by May-lee Chai.
Editor’s Note: We are proud to present the work of Caroline M. Mar once more. She was featured in the November 19, 2019 one-year anniversary program for East Wind ezine along with singer/songwriter/storyteller Charlie Chin. You can read my interview with Caroline and see videos from her poetry reading at Caroline M. Mar – HerStories.
Special Education, the title of Caroline M. Mar’s prize-winning collection of poetry, refers quite literally to her role as a teacher in San Francisco. However, as she describes in her sophisticated poems, life provides its own kind of education.
Mar explores language at multiple levels, in the way it can help people to categorize themselves and their loved ones but also how it can set up barriers to empathy and understanding. For example in her poem, “Chinese Girl,” she describes the multiple ways she has been (mis)categorized: from slurs because of her Chinese heritage to slurs because of her queerness whether traveling abroad with her partner or confronting her homophobic father-in-law or facing her student’s own biases. “It’s a pretty good day, if the kids are just asking/ what kinds of women I’ve loved.” (p. 7)
Loss of language also figures in the poems. For example in “Ghost Language,” she describes her white maternal grandmother’s Alzheimer’s which has robbed the woman of her sense of self. “I was–I was a smart woman,” the grandmother laments in a moment of lucidity. In other moments, the grandmother struggles to remember who is family, who is not: “Some days, my mother/ is Grammie’s lovely niece, and I might just be the light brown help.” (9) Meanwhile, Mar struggles with language loss of her own, a childhood knowledge of Cantonese that has faded with time and non-usage. She recalls in “Tongue,” “Things I remember: Mamah’s voice/ loud and clear, the language I spoke,/ then forgot, then spoke again, and have now/ almost forgotten.” (p. 18)
Mar expands her focus to examine the larger dominant society’s use of language. For example, she unpacks the bureaucratic language of a principal’s PowerPoint that masks the pernicious effect of social class on educational success: “proficient, advanced, the colors/ of wealth. But not my school/ nor each nearby. In our neighbor-/ hoods, fire burns. Blood pools./ below basic. Far below basic.”
Mar’s poetry fights the erasure of her family, herself, and her profession from the public language surrounding teaching. In the one truly furious poem about teaching, “The Key to Saving American Education,” she references an article from Newsweek circa March, 2010, and all the ways that the article advocated teachers be fired: “Fire the lazy, the sloppy, the weak. Fire/ the meek…” (p. 51)
Caroline M. Mar. Photo by Jessica Tong-Ahn.
Clearly, Mar feels that the current social order is toxic for marginalized groups, whether someone like herself, a queer mixed-race Asian American women of color, or her brown and black special ed students. The struggle to survive and empathize is exhausting amidst the barrage of bureaucracy, gentrification, and violence. Half measures at reform will not satisfy, Mar warns, as she imagines a metaphorical earthquake that collapses skyscrapers: “like blue glitter confetti falling…/let it shake me wholly, to my very core/or not at all.” (p. 72)
Special Education was awarded the 2019 X. J. Kennedy Prize from Texas Review Press.
Author’s bio: May-lee Chai is the author of 10 books of fiction, nonfiction, and translation, including her short story collection Useful Phrases for Immigrants, winner of the American Book Award. She teaches in the MFA program at San Francisco State University.
Caroline M. Mar. Photo by Eddie Wong.