A Dream of Drowning: A Review of Caroline M. Mar’s Dream of the Lake
by Claire Light. Posted May 23, 2022.
When I think of Lake Tahoe, I think of the place as it is now: resort enclave of the wealthy, West Coast types who like the outdoors and rugged, extreme sports. I think of a basin lake, deep blue, famously blue, and clear. I think of SUVs and kayaks and sweaters and fireplaces and hot chocolate, weddings and anniversary parties, purebred dogs.
Dig a little deeper into the mental archives and I think of the Donner Party, trapped for a long, starving winter at a lake a scant 20 miles from Tahoe, a beautiful place to die horrifically, far from home.
Bottom line, I think of white people, Euro America: their brave and often grisly history, their manifest triumphant present, the beauty they’ve snatched for themselves, that the rest of us feed off of.
So when Caroline M. Mar read the bit of, probably apocryphal, history about how in Lake Tahoe:
Hundreds of coolies were tied together and weighed down
with rocks. Straw hats removed, queues tangled, thrown in to save
the cost of their pay
the image and its contrast with cultural assumptions about The Lake clearly got stuck in her mind. It’s a sticky story, terrible as it is; tying together as it does a gruesome history of hatred and lynchings with a serene present of mostly segregated privilege.
The South Shore of Lake Tahoe. Image from Wikipedia.
Mar is not the only Asian American who’s stumbled across a horrific story in the course of researching her ancestors. My own great grandfather left the village for Panama, and made his comfortable fortune outfitting and supplying the foreigners and other Chinese who flocked to Panama to build, first, a railroad, and then, a canal. Reluctant to pay silver to Chinese railroad workers, the US government hatched a successful plan to addict them, and then pay the much cheaper currency of opium. But when the reformist church ladies back home heard about it, they took up their pens and tea parties, and Congress cut off the opium supply from one day to the next. The account, by witnesses, of an entire camp full of withdrawing addicts frantically trying to commit suicide—by hanging, self-machete-ing, drowning, etc.—is sufficiently weird and horrifying to haunt anyone’s idea of familial legacy.
Chinese diasporic history—indeed, Asian diasporic history—is full of ghastly, sticky scenes: slavery, rape, maimings, tar and featherings, lynchings, false accusations, exclusion, theft, expulsion, internment. We were the handmaidens of expansion, of colonization, but our questionable middleman position didn’t exempt us from abuse, prejudice, and just general injustice. The question is, for those of us who exited Western formal education with all the privilege we were able to scrape from it: what do we do with these scenes, these stories and horror pictures we carry around and don’t quite know how to compare to our own lives? What do they mean to us besides a shudder? How do they shed a light on the legacy of our presence in lands we neither inherited nor could possibly earn?
Or do they even shed any light? Does darkness ever?
Mar’s Dream of the Lake offers repeated meditations on every tendril or thread of a theme that arises—as well as free associations and other remembered things, personal or not—from contemplating the Chinese laborers drowned in the lake, and the lake itself. Most of these poems jump off of one another, rely on the premise of the book to make sense of their meditations; most could not stand alone outside of this context, making the collection essentially one long poem.
The opening epigraphs—from Mark Twain and from a history of Chinese railroad labor—underline the perspective on both the Lake and the Chinese that prevails in our culture. Clearly, Mar intends to intrude her own point of view with this book.
She opens with a quatorzain, or a sonnet form composed of non-rhyming couplets of iambic pentameter nearly repeated from the end of one stanza to the beginning of the next; only the repeated line is altered subtly to change the meaning. The piece is a sort of index to the entire collection, not in the sense of outlining the content of each poem, or sketching the movement of ideas across the book; but in the sense of repeating the images with variations that bend the meaning; of binding the content in multiple directions with differing formal knots: meter, stanza, repetition, numbering. By contrast, the ideas and images in this stringently formatted poem seem almost casually added, unimportant. The strategy is itself a—perhaps unintended—metaphor for the monstrous figure of bound, drowned, yet random and unimportant laborers.
Chinese railroad workers in Sierra Nevada mountains.
Then five poems walk us through the stages of death from cold shock, which causes the most drownings in Lake Tahoe, we are told. They also offer a variety of formal experiments: a cut-up/mash-up, a taxonomy, concrete poems. It is here we are told about the drowned Chinese workers, and also immediately told that historians question the story. Here are poems about the shock of being alive, the burden of survival, about knots, and, all around, images of water and the colors and movement of water. This section lands nowhere, but promises much about what will ensue.
Unfortunately, then, the central section of the book comprises merely a collection of prosy meditations on identity and family. These poems’ connection to the lake’s original sin become increasingly tenuous, and grapple not at all with either gruesomeness or injustice, but touch the edge of the matter repeatedly without diving in. Lake connects with water, water connects with the character for water, water connects to glitter connects to sunlight. Railroad connects to movement connects to axe to arm connects to piano playing; axe ringing connects to notes. Mar wrings a connection to water or the railroad out of every thought, every moment, returning to hurt again and again like a tongue to the bloody hole where a pulled tooth was. The themes are clear, and familiar: language barriers, geographical barriers, borders and papers, clothing and culture. Unfortunately, in insisting on spinning these pieces around Mar’s central Lake conceit, rather than pulling everything together, the connections and resonances become attenuated; the images remain murky, the ideas behind them only half-formed.
A certain inability to face horror reigns here. Mar’s poetic mind seems to slide off the matter into less freighted issues of body and experience. And if poetry is language condensed, thought compressed, then too much language is getting in the way here, perhaps because the thought does not wish to press down. Baldly stating the connections would turn poems into very obvious essays. But in poems such as “Certainty” and “Being Away from the Lake,” I feel image, idea, and sound all drowning beneath an ironically brief deluge of wordiness, until only words are left.
You know cliff diving to be dangerous and yet here you are granite beneath your feet ready for anything if you could be ready as you can be in this life you’re never really ready you think you’ve heard you’ve called for a hovering leap a bound above the water so clear you can see the bottom
and so forth.
Mar ends with a long poem, “A Correspondence,” which comprises the second half of the collection. In this piece she asks questions of her great-grandfather or great-great-grandfather, the ancestor who first came to California to build railroads; knowingly, frustratedly fruitless questions about why and how family histories came about and what individuals felt about them. The poem, and by extension, the whole collection, really comes to life—turns—when Mar’s speaker realizes she can do anything with the figure of her ancestor that she wants; when she admits she cannot be the fulfillment of his Gold Mountain dream unless she queers his story and the story of his workers camp; when she admits:
This story may have gotten away from us.
Your life unravels
Off my unruly hand.
I think I am telling the wrong story. I think
I care more about your wife, your wives, your
Photo from Bull City Press website.
“A Correspondence” is the most familiar—and straightforward—of the poems in this collection: speaking that well-known, lilting, line-broken prose studded with small pictures; asking the identity questions all poets, but particularly poets from the margins, must ask and pay down as their ante to this cultural play. It’s not shocking that it’s the most vivid, most speaking portion of the book: the poem draws from the notions and emotions closest to the poet’s conception of self. All the rest—the wrestling with logograms, bare outlines of histories, and less-than-half-understood cultural artifacts—is little more than tourism within one’s own exotic bloodline. It’s an experience common to many, if not most, Asian Americans, but not one that this knotted Lake strategy succeeds in animating.
There’s enough material in this book for one, really great, long, meditative poem with occasional splashes of violent color. But the sticky, horrific scene of drowned ancestors should not have been the central moment, but rather a jumping off point for further stories, further scenes and moments, further horrors and beauties and imaginations. And these should have been freely invented by a poet who does not quite yet dare to queer and feminize the negative space of her family’s—our community’s—past. But, if we are lucky, in the next book she will.
Author’s Bio: Claire Light is a Bay Area writer, cultural worker, and activist with a longtime association with Kearny Street Workshop, where she co-founded the APAture festival, and with Hyphen magazine, which she co-founded and where she served as literary editor for four years. She received an MFA from San Francisco State in 2005. A short collection of her stories, SLIGHTLY BEHIND AND TO THE LEFT, was published by Aqueduct Press in 2009 and her fantasy novel MONKEY AROUND, written under the pen name Jadie Jang, was published by Solaris in 2021.