Ngai, Sianne

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NGAI, Sianne

Nationality: American. Born: Washington, D.C., 3 October 1971. Education: Brown University, Providence, Rhode Island, M.F.A. 1995; Harvard University, Cambridge, Massachusetts, Ph.D. candidate late 1990s. Family: Married Daniel Farrell in 1996.



My Novel. Buffalo, New York, Leave Books, 1994.

Discredit. Providence, Rhode Island, Burning Deck, 1997.

TelepromptER*. Elmwood, Connecticut, Potes and Poets Press, 1998.

Criteria. Oakland, California, O Books, 1998.

*  *  *

In work that appears linguistically subversive, Sianne Ngai distorts syntax and form in ways that question constructions of meaning. Consistently abstract, often to the point of obscurity, her poems explore dimensions, change, boundaries, and such categories as "the with" and "the about." There are distinct differences, however, between the work in Ngai's first collection, the chapbook Discredit, and her later volume Criteria. In the earlier book, which consists of six linked sections, each containing several short pieces that can be read as one coherent poem, Ngai examines themes of memory, appearance, and transmutation. Several images from the work are visually or metaphorically striking, as is this single line from the first section: "The scar is the shape of a garden named after a bird of a passing complexion." Elsewhere in the same poem the speaker observes "the way a signature follows the body as tedious stitches on a garment" or the way in which

The paper floats to meet the image in something like water
Like an expensive pencil
Drawing you under the valid pretext of fatigue.

Throughout Discredit Ngai presents cryptic phrases that could be bits of overheard conversation or dreams ("Very few and I'm sorry for that" or "Bright vacuum of sun, or incomprehension."). She also uses space on the page to fragment language and to create distance between or within phrases. These are techniques Ngai expands more daringly in Criteria, a collection of nine pieces that includes "My Novel," a prose poem in twenty-one "chapters" that is arguably the most approachable work in the book. Although "My Novel" employs relatively conventional sentence patterns, its images and associations are consistently surreal, as in this passage from chapter 19, "Scenography":

Water trapped in the brain blocks a memory of the river,
  save for the fact
that I could not see. The name said this was because
  language had cast is weather
into disparate parts. A parable or armor and orthopedics
our attention to the slide, where metazoa and various other
defended themselves from the rain.

In ways that suggest the work of Jorie Graham or, less directly, Emily Dickinson, Ngai uses carefully chosen interruptions and repetitions to heighten meaning, as in "Title of With":

Take the bus to the outline——————————
take the bus to the outline of the sign—————————
where casuality [sic.]
retrieves the title of enough——————————
................ Use fork
for pitch of right———————-use fork
for puncture
for puncture the enough.

Such pieces achieve an almost oracular tone and force the reader to confront the reality of the plain black line. Is the reader expected to fill in the blank? Or has something been deleted? The device is both startling and ambiguous.

Among Ngai's most innovative works is "The Enemy," which opens Criteria. It begins with Ngai's characteristic techniques of repetitions and unfilled space on the page. Soon, however, the poet begins to insert bracketed commands such as "repeat" or "strike through," which suggest elements of both process and performance. As phrases are repeated and combined with increasing urgency, the reader experiences and participates in the act of composition:

unlike discipline
remorse [strike through] happens to need to
[repeat] "happens to need to" [strike through] claim
  instincts has to really want to
where the individual happens to need to change the
batteries or her rifle from one shoulder to the other
where discipline becomes abstract opening the door
where answering the bell and opening the door where all
are audible acts unlike the secretion of saliva where the
individual happens to need to change where the
individual has to really want to change.

Although Ngai makes thematic and stylistic choices that limit the accessibility of her work, her creative risks stretch boundaries and "puncture the enough" of how poems can mean.

—Elizabeth Shostak