by Agnieszka Studzinka
Here is my intention: I am going to search for Mei Mei’s lost ring but know that I will never find it. As Mei Mei tells Chi, when something is formed by the observer, the measurer, and the way it becomes a particle, and that particle almost becomes an entity in itself, and then it can observe the next wave, so it’s almost like an urge. And that’s how I think of intention (Berssenbrugge in Cordite Poetry Review: 2017)
Reading, says Lisa, opens a proposition (Robertson: 2012: 15). The poetic image, escapes rational, linear, and exclusive reading and explanation writes Juhani (Palllasmaa: 2011: 41). I enter the spaces of the poem with my sensing: my ear, my touch, seeing itself is a way of touching from a distance (Pallasma: 2011: 54). My proposition is what follows.
Mei Mei tells me at the outset: By change I mean, fragment, continuity without context beside perception based on memory, wistful,/ debatable events of someone ambiguous conversing with you/ (Berssenbrugge: 2003: 51).
In The Writing of the Disaster, Blanchot writes: fragmentation is the pulling to pieces (the tearing) of that which never has preexisted…as a whole, nor can it ever be reassembled in any future presence…fragmentation is the spacing which can only be understood – fallaciously – as the absence of time (Blanchot: 1995: 60).
‘The fragment,’ Mei Mei tells me, is the ‘lost home’ – and the fragment is ‘change,’ (Berssenbrugge: 2003: 51) the fragment is absence of time (Blanchot: 1995: 60) and the fragment is mobility of identity. Being non white (and half Chinese) marginalised, is an insecure and at the same time dynamic situation. You have to identify yourself, and there’s no set point of view (Berssenbrugge in Rankine & Spahr: 2002: 66).
As Lisa writes in her untitled essay, sometimes “here” has no walls…(Robertson: 2012: 73).
Mei Mei removes walls, as she tells me, You want light to pass through objects and furniture, wire chairs, glass tables, gauze, and remove non bearing walls (Berssenbrugge: 2003: 51). Mei Mei’s sentence has the quality of impermanence, of ghost work, as light passes through all which already feels permeable, sheer, and transparent.
Perception, poetic images, possibilities and thinking through eyes, hands, skin and body, (Pallasmaa: 2011:107), an embodied processes of possibilities and thinking.
Mei Mei tells me, A Jade ring is endowed with depth by stories of grandmother’s connoisseurship. (Berssenbrugge: 2003: 53). I picture the greenness. I sense the stone’s durable nature, luminous with symbolism: prosperity, success, virtue. Confucius wrote about its values in the Shi Jing (Book of Odes). And here, Mei Mei tells me that, it’s being in time is salvaged as origin, beauty (Berssenbrugge: 2003:51). The ring is ancestry, belonging, home.
I think of the gold wedding rings my grandmother gave me, bands of memory, layers of touch, enfolding history in metal. My children like precious rings I wear on my fingers, refusing to take them off at night.
Home is porous; the self is porous. In the background I remember Mei Mei’s telling Chi, ‘We are actually very porous’ but then adding ‘You can make something solid out of something that is not solid ‘(Berssenbrugge in Melus: 2002: 205).
And if the fragment is “my lost home” (Berssenbrugge: 2003: 51) as Mei Mei tells me, belonging to this grounding mistake of a family, from the standpoint of its/vulnerability (Berssenbrugge: 2003: 51) then it is family also. Both are wounded.
Vulnerabilis from late Latin meaning wounding and vulnerare from Latin, to wound or injure. In fragmentum, the remnant, the piece broken off.
A sense of surrender and abandonment is expressed as Mei Mei tells me, Along sight lines, she hangs damask so worn and bleached it cannot hold in the interior, hangs a /square of marble veined with script before the cavity of a white fireplace, boxes, white cloth tacked on / a wall (Berssenbrugge: 2003: 51).
Each line of Mei Mei’s poem is a fragment, unfinished separations (Blanchot: 1995: 58); each line, like New Mexico skylines, is rooted inside her; each line a vista of intangible beauty, the beauty found in the objects, implicit stories, in the abstract she makes concrete, in the concrete she makes abstract, they persist on account of their incompletion (Blanchot: 1995: 58).
I read the poem several times. I leave and come back to it. I circle lines with my pencil, as if catching their slippery bodies into a net and trying to feel what a net would inscribe. (Berssenbrugge: 2003:51). I try reading from the beginning to the end of the poem. I start at the end and focus on that only. Mei Mei tells me, It’s a complicity of smell and space, wet surfaces, tears, local as margin, other projected as remodelling, non specific, recreational lines, tent poles(Berssenbrugge: 2003:52). I am pulled into the pronoun it and replace it with home. I underline the lines. I think of nomadism.
And then of a nomadic poetics which is always on the move, always changing, morphing, moving through languages, cultures, terrains, times without stopping, (Joris: 2003: 26), as Pierre Joris proposes in his book, A Nomad Poetics, Essays. Language drifting and shifting in the between-ness of signified and signifier, image and invisibility, my imagination and text.
Mei Mei’s lines are nomadic, images compose and recompose under the pressure of syntax, under the pressure of language itself. Mei Mei tells me, A room prefers to scatter, but remains composed under pressure, like my language spoken by a flight / attendant, then becomes luminous, moonlit, as it recedes into the subtitle relation, not original(Berssenbrugge: 2003:52).
Borges reminds me that, poetry lies in the meeting of a poem and reader, not in the lines of symbols printed on the page of a book. What is essential is the aesthetic act, the thrill, the almost physical emotion that comes with each reading. (Jorge Luis Borges quoted in Pallasmaa: 2011: 41).
In my reading, I grasp at words and phrases like restless, settlement, context, grounding mistakes, with the potential freed space, nomad identity, scatter lines, arriving inhabitant, sight lines, land, blood, leadership, tent poles. I am mobile and roaming.
What happens when you lose something I ask myself? A ring, a place, a person, a memory? Mei Mei tells me that the significance of a memory is material, as space of memory, with the potential of freed space (Berssenbrugge: 2003: 51).
I repeat this line to myself. I attempt to un-remember the house and my own lost materials as I step inside the unfolding fabrics, space expanding, time inside it like language adrift. Allegories of houses dissolving.
All this time, I have been mispronouncing Mei-Mei’s name. A colleague at a symposium writes in the Teams message: I wanted to just let you know that Mei Mei’s name is pronounced as ‘May May’, and Chi would rhyme with ‘bee’…It’s quite hard when diaspora writers (and translators) mix languages without spelling with accents. (6/3/21). I am adjusting to this new sound, to her name in fact, as if being introduced to a new person. “ Tell me your name, What shall I call you, I who am calling on you.” (Dufourmantelle & Derrida: 2000: 27).
Mei Mei tells me, each arriving inhabitant negates a portion of net, to understand why his or her glance stops on you,/net, like spun sugar, around an object with opaque provenance (Berssenbrugge: 2003: 52)
The (in)hospitable look stopping on them, or on you. Or the look stops on us, as readers. Net becomes both web, and capture, profit and gain, a net spun around a place of opaque origin.
I borrow a line from the poem to illustrate, perhaps the poem itself, it’s an unframed, regressive series of lyric spaces in a raw interior, like wide-screen denoting desert (Berssenbrugge: 2003: 52).
I am in the wilderness of these (in)habitable, (in)hospitable or (un)placeable spaces. Mei Mei tells me; In the computer work of her first husband, building was theoretical, a lacunary non place where bits of the stated cut across structures and were silent, thought of home, calculations temporally unconnected (Berssenbrugge: 2003: 51). The house as a plan, as a structure. The theoretical building, the ‘lacunary non-place’, and, in silence. I think of my Polish relatives and their wounding. I think of the physical, psychological, philosophical structures of home, it’s complicity of smell and space, wet surfaces, (Berssenbrugge: 2003: 52).
Wood-smoke, coal, vodka, empty wardrobes, a child-ghost walking through these objects. Those are my wet surfaces, their complicity of smell and space in the margin of my own childhood in another country.
On the floor of my study, I find a handwritten post-it note, and pick it up. It reads, “place can be non physical and yet still count fully as place pg. 288 Casey,” I walk to the book shelf and locate the book: The fate of place, a philosophical history by Edward S. Casey. Here, Casey is referencing Bachelard’s topoanalysis of interiority, re thinking “space as place” (Casey: 1998: 288) where, psychic spaces, like the soul and the unconscious are just as important as tangible, physical places. I remind myself, there are no immediate places in this poem, no visible houses or homes but I feel their presence.
Mei Mei tells me, that Her room displays all maneuverable material: poor immunity; the place where you live can’t call you to / account; in an accident, glass shards. (Berssenbruugge 2003:52). The place where you live (Berssenbruugge 2003:52) cannot hold you forever: it shatters like glass.
There’s no point of view I remind myself, other than the landscape Mei Mei stretches before me: All the critical elements of a tribe are replaceable: land, blood, leadership, belief, events inaccurately remembered (Berssenbruugge: 2003:52). I replace belief with doubt, land with water, blood with draught, leadership with weakness, events with denial. I re-read the line. Reading is anguish, Blanchot says, (Blanchot: 1995: 10). The word ‘origin’ appears before me from the shadows of Mei Mei’s syntax.
I write that tribe means family. Family scattered in one country, mostly dead in another.
I get caught in the lines, the scatter lines of temporary family project on industrial space, trying to feel what a net would inscribe. (Berssenbrugge: 2003:52). I am inside this open-meshed fabric, this net, in which we are all knotted together in the cultural construction of family, the family as a working project, the temporary family project (Berssenbrugge: 2003:52) on a line hanging, extending, taut yet loosening.
The fragile forms of a working project between structure and change, …wet surfaces… projected as non specific. I borrow Mei Mei’s words and make my own understanding.
Lisa writes that she seeks the promiscuous feeling of being alive…she moves freely among new sensation (Robertson: 2012: 12). I jump, I make leaps from one sentence to another. I am overwhelmed in my travels.
Each time Mei Mei travels, she loses the ring, as if moving further from origin, further into the fracture. Misplacing belonging, accepts in its place, tainted memories, Mei Mei tells me, I accept the ring I misplace each time I move, seriality of parts as events, accept my old relative whose memories are sentimental and impure (Berssenbruugge: 2003:51).
As I read, I turn the rings on my fingers over and over, as if coiling time, memories, the poem, further into metal, skin, psyche. A silver ring emerges with a little red stone in the middle. A lost gift also.
I hear Mei Mei in an interview, Space is a deep, deep part of me, because I’ve always lived in empty rooms. We always live in these big houses that are empty. (Berssenbrugge in Poetry Arizona: 2015)
In the house that stands empty in Poland, there are rooms that stand even emptier. Their spaces inside me. I stand outside of them. I smell sticky sweat and meat on walls and hands. I walk through their spaces as I write, and read Mei Mei interests in the body’s relationship to space (Berssenbrugge in Poetry Arizona: 2015). The house shakes all my bodily senses, house is polyphonic.
A line like an uninvited guest, from another poem, invites itself to this reading: So I continue to calculate my house, its significance as a holding place for something to look at / (image, word), building would illustrate (Berssenbrugge: 2003: 67). We are looking at houses, even if we are not really looking at them. Houses are lost in rings, misplaced in origins, and language.
Mei Mei tells Jennifer Rocco that, I think in my writing there’s a very concrete relationship to the image even though my writing is abstract. (Berssenbrugge in Poetry Arizona: 2015).
Mei Mei, tells me in the penultimate line of the poem, You make a context in which anything characteristic of me goes unrecorded, my hesitation, my / inaccurate distinction between structure and change, but home reproduces itself at risk in unfamiliar conditions/ (Berssenbrugge: 2003: 52).
In the unfamiliar, the strangeness and recondite, where doubt is as definite as distinction, home appears in our hesitations.
Berssenbrugge, Mei-Mei. Nest. Kelsey St. Press, 2003.
Blanchot, Maurice, and Ann Smock. The Writing of the Disaster, University of Nebraska Press, 1995.
Casey, Edward S. The Fate of Place: a Philosophical History. University of California Press, 1997.
Derrida, Jacques, and Anne Dufourmantelle. Of Hospitality. Stanford University Press, 2000.
Joris, Pierre. A Nomad Poetics Essays. Wesleyan University Press, 2003.
Pallasmaa, Juhani. The Embodied Image, Imagination and Imagery in Architecture. Wiley, 2011
Pallasmaa, Juhani. The Eyes of the Skin, Architecture and the Senses. Wiley, 2012.
Rankine, Claudia., and Spahr, Juliana (ed) American Women Poets in the 21st Century Where Lyric Meets Language. Wesleyan University Press, Middleton Connecticut, 2002.
Robertson, Lisa. Nilling: Prose Essays on Noise, Pornography, the Codex, Melancholy, Lucretius, Folds, Cities and Related Aporias. BookThug, 2012.
Interviews with Mei-Mei Berssenbrugge:
—Interview conducted by Rocco, Jennifer. “An Interview with Mei Mei Berssenbrugge.” University of Arizona Poetry Centre. Nov 25th 2015
—Interview conducted by Tran, Chi. “I have never understood a single poem,” Cordite Poetry Review (1st Nov 2017)
—Interview conducted by Xiaojing, Zhou. “Blurring the Borders between Formal and Social Aesthetics: An Interview with Mei-Mei Berssenbrugge.” MELUS, vol. 27, no. 1, 2002, pp. 199–212.
 Juhani Pallasmaa in his book, The Embodied Image, Imagination and Imagery in Architecture, Wiley, 2011, explores the significance of the poetical image in relation to both architecture and the arts in general.