Book review: Tortured Willows: Bent, Bowed, Unbroken
The Bram Stoker Award and Shirley Jackson Award-winning anthology, Black Cranes: Tales of Unquiet Women , was one of my favorite reads of 2020, and one of my favorite reads of all time (you can see my full review here). So when editor Lee Murray reached out to me to ask if I’d like a digital review copy of Tortured Willows: Bent, Bowed, Unbroken, a book of poems which serves as a thematic companion to Black Cranes, I jumped at the chance.
Black Cranes is an anthology of dark fantasy and horror stories, written by Asian writers and centered on the experiences and voices of Asian women. With inspirations rooted in a variety of mythologies and stories from across East and Southeast Asia, the tales of Black Cranes address themes of otherness, oppression, obligation, diaspora, and rage. Tortured Willows takes up these themes again, but through the form of poetry. Four of the authors featured in Black Cranes return in this new volume to again explore the experiences of Asian women from a variety of perspectives, and in a variety of poetical forms—drawing upon history, myth, contemporary politics, and often achingly personal history.
The first section of the book is made up of poems by Lee Murray, a woman from New Zealand who is of Chinese descent. Many of her poems in this collection pay tribute to the Chinese immigrants to New Zealand who arrived generations ago. Poems such as “Gold Mountain” and “The Economy of the Chinese Woman” depict the harsh conditions of poverty and suffering which these early immigrants endured. Other poems are set in China, and still more in contemporary New Zealand. There are poems of rage and horror; in “Tiyanak,” there’s a poem of the monstrous baby of Filipino folklore (a poem which echoes two tales of monstrous babies in Black Cranes.) There are poems in which horror and delicate beauty exist side by side, as in “Orchid Moon,” which begins “while you sleep/Little Wife/cuts wet halfmoons/into your open palms;” or "Exquisite,” a poem in which a woman literally breaks herself to meet torturous standards of beauty, and which ends with the image of “on the pond/a crescent moon/reflects.” Lee Murray displays a sly and sometimes whimsical sense of humor, too; one of my favorite pieces in this collection is “Interview with a Goddess,” which takes the form of a contemporary press interview with Chang’e, the Chinese goddess of the moon. There’s whimsy in the premise of the poem, as the interviewer sets the scene for an “exclusive” with “the moon girl/former wife of the legendary Hou Yi.” But there’s also real poignancy here, in the interviewer’s framing of Chang’e’s story, and her effort to subvert it and tell her own truth.
My favorite poems in this section draw upon Murray’s personal history and truths. In each section of this book, there is a highlighted quote from one of the poet’s stories in Black Cranes. Murray’s quote (from her story “Phoenix Claws”) reads: “You didn’t blend two cultures without some conflict, no matter how progressive and modern you thought you were.” It is this story of culture clash and blending, of diaspora and mixed heritage and felt otherness in her own life, which perhaps rings most powerfully in her chapter of poems. Her opening poem, “Willows,” speaks of her grandparents’ arrival in New Zealand, and the unease they feel in their new country and at the great shifts in their lives, in the actions of their daughter and birth of their granddaughter. The poem has a ballad-like form, with the haunting refrain of “and the willows whispered warnings/all the while.” “The Girl with the Bellows” is a lovely poem in which the poet/narrator sees her mother seeing herself represented, perhaps for the first time, in a few fleeting frames of a movie. And “Cheongsam,” one of my favorite poems, is inspired by the poet’s grandmothers’ dress: “my grandmother’s cheongsam/sewn from a Shanghai sunrise/with deep slits and black piping.”
Geneve Flynn, an Australian woman of Malaysian and Chinese background, is the poet for book’s next section. Like Murray, Flynn plays with rhyme and poetic forms; her section includes such forms as villanelles, pantoums, sonnets, acrostics, and more. Rage animates these poems. Rage and also mourning for the girls and women whose lives have been bent and broken by society’s demands and restrictions, who have suffered gendered violence—and also those who have suffered violence that is both gendered and racist, the intersection that comes with being an Asian woman in a predominantly white, Western society. Flynn’s opening poem, “When the Girls Began to Fall,” is a delicately haunting narrative of girls trying to climb beyond their village’s restrictions, past the rules and duties imposed upon them, to see what they’re not allowed to see—but who all, inevitably, fall. “Inheritance” echoes the hunger of the narrator in that first poem. “What was it like/being the brightest spark/with the dimmest road/that narrowed and ended/with a sudden cliff/and walls all around?” asks the speaker in “Inheritance,” addressing an unseen mother or ancestor. Both speaker and mother literally become hungry ghosts (figures from Chinese mythology), after being starved of their full desires and potential in this earthly world. In “Bride Price,” a ghost bride is robbed and her body exploited even after death. “Mother, and Feet, and Hands, and Eyes” is a fairy-tale like murder ballad of sorts, in which seemingly kind and loving aunties destroy a girl with their “gifts” and teachings. It’s a dark, dark poem about the complicity that women play in perpetuating the abuse and oppression of other women.
Some of Flynn’s angriest poems address the politics of contemporary sexual violence in the West. ”Abridge” takes a speech from Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison (on sexual misconduct in Parliament House) and blackouts passages to create a “found poem” about the gendered violence women face in Australia, contrasted against the (hidden) text of what Morrison actually said. Flynn is particularly scathing when she writes about the specific sexism that Asian women face in Australia: the objectification, stereotyping, and fetishization. She is also heartbreaking when she writes of the internalized racism that can result from growing up as a person of Asian ethnicity in a predominantly white society. Her fear and love and vulnerability is especially moving in the poem, “Unpicked Stitching,” in which she writes about her fears for her biracial son. She writes: “. . . So now I must/stitch you back together/with just the finest thread;/only whitest parts. No one/will ever know you/came from me. What I/didn’t see was just how/strong you are.”
Christina Sng, a Singaporean-Chinese woman based in Singapore, is featured in the third section of this book. Sng’s poems are perfect little horror stories, self-contained narratives of darkness and revenge. In her introduction she writes:
“Daughter: Why are avenging ghosts all women?
“Mother: Because we have just cause.”
Sng’s poems illustrate that just cause and also the satisfying vengeance. “I Left Too Late” is one of my favorite pieces of this type. A junior wife/concubine abused by her master and one of his other wives laments: “I left too late./Too late for me/To take my son along:/My son whom Second Wife/Claimed for her own.” However, as the poem continues, the narrative twists and turns, revealing that in the end, it’s not too late after all—not where it counts. It’s a most satisfying conclusion.
Various ghosts and monsters haunt Sng’s poems, taking revenge for themselves or for others. Sng draws from both traditional mythology and from contemporary urban legends in Singapore, invoking urban legends of headhunters in the late 1970s, mysterious women in white, and rituals and beliefs around Ghost Month. There’s both fury and catharsis in these poems, and even a sly hint of humor at times. One of my favorite poems combines sweetness with the supernatural; “Midnight Wake” is a lovely poem of a little girl, the wake for her beloved grandmother, and a cat which may or may not grant what the little girl desires.
There’s some despair, too, in the series of poems in which Death speaks with women a hundred years apart, and we see that too much has remained the same. But Sng’s section ends on an empowering note. In “A Speck of Dust in the Sea,” a woman faces a threatening god of storm and lightning and takes his power from him, becoming a god in her own right: “I am a speck of dust/Commander of the sea/And I will bring the storm/Wherever I go.” It’s an uplifting conclusion to this section, a story of a woman claiming agency and power for herself, accomplishing what too few in the past have been able to do.
The last section of this collection was written by Angela Yuriko Smith, an American woman of Okinawan descent—or rather, Uchinanchu descent, as the people of Okinawa refer to themselves in their own language. As Smith writes in her introduction, her poems are about the discovery and reclamation of her Uchinanchu heritage, and the larger reclamation from history of her ancestors’ culture and history. To this day, many people in the West do not understand that Okinawa was once independent of Japan, with its own culture and language. Smith writes that she herself did not understand this until she was in her late 30s; such have been the effects of forced assimilation and erasure. Smith’s poems are alive with the myths and culture of her ancestors: mediums, deities, mischievous wood sprites, and guardian lion dogs. In one of her author notes, Smith writes that the people of Okinawa and the Ryukyu Islands believed that “spiritual power is the domain of women. Other cultures may burn their witches and mediums, but in Okinawan society women are celebrated for their abilities to connect with the divine.” Smith’s poems also celebrate this connection. There is light in many of these poems, but there is a sense of loss, too, as in “Kayoda House,” where the poet-narrator wonders at a possible ancestral connection which she cannot verify. In “The Nukekubi,” there is a terrifying ghost and a sense of displacement and alienation amidst the terror; the speaker encounters the mysterious nukekubi in the American South, in Tennessee, far from ghost’s home. Smith writes: “My nukekubi/out of place in Tennessee. . . /out of place like me.”
Some of the most harrowing poems of this section—and in the entire book— describe the horrors that occurred in Okinawa during World War II. “Inside Chibichiragama” and “Outside Chibichirigama” describe the mass civilian deaths that occurred upon the landing of United States forces on the island. And in “Inujini” the poet laments the uselessness of Okinawan deaths during the final campaign of the war: “Caught between Japan/and America/no choices for the Luchuans--/country and culture/both taken away.” And: “—dying a dog’s death/for a nation not their own…”
Despite the horrors and loss, however, what comes through powerfully in Smith’s poems is a sense of resilience and hope. In “Her Hajichi” she writes of the traditional tattoos of Okinawan/Uchinanchu women, which were long forbidden by the Japanese. “The ink may be gone/but the spirit remains strong/and calls for return” she writes, and in an author note she adds that many Uchinanchu women are beginning to revive this tradition.
Resilience is, in fact, a theme that runs throughout this book, in all four of the poets’ works. Resilience is invoked by the title image itself—of willows, tortured and bent but unbroken. Willow trees are a recurring image across poems, representing different things at different times. But the willow tree’s deep-rootedness, flexibility, and strength comes through most powerfully. In Smith’s opening poem, “Four Willows Bound,” she imagines herself and her three co-authors as four willow trees bound together, stripped of their branches but too deeply rooted to pull up, surviving storms in sisterhood together.
All in all, Tortured Willows: Bent, Bowed, Unbroken is a beautiful book. The poems here are by turns dark, harrowing, furious, and moving, but they also invoke women’s strength and resilience. There is horror here, yes, but also light and beauty. Each poet has included commentary on each of her poems, which adds personal, historical, and cultural context and richness. These commentaries work together with the poems to create a singular work. I would also be remiss if I didn’t add that the cover art and design and layout of the book (which I have only in digital form) is just gorgeous. Tortured Willows is a worthy follow-up and companion to the groundbreaking Black Crows anthology. If you read and enjoyed Black Crows, you will also love this follow-up. And if you haven’t yet read Black Crows, I strongly urge you to find and read both of these remarkable books.