A Review of: Mad Science in Imperial City by Shanxing Wang

CENTRAL QUESTION: What can language offer in the wake of personal loss?

A Review of: Mad Science in Imperial City by Shanxing Wang

Lytton Smith
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Shanxing Wang’s debut collection, Mad Science in Imperial City, is an exploration of how bearing witness is “burdened by the solidification and densification of its own memory and the difficulty of telling it faithfully.” An extraordinary work of collapsed geography and conflated event, it argues that only through engaging with tradition can we understand our experience of the world as it changes around us.

Four linked sections of poetic prose that draw both from the lyric and the novelistic, Mad Science resists classification. It utilizes scientific diagrams, mathematical equations, lists, and even a menu from an imagined Poetry Auction (“poetry of fresh masquerade, $6.75”). Broadly, it relates the experience of someone who left China after the Tiananmen Square massacre to settle in the U.S., carrying the fourth edition of the American Heritage dictionary “wherever I go.” The book uses this emigration to investigate what constitutes the individual and where narration resides.

In the second section, “J Integral,” the narrator reveals how “I hopelessly misuse he as she and she as he. Because in my mother tongue both she and he are pronounced asta.” Wang recasts the self as selves (I0, I2, I3), questioning the “I” as “chaotic, impotent, equivocal, and contradictory.” While Mad Science appears autobiographical—like the emigrant Wang, the narrator researches nanotechnology and takes creative writing classes—it presents autobiography as problematic. The “difficulty of telling it faithfully” is the difficulty of how memory alters experience. The “hidden form of my story” must be hunted in “others’ stories” and the narrator wonders,“is there a 4th person narration?”

This question is foremost in “A’s Degeneracy,” the third section, which consists of poems titled with variations on the phrase “How to Write.” Embracing dialogue as a significant mode (between SHE and I, in letters addressed “Dear S,” among writers including Duncan and Vallejo) it recounts key events in the narrator’s history. But the narrative is typically nonlinear and the place difficult to locate. “Empire Building” suggests the Empire State Building without identifying it; “Time(s) Square” or “T Square” returns us to Tiananmen Square without naming it.

Much of Mad Science’s pathos is derived from memo- ries of “T Square.” In one brilliant, troubling passage, Wang presents the massacre numerically, using factors of sixty (the decade of his birth) and sums of primes. Emotion stems from the combination of the mathematical and lyrical.

Futurepoem’s first release, Garrett Kalleberg’s Some Mantic Daemons (2002), used “montage material… from a wide variety of literary, technical, and other sources.” Mad Science similarly draws on wide-ranging sources: Chinese heritage, scientific knowledge, Stein, Baudelaire. Like Moby-Dick, it does not merely create a collage of disciplines and traditions, but fashions them into a singular work, the response of the intelligence to the problem of utterance. Futurepoem’s six titles, all thoughtfully designed by Anthony Monahan, share a relationship to form that is neither narrowly reactive nor ideologically prescriptive. The narrator of Mad Science describes himself as “thrown out of the Poetry House”; if so, this expulsion has freed him into the possibilities of language. The past may be inescapable, but language remains: creative and constructive. Such a conception of language allows the poem to suggest the future; as Mad Science reminds us, it must also be the future of the poem.

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