot of women are plagued by self-doubt and specifically anxiety around writing or asserting any kind of authority in their writing. Owning that doubt can be a political gesture.”
As a “[queer] Black studies scholar, poet, multimedia artist, and PhD candidate in the Department of African and African American Studies at Harvard University,” Wang shared that “[her] interest in literature developed alongside [her] interest in politics.” The Sunflower Cast A Spell To Save Us From The Void is a complex coalescence of the author’s literary and political passions, tied together by abundant imagination and elevated by the abandonment of logical parameters. It is also Wang’s first poetry collection — her previous book Carceral Capitalism (2018) is a collection of essays “on the racial, economic, political, legal, and technological dimensions of the U.S. carceral state.” As a scholar and witness of the carceral system, Wang is an exceptionally vocal prison abolitionist.
These poems are comprised of elusive strings of dialogue, bursting with a bang throughout the book’s pages and tangling up the reader’s mind – transfiguring it into a ball of yarn which appears unwound, colorful, and temporarily comprehensible. Just as dreams only make sense to the brain that directed, staged, and produced the sequences, Wang’s dream-poems can mean whatever it is that the reader could dare to posit. That is what makes the act of reading this collection a scavenger hunt where the power is in the reader’s hands to find their own treasure chest with the help of countless clues peppered in between the lines.
The reader travels through the speaker’s stream of consciousness (or rather subconsciousness) and is left to make sense of it all on their own, making this perhaps one of the most intimate books to have ever been written. What requires more trust and vulnerability than opening your mindscape like a suitcase for strangers to rummage through and take away whatever they like?
Angeline Kek is a book review writer and contributing staff writer for Asia Media International. As a recent graduate from LMU, she majored in English with a concentration in poetry and creative writing. She is interested in poetry and writings that are honest against all odds.