IMAGINE US, THE SWARM, by Muriel Leung

Laura Villareal

During my teen years and early twenties, I was a total poser. I’d emulate my friends and the media I consumed without much thought while feeling a low-frequency grief, which I now recognize as rooted in my lack of authenticity. I tried too hard to be different—to stand out—to be someone cool and likeable. What I became was a fragment of myself lost in the amalgam created by pieces of everyone I wanted to impress. There’s something about writing poetry that feels authentically mine. I don’t feel inclined to imitate, only to write the truth of the poem and myself. The poets I admire often lean into their style, syntax, verbal landscapes, and experiment. Muriel Leung is one of those writers. 

            After finishing Leung’s debut book, Bone Confetti (Noemi Press, 2016), I couldn’t wait for her second book to come out. Her writing leaves me with a renewed sense of curiosity about what poetry can do and an excitement to continue pushing on the boundaries of the page as she so often does. I’m in awe of the tenderness and rigor of her poetry, especially in her new book Imagine Us, The Swarm (Nightboat Books, 2021) which, as Kazim Ali describes so aptly in his blurb, as a collection of “seven powerful texts that form a constellation of voices, forms, and approaches to confront loneliness, silence, and death.” Each one of the seven sections feels expansive and distinct in their formal variety and subject matter. From footnotes, to ekphrasis, to essays in verse, to the way poems are situated on the page and expand across pages, I find something new to sit and think about each time. Leung covers a number of topics such as gendered violence, Asian American identity, death, queerness, and labor. 

            In Leung’s essay-in-verse “This Is to Live Several Lives,” she writes, “A bee learns to become a Müllerian mimic, dressed as some other creature with a deadlier poison.” Mimicry happens in nature as a tool of survival. For marginalized communities, especially immigrants, the act of assimilation is how to dress as a “creature with a deadlier poison.” In the poem, Leung speaks of its lasting generational impact, particularly in the speaker’s relationship to work learned from their father’s tireless work ethic. In a conversation with T.K. Lê on Nightboat’s website, she says:

“We are comprised of not just our singular knowledge of the world but the experiences of those who came before us, and we inherit their histories too. Even if we did not grow up with it, I do believe that we carry these histories in our bodies, and they become part of our cellular memory. So, yes, not just a singular once but many.” 

            In “A Careful List of All My Failures,” Leung writes: 

            Claire Jean Kim calls it the “field of racial positions,” the arrangement of different bodies along a dying field, vying for the one blade of fresh cut grass. As if none of us are fit for water.

            What the theory of racial triangulation tells us is the distribution of inequities rooted in white dominance. That I could look to you and feel that I am at once lesser and perhaps fortuitous for having earned that small morsel of god.

            To bend so far back, my spine becomes another flag. Of assimilable colors. 

            And I am not even legible to myself. Cannot not even English my way out.

            This passage has been radiating through me since I first read Imagine Us, The Swarm. I continue thinking about “to bend so far back, my spine becomes another flag. Of assimilable colors,” and “and I am not even legible to myself.” Leung weaves in the voices of theorists and academics with such skill. It adds another layer of nuance and complexity to her poems that are already buzzing with emotional texture and intellectual richness.

            Muriel Leung writes with such intentionality, tenderness, and style that it feels like a masterclass. Leung imagines the future possibilities of her communities and encourages them to imagine better together. I’ll leave you with her final words: “We can write out origins / sacred here and renounce the country of our fear. / There is only our singular pulse when we fill the sky.”

Laura Villareal is the author of Girl’s Guide to Leaving (University of Wisconsin Press, 2022). She has received fellowships from Stadler Center for Poetry & Literary Arts and National Book Critics Circle. Her writing has appeared in GuernicaWaxwing, AGNI, and elsewhere.

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