Unnameable Light

On Monica Ong’s Planetaria.

To encounter Monica Ong’s visual poetry in Planetaria is not simply to read, but to experience a new way of viewing the world. The means by which Ong offers this new perspective are disarmingly literal: Her Gaze takes the form of reels for a View-Master, the vintage toy of the 1970s and 1980s that allowed children to peer into stereoscopic scenes. But what we see through Ong’s lenses is most often a representation of the unseen. Her Gaze takes as its subject the astronomer Caroline Herschel, whose extraordinary accomplishments were often overshadowed by those of her more famous brother; in her poem “Planetarium,” Adrienne Rich imagines Caroline Herschel among “Galaxies of women, there / doing penance for impetuousness.” Against the backdrop of a night sky, Ong places a silhouette of Herschel, overlaid with lines that capture the constrictions and yearnings of Caroline’s grueling service to her brother, including feeding him while he worked: “Placing midnight / victuals in the mouth’s devotion…The belly’s moth flutters / towards an unnamable light.”

It is that “unnamable light” toward which Ong’s work strives, offering us new mappings through which the seemingly immutable can be seen anew. The Star Gazer takes the form of a beautifully rendered astronomical chart, but one that shows a sky not familiar to Western eyes; the constellations are instead those of a Chinese star map from the Song dynasty. Radiating outward from a gold star marked “You are here,” words and phrases cascade and curve away from the center of the volvelle like falling leaves. Like the night sky, the arrangement of words at first appears random and chaotic; but like Her Gaze, this is an object not simply to be read but to be used. Ong’s instructions ask the user to take the chart outside and turn its disk so the date matches the hour of the night; when the chart is turned to the correct points of the compass, the phrases become poetic lines, their curves guiding our reading just as constellations make meaning from the stars. In this way, The Star Gazer offers to its user multiple poetic paths, each revealing itself with another turn of the disc and distinct in its poignancy, with one evoking “a deeper / well / where / women warriors / gather / take comfort / lifting voices over / the vast silence.”

Lines like these, with their allusion to Maxine Hong Kingston’s The Woman Warrior, bring Ong’s project into a tradition of Asian-American writing that breaks silences, particularly those that have been imposed on women—a theme explored by poetic predecessors such as Janice Mirikitani, Marilyn Chin, and Myung Mi Kim. But Ong’s visual poetics emphasizes the tangibility and tactility of these silenced histories. In this, her most important precursor is Theresa Hak Kyung Cha, whose understanding that “History’s recording” is “Not physical enough” lays the groundwork for Ong’s poetic objects. Ong insists that we take history into our own hands, turning it until it reveals an unnamed light.

Editor's Note:

Planetaria will be on view at the Poetry Foundation in Chicago from April 21, 2022 to June 30, 2022. 

Originally Published: June 13th, 2022

Poet and scholar Timothy Yu was born and raised in the suburbs of Chicago. He earned his BA at Harvard and a PhD at Stanford University. Yu’s scholarly and creative work explores the intersections of race and avant-garde writing traditions; his first book of criticism Race and the Avant-Garde: Experimental...