What Happens Next—As If Continuously Reaching Elsewhere: A Review of T. Liem's Slows: Twice

Slows: Twice
T. Liem
Coach House
2023, 96 pp., $23.95

T. Liem’s sophomore collection of poetry, Slows: Twice opens with an epigraph that is one part discomforting and one part expectant. Penned by the American poet and essayist, Erica Hunt, it alleges that “[o]ften we are forced to consent to the supposition that we are as continuous as others imagine us to be.” Poetic and bittersweet all at once, Hunt’s sentiment that we can be imagined along a continuous spectrum is a beautiful supposition until we are forced by life’s gravity to consider the gamut’s end.

Hunt’s ode to such life-like complexity provides the conceptual groundwork for the inaugural poem in the collection, “I Want To Live Here Where Nothing Coheres” wherein Liem’s speaker imagines a “threshold / between me and potential in any direction” along with the existential shortcomings one might associate with having limitless prospects. While Liem’s speaker wants to live in an “incoherent” space full of possibility where they can fully exercise their freedoms, they also recognize the ways one might be inhibited by the often overwhelming possibility of possibility itself. In a revealing moment the speaker claims “I was a yes man / And grabbed what was within my reach / I was outside myself and undertow.” The remarkably poignant verses work to outline the alienation the speaker is condemned to feel and beautifully calls to mind, elucidates, and even extends Liem’s epigraphical nod to Hunt. While the opening poem evokes Hunt’s notion that we are only as “continuous” as “others imagine us to be,” it also takes their point of view a step further to suggest that we are condemned within the “threshold” of our own imaginative reach. The “threshold” Liem poeticizes is not so much a moniker of possibility or “potential in any direction” but a crevasse into the far-too-oft “undertow” of individual experience—self-alienation. To want to live with all of the continuous opportunities one might associate with a seemingly free existence is to indeed “want to live where nothing coheres” deep inside—within one’s self. Or, to quote the latter poem in the collection, “Consider Vice Versa,” “We are filled with ellipses and reversals.”

What makes Liem’s work so brilliant is the way it mimics the ellipses and reversals comprising our deeply complex inner thoughts—those wavering, inter-sifting, and intersplicing kinetic flashes moving through and weaving our synapses “in any direction.” In “Consider The Hands You Will Not Touch” the speaker begins the poem with what could be a directive to both the reader and Liem themselves—“Quiet your mind. Hard work and luck surround you.” The opening lines serve as affecting reminders that quieting the mind opens the proverbial floodgates surrounding or preventing the overflow of thought itself. To silence the inner activity of your mind is to hear the thoughts buzzing beneath its surface—to listen and subsequently notice what surrounds you outside yourself. To notice the ways “hard work and luck” “surround” oneself is a revealing, perceptive exercise that considers the largely inconsequential effects of both in lieu of the disturbing fact that “time is also a standard”—if not the standard—imparted on all of “our bodies sagging.” As a whole, the poem remarkably manages to bracket or “ellipse” our own discursivity in a way that beautifully marries the conceptual with the humane.

Liem’s formal or artistic ability to pair notional artfulness alongside a nuanced, deeply human understanding of consciousness is a testament to their poetic range and reflective of one of the (many) thematic undertones of Slows: Twice. An exemplification of this wide-ranging capacity appears in the previously mentioned “I Want To Live Here Where Nothing Coheres” where Liem alludes to the notion that their work serves as a moving and often poignant “threshold / between [them] and potential in any direction.” Or, rather, their poetry—which often experiments with stylistic direction—is a series of revelations that reflect someone who is undergoing an individual revelation of their own. Liem’s speaker claims “I revealed myself / in every mirror.” The two verses are simultaneously emblematic of one of poetry’s general functions, the formal layout of Slows: Twice, and the broader, philosophical undercurrents animating the book as a whole.

Liem’s formal or artistic ability to pair notional artfulness alongside a nuanced, deeply human understanding of consciousness is a testament to their poetic range and reflective of one of the (many) thematic undertones of Slows: Twice.

In one sense, Slows: Twice is a unique work of poetic mimesis—a series of often oblique reflection points that depict speakers who are—to quote the accompanying book description—often trying to make sense of “unfolding” “hours, days, and years.” These moments in time are depicted across a book that is divided in half—a unique formal characteristic meant to symbolize “a charged division for someone who is often identified as such ethnically and racially.” By using a poetic mirroring technique, Liem—who hails from Montreal and whose father is Indonesian—blurs categories against or despite the backdrop of the fast-paced, often assimilatory world their work is set in relation to—a world marked by the frequent othering of race and identity. To reference the introductory poem in the collection one last time, Liem’s poems are those that do not “cohere” to orthodox patterns—rather, they are concerned with blurring their supposed coherences. More specifically, each poem in Slows: Twice has its own corresponding “mirror” version or other half elsewhere in the collection. These corresponding poems often share thematic, syntactical, or stylistic similarities, but are nonetheless unique. As each of these halves are methodically or slowly revealed to the reader, their corresponding “divisions of category blur”—indeed, “work and pleasure, night and day, home and stranger are reinvented.” Liem’s poetic mimicry, revision, and repetition work open up new ways to read a given poem and inhibit the reader from making any kind of corresponding clear-cut interpretation. Rather, Liem’s work is meant to be sat with, slowly considered, and—eventually—reconsidered.

The formal layout of the book paired with Liem’s poetic style both serve as generative springboards to encourage the reader to reconsider their own relationship to the seemingly calcified (and ossifying) categories of time, place, and identity so that they may—à la “The Second Half Folds In On Itself”—“begin anywhere” anew. Liem’s ability to balance their often deeply poignant and murky work alongside notions of renewal and possibility is an impressive feat that distinguishes Slows: Twice as a largely hopeful collection. In this sense, the poetry therein is deeply queer—indeed, “the reflection [of the self is continuously] imperfected” in “The Second Half Folds In On Itself” and elsewhere. As a whole, then, Liem’s poetry is not concerned with depicting supposedly copybook speakers, but queer ones who exceed ideas surrounding limiting notions of perfection as it exists as a strict category within heterosexual culture.

In their special issue of Social Text, “Left of Queer” co-authors and queer theorists David L. Eng and Jasbir K. Puar both write that queerness as a noun and verb exists and acts along “no fixed political referent point.” Eng and Puar are complementary contemporaries when thinking in relation to Liem’s own intermedial work that does not exist in relation to or in proximity to one exact designatum. To—as “The Second Half Folds In On Itself” suggests—“begin anywhere” is to begin queerly—to reflect upon, open up, and explore the possibility of beginnings outside procedural or perfected notions of progress under the dictating rhythms of heteronormative social life. Describing the subject of a photo in “We Were Captured Not Captured,” the speaker proposes the following, evocative caption: “Does this haircut make me look gay enough?” The line brings to mind the ways queer folx often feel like they need to measure up to certain pre-existing understandings of what it means to be “gay.” In their queerness they are both responding to society and (in)advertently existing outside it—they are enclosed or captured by it and simultaneously resistant to or not captured by it. These tricky but deeply thought-provoking kinds of invocations animate Slows: Twice—they are reflections of an imperfect caliber and subsequently mirror the existential or spiritual complexities often silenced by the hum and haw of rollicking days, hours, and years.

When I saw Liem premiere Slows: Twice at the Coach House launch this previous spring, they read from “We Were Captured Not Captured.” When they performed the lines, “I remember myself as a crystalline lens swooning light” the audience appeared quiet—as if transfixed and transformed. Liem’s reading began the night but their words reverberated throughout the course of the evening—as if they were persistent sirens swooning with revelatory rhythms. I have begun to wonder whether their reading served as a crystalline lens of its own—a poetic moment in time that revealed to the audience the ethereal, queer complexities beneath the surface of the everyday. Later that night they signed my copy of their book, writing, “You want to know what happens next and you will.” The adage feels especially fitting to characterize Liem’s brilliant book which seeks to reconcile with the underlying complexities of life’s imperfections under the often stifling barometers of the everyday. As Slows: Twice’s fixation with the temporal makes clear, life inevitably reveals itself across time but we can nonetheless choose the type of lens to view or experience it through. Liem’s optic is a poetic one—evinced in their crystalline work that—like the lattice-like makeup of a crystal—extends in all directions at once as if continuously reaching elsewhere.

About the author

J Shea-Carter (they/them) is a PhD candidate at the University of Guelph who studies and teaches contemporary Canadian queer poetry. They have published with The Ex-Puritan, ARC Poetry Magazine, and host a monthly radio show called “Neighbouring Sounds” on FSR.Live. They live in Toronto.