NEW HAVEN, CT — Monica Ong is a 21st-century visual poet who extends the reader’s sense of what is possible. She is the author of Silent Anatomies (Kore Press, 2014), which renowned poet Joy Harjo selected for a First Book award in poetry. This book meshes together images, such as family photos, sonagrams, and anatomical diagrams, with dictionary entries, texts and phrases she has altered, and her own writing. It begins with the author discovering that she had a “Mystery Uncle,” but, as with all family stories, larger forces are at play, and this is what Ong pursues.
One page pictures a bottle labeled “Fortune Babies.” The label includes a photograph of a man, woman, and child, and directions: “If you have difficulty conceiving, adopt a child […].” Another bottle is labeled “Chinaman” and has a family photo placed above dictionary definitions. By superimposing language and image on a bottle, Ong underscores how beliefs and ways of thinking and seeing become embedded in one’s culture, shaping the way we communicate.
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Ong is a poet who does not start by writing words on a blank page, at least as her work appears in its final conceived form. She belongs to the family of conceptual poet-artists that includes Marcel Broodthaers and Theresa Hak Kyung Cha.
Yet all of the above does not begin to describe what I experienced when I went to see Planetaria: An Exhibition of Visual Poetry by Monica Ong at the Gallery Upstairs at the Institute Library (June 8–September 8, 2021), curated by Martha Willette Lewis.
The statement on Ong’s website describes, near the beginning:
Planetaria is a series of visual poems by Monica Ong that leverage the visual language of astronomy to explore the precarious territories of motherhood, women in science, and diaspora identity. Playfully taking poetry off the page as light box assemblages and handheld volvelle poems, this series seeks to imagine the sky from a female perspective, examining the power struggles that myth-making elicits.
The exhibition includes a planisphere, light boxes, star maps, pages from a lost astronomy book, an homage to Caroline Herschel (1750–1848), the first woman to be paid a salary as a scientist and publish her discoveries in the Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society, and six cards Ong was commissioned by the Asian American Literary Review to design for an Asian American tarot deck. In this last work, six different authors composed the six cards. Ong is a poet open to collaboration, and to working with printmakers, as a joint venture is often necessary to her projects. Presentation is crucial to her, as it was to Broodthaers. She has worked closely with various shops, including Boxcar Press in Syracuse, New York, to make her work.
The starting point of Planetaria — the ground on which many of the works were written — is a Chinese star chart, which is significantly different from the Greco-Roman one, in which constellations join distant stars together to map and domesticate the sky. Instead, the Chinese groupings are smaller and known as asterisms.
Chinese astronomers divided the night sky into four groups of 283 asterisms, with three of the groups regarded as “enclosures” and given names: Purple Forbidden enclosure, Supreme Market enclosure, and Heavenly Market enclosure. The fourth group consists of the “Twenty-Eight Mansions” (groups of stars) that have been divided into four groups of seven symbols. Astronomy and astrology, we should remember, were once connected.
Driven by a deep curiosity about where names and beliefs come from, and how they might be altered, Ong’s works are a culmination of research and reading. As the ancient Chinese astronomers named the three enclosures and 28 mansions according to a patriarchal bias, Ong rewrites the lines and tales associated with the asterisms through a feminist gaze.
“Purple Forbidden Enclosure” (2019), which was produced in collaboration with Boxcar Press, is a deep-blue rectangular piece with gold and silver foil stamping. Beneath the gold title along the top edge is a circle, or enclosure, within which Ong has printed the asterisms, accompanied by a description or name that goes with it, such as FLYING SERPENTS or SHIPS. She incorporates each of these astronomical descriptions into a phrase or sentence: “Little girl’s lost BASKET OF MULBERRY LEAVES.” Through these, Ong replaces a male language with a female language.
This is from an attachment describing her intention with “Purple Forbidden Enclosure,” which Ong sent me:
This visual poem rewrites the constellations of the Chinese northern celestial pole from a female gaze, framing each asterism as a stop on the precarious journey of womanhood.
While the intention sounds didactic, the result is not. The writing feels open and evocative:
Loneliness leaves you atop nightfall’s INNER STEPS Her fingertip a tiny moon.
Another example is:
CELESTIAL BED of maidenhair fir
An ear’s omen rings in the arrival of wayward SHIPS
One of Ong’s many strengths is her ability to bring together abstract phrases and descriptive words in a way that resists easy understanding. In this work, the writing is gnomic rather than discursive.
In the light box “The Way of Milk”(2020), Ong has overlaid an image of two pairs of children holding hands with a vertically oriented diagram of a section of the Milky Way that identifies some clusters and some single stars: for instance, “ELEGY AS SNOW” and “MIGRANT PARADISE.” By naming an isolated star “MIGRANT PARADISE,” she suggests something about the yearning and sense of loss and dislocation that is a deep part of the immigrant experience. The union of the four children and the Milky Way enhances but does not enclose that recognition.
Just as artists develop signature styles and brand themselves, poets develop signature vocabularies, subjects, and technical moves. Ong is not one of them. The language shifts, often in nuanced ways, from project to project. Her merging of the support — be it an astronomical chart or a diagram — with the text is always carefully thought out.
LOST ASTRONOMY (2020) is series of digital prints on vintage paper. Each page seems to have generated the poem, but in a way that I would not consider programmatic. At times, I could not tell if the writing was Ong’s or if she was citing someone’s writing, and that state of unknowing was delicious for all sorts of reasons. A page with the heading “Blood Red Woman” includes six poems, each contained in its own demarcated space above and below the close-up image of a red moon.
The lines are in two typefaces, suggesting two authors. Ong is one. At the bottom of the page we read: “With Lines from ‘Quiet Night Thought’ by Li Bai (701–762).” Also known as Li Po, Li’s poems influenced Ezra Pound and James Wright, among many others.
Then I look down & think of home Notice the way she blushes after vanquishing the wolves
In this poem, which is on the bottom right corner of the page, Ong juxtaposes a line that evokes Li Bai’s feelings of isolation, as he has likely been sent to a meaningless government post miles from where he lives, with her own description of a mythic figure. The old patriarchy is crumbling, but it does not seem to realize that this is the case.
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Each page in this work is different, as is Ong’s response. This is really where her remarkable talent as a poet and artist became clear to me, in how she has seamlessly integrated many different strands of imagery and discursive languages, such as scientific texts, in her work. LOST ASTRONOMY should be published as a book. Ong’s work should be better known and her stature as a major figure should be a given.
Planetaria: An Exhibition of Visual Poetry by Monica Ong continues at the Gallery Upstairs at the Institute Library (847 Chapel Street, New Haven, Connecticut) through September 8.