On Prose Poems, Race, and Chimera

by Kathleen Hellen

The behavior of the prose poem, its fearful mixing, I wear like skin. Look, and you can see that I am strange mixture: part Asian, part Western. I am the compression of these two, the repetition of parts and their fragmentation.

No wonder then the form has seized my imagination, beginning with Baudelaire and Rilke, and later in the work of Paz, Simic, Forche and Etheridge Knight. The prose poem is one in many invasions of form, hybridity used as tool, as discourse on and critique of imperialism in its many guises. I love it when Forche in “The Colonel” writes: “My friend said to me with his eyes: say nothing,” as if the collective silence that allows for such atrocities as war, the dictatorship of power, is the atrocity. It is in the dis-member-ment (the parts from whole, the “us” from “them”) like the cutting off of ears that we all are silenced. “Something for your poetry, no?" Forche’s Colonel asks.

Or prose. Take Kimiko Hahn’s use of the zuihitsu, for example, as difficult to pin down as her definition. “… I like to think of the zuihitsu as a fungus—not plant or animal, but a species unto itself,” she said in an interview published in BOMB Magazine. “… There’s no Western equivalent, though some people might wish to categorize it as a prose poem or an essay…. The zuihitsu can also resemble other Western forms: lists, journals. I’ve added emails to the mix. Fake emails.”

In my own work—poetry, prose and everything between—this hybridity appears in compressions as fraught as haiku; in allusions to Murasaki’s The Tale of Genji and Shōnagon’s The Pillow Book; as experiments in the haibun, combining prose and haiku as well as autobiography, biography, diary, essay, and history; as ghosts like the ghosts of Noh. My chapbook The Girl Who Loved Mothra, a collection of poems, steals its title from the 12th-century Japanese tale The Girl Who Loved Caterpillars.

No line breaks here. No separation between genres, races, classes—hybrids as aberration, the dis-ease of mutation. A kind of writing from isolation that speaks to the cultural effect of globalization, the traces of culture that exist in other cultures. Not westernized, not homogenized, but like the mythic chimera these prose poems, these zuihitsu, these “species unto [themselves],” as Hahn would have it, embody the complexities of identity, sometimes breathe fire.