General 11-29-2003

Book Review: The Magic Whip

Wang Ping's new book of poetry from Coffee House Press inspires Travis Lusk's thoughts on the value of the individual and the vulnerability of the body.

Wang Ping lives just across the river from me in St. Paul, lauded, and I’ve been either too busy or too selfish to notice. She’s written a book of short stories, a novel, a nonfiction work on footbinding in China, a book of poetry translations, and has been giving readings throughout the Twin Cities at a steady pace. Her new book of poetry, The Magic Whip, was published in October from Coffee House Press ($14.95).

Poetry is surviving outside academia in themed texts, titled to make their concern obvious. Whether this is an attempt to make poetry more accessible or a fling at garnering the popularity of page-turner novels, work that refuses to be encased in anthologies can find expression and organization in a text with an all-encompassing, centralized notion. The Magic Whip is no exception, but it is exceptional in its use of the form.

The whip in the title work (and opening poem) could be either the braided queues of the Chinese Boxers, inlaid with talismans to grant immunity from harm, or (primarily) the pigtail of a young girl, a bodily symbol of chastity and nubile servitude. This evocation of empowerment and helplessness through manipulation of the human body is prevalent throughout the text and illustrates the importance of being able to control the form and fate of one’s own body. In this way, the text is itself a braided talisman, urgently insisting on the unalienable right to self.

What makes The Magic Whip an exceptional work is its ability to simply speak for the exploited, “the poor, women, children” and “how we must fight for justice, organizing activities to raise our social consciousness” (as the teacher in “Our Teacher of Marxism” suggests). The Magic Whip is a treatise of the power of the poet as a necessary voice; it acts as a reminder for the reader (who must serve as poet) to empathize, to act, and to voice again the stories of those dispossessed of their bodies.
In “Silent Witness,” demands are made of us: “Give back our mother, “ “Give back our children,” “Give back our names,/ even if they’ve been erased,/ please give them back to us.” We are reminded in “Where the Story Goes” that, as mortal beings “struggling to live” and “feel safe,” we as readers and poets need to listen to the stories of others, to make them our own and retell them. Such stories are the shared talismans by which we can understand each other and maintain a shared history where we can live together in safety. For example, from “On the Other Hand:”

“Beauty is top-heavy, so is ugliness./ Surrender yourself under the river of stars.”

And again, from “Silent Witness,” “Give back our children,/ even if the stars have fled from their eyes.”


The reviewer must mention here the real reason for his obliviousness to the recent state of poetry: his four-month-old son. For this monumental reason alone I thoroughly read with greedy, empathetic relish, interest, and wonder poems like “Adam’s Prayer,” “Night Shift,” “First Step,” “Wet Nurse, Mother Goose,” and “Star Map.”

Indeed, constant references in The Magic Whip to children and depictions of narrators through all stages of life serve as eloquent reminders that, in addition to our listening and empathy, we must also give to the youngest bodies the talismans, guides, histories, and myths necessary to protect them from harm and enable them to live as emissaries of understanding. “Heart and Liver” asks us to teach them “how to love, how to be loved, in the absence of words. A gift still unconditioned, still on the wing.”

Children exemplify the most fragile body and impressionable mind, and therefore are most entitled to feel safe within their bodies and, in turn, be allowed to share the growth of their thoughts and actions. Children are the metaphor, though all people of all ages deserve the same reverence and opportunity. As the subheadings in “Great Summons” suggest, all names, faces, and bodies are beautiful, and “All stories are personal.” Even if we are busy, selfish, or too involved, it’s essential to take the time to be reminded of what fortifies our common history. We all desire to be safe in our bodies and minds.
The Magic Whip is a timely reminder to listen, hear and tell.