Goddess Bandit of the Thousand Arms by Hal Y. Zhang is a poetry collection that walks a tightrope between advocating on the one hand for social revenge and on the other for universal mercy. The iconic image on its cover is a creative reimagining of the Chinese goddess Guanyin, the feminine version of the male bodhisattva Avalokiteśvara. The name translates into One Who Perceives the Sound of the World. On the cover, the many arms brandish weapons—an arrow, fire, an axe, a sword—but also beautiful gifts, such as flowers, pearls, and jewels. As the author Hal Y. Zhang points out in the afterword, Guanyin is the embodiment of compassion, so dedicated that she vowed never to rest until she had saved all beings who suffered. She prayed for the world and prayed for herself to do more, until she split her two arms into a thousand arms and a thousand eyes. Zhang takes this image and uses it to summarize her poetry collection's main goal: "a thousand arms, a thousand stories. […] Goddess Bandit of the Thousand Arms was born for this collective of minority, shapeshifting, disabled, immigrant, scientist, and fantastical women who are starved and marginalized, but remain defiant to rise up against the oppressive world" (p. 85). Thus she is both compassion—the embodiment of mercy—and defiant, bent towards revenge on behalf of those who have been victimized. She holds flames but also jewels. Zhang's adaptation of Guanyin imbues her poetry collection with a distinctly modern awareness while also honouring the origins of what came before.
The first aspect of this collection I want to commend is the language. I was blown away by the use of words, both technical and obscure, and how each (to me at least) unfamiliar word enlivened the poem without distracting me with my own incomprehension. That's a tall order, especially since I often want to read poetry with a dictionary around, or at least with access to Etymology Online. I like to break down words, to get to the heart of the meaning; but meaning and understanding was not my immediate goal with Zhang's work. Wonderment and dazzlement were. This was not my first intention; this is an approach Zhang persuaded me to adopt, right from the first poem, "Majorana, back again." I did not need to understand that this poem, according to the author's afterword, was about the "Majorana fermion, who is its own antiparticle" to be wowed by its vocabulary (p. 86). Similarly, when I read these lines, from "Only Found in Dreams," I was not concerned that I had no idea what "eidolon" meant:
We return to the swamp quietly thus
to find our bug-eyed child selves in thrall:
impossible fruiting tigers,
eidolon deaths and adamantine apocalypse.
Here, I was merely enchanted by the sound the word possessed. In still other works—such as "Seraphima" and "Sound Science"—I read and reread the poem aloud before I even tried to guess what their unfamiliar words could mean. I sounded out internal rhymes, syllables, and unexpected turns, constantly comparing Zhang's work to one of my favourite Joanna Newsom songs, "Sapokanikan" (since I still can't get over her rhyme of "Ozymandian" with the title, or her ability to rhyme "obsolescence" with "fluorescence" and have the lyrics make sense). Where Newsom is folksy and pastoral, however, Zhang's vocabulary is futuristic and scientific. Many of the terms I simply did not know, or was unfamiliar with, were from physics, chemistry, and biology. No surprise, there: her bio describes Zhang as a "lapsed physicist." The bio also states that the poet divides her time between "the east coast of the United States and the Internet." This digital divide comes across in the poems as well. There is constant tension between what is embodied and physically felt, in all its glory and pain, and what is thought, imagined, and projected into a future technological landscape that may or may not arrive.
Take the poem "Swallow" for example. It describes a woman reflecting on the lineage of her family through the metaphor of food and eating. Zhang writes:
My daughter is inside of me,
the size of a peach.
At night we dream of falling.
The poem ends with:
Was I delicious,
she asks as we pluck
cloves from her hair and skin.
These series of lines hit me quite hard because I've just had a baby: the image of the peach conjured my distinct excitement as I rushed to the What To Expect app to see what size my baby was each week, where it was always compared to fruit or vegetables of some kind. While so many people around me were also excited and asking for updates on the little olive, peach, or eventual watermelon inside of me, I was happy to provide these updates; yet I also felt some apprehension, a critical awareness that love was devouring, all-consuming—which is what I think Zhang also describes in this poem. I can see my part in a lineage of women—and in my personal history, we are not all talking. We are not all getting along. We are, like the grandmother in this poem, refusing to eat certain foods. So how can what grows inside of me—be it fruit or baby or blood—be attached to them? When described in these metaphors, pregnancy seems more like an SFF universe than anything else I've seen or heard. Indeed, there are other authors, like Parley Ann Boswell, who have pointed out this connection between motherhood and being invaded by an alien. I loved this comparison, yet I was critical of it as well. I didn't want to be too saccharine with my peach or too negative about my alien parasite; I wanted what Zhang describes here: deliciousness. I wish I’d had Zhang's poem when I was pregnant with my firstborn, since there is such key attention paid in it to the binaries that can disrupt life, how these binaries have been historically situated, and how they can be broken down to give us all a better future.
Zhang's main task in her collection seems to be to tackle these binaries through small acts of deconstruction. Sometimes this deconstruction seems like outright desolation or devastation, such as in "runes, ruins," a poem that ends with a series of explosive cracks in the earth. Other poems, like "hypnogogia," end in a similar desire for a vacuous void, and "My last tooth" compares the linguistic term of plosion to poison. These images seem quite dark, but I saw the hope radiating through the text as well, emanating from Zhang's simultaneous desire to demonstrate beauty in ruins, or at least, the beauty in starting over. In "Exeunt, or from the weary adventurers to their creator," the first lines read: "The epilogue is open; unnecessary; / the sequel always disappoints." Yet the poem ends with the italicized line: "this is a start in the truest sense." How are we to make sense of so many contradictions? I see this particular poem as a reclaiming of cyclical time, rather than a recapitulation of the linear concept of rational and straightforward progress. It is this kind of scientific progress that has led to devastation and destruction of the earth. How we change the world is not to destroy it, or even to leave it behind, but to change the language in which we conceive of it. And as such, in her poem "Pearling," Zhang deliberately targets that act of deconstruction in original language, by comparing it to original sin:
Another 300 million years and they will
breathe easily atop mountains as within
prodigal floods while entertaining
each other with ancient bubble myths of
light from above, light from within,
joyful ignorance freeing your
vocabulary from original sin.
In almost all the poems, Zhang provides a way to get outside the typical discourse by providing a third option, which we often learn about through her many characters. Another stunning example of this is in the short poetic story at the end of the collection, entitled "Ruby, Ruby, Black Sand." Told from a distant first-person voice, we enter into a world where a girl vomits gems and her parents treat her like the proverbial golden goose. This story is familiar in its fairy-tale bones: the orphan child, crappy parents, and stunning beauty in the heart of madness and pain. What is different or unique is Zhang's narrator, who watches all of this from a distant point while interjecting at key moments. Lines such as, "That's no better, is it?" and, "Here is the middle of the knot," and "And then what? I dare not ask": these regularly open or close each small vignette in the larger story, drawing our attention to the narrator's presence and also distinct lack of power in telling this story. Through these constant asides, we see the story rewritten in several different manners, not always with good endings or good intentions. The narrator is tangled with what they see; they cannot separate themselves; there is no boundary like there is no boundary between the girl and the gems that strive to kill her.
In the afterword, Zhang positions her story as one about quantum entanglement, one where "a girl escapes from her abusive parents into a surreal multiverse of possibilities and must choose her future" (p. 88). It is a piece about narrative and history and how time reshapes our history—especially if there is someone there to observe it (à la Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle). I also see this story as one that sits outside the narrative of physics, since it is one fundamentally about trauma: trauma, too, challenges typical notions of time (through flashbacks and recurring dreams/nightmares). Even if a person is not the direct sufferer, bearing witness to trauma can cause trauma (as healthcare worker burnout shows us, and as children of Holocaust survivors and their kids also show us). But being a witness to horrific events can heal as well as hurt; often one needs to be proverbially hurt first in order to understand pain, since pain is a purely interior condition and cannot be measured. So the witness/narrator of "Ruby, Ruby, Black Sand" tangles with their own pain by watching this girl's pain, and they also heal her by feeling that pain. The narration blends identities—deconstructing them in the process—in order for the I/me and you to not exist in space-time; it is always an ongoing we.
The ever-ongoing we is also where I ultimately see Guanyin, the Goddess Bandit to whom this collection is devoted: how can Guanyin, who hears the sound of the world and embodies both, have any pronoun other than “we”? Granted, I have only read about Guanyin through other sources, mostly Meggan Watterson, but I am deeply affected by Watterson's readings of the myth. In one version, Guanyin is brutally treated by her father—he is why she goes to that island where she wants to swallow everyone's suffering—and she is also horribly mistreated by other men in her life; yet, when the time comes to forgive her father, she does so easily. Many of the women or marginalized narrators in Zhang's Goddess Bandit of the Thousand Arms are also similarly brutalized; there is pain piled on pain here; there are revenge-seeking missiles, epistles of anger; and brutal wounds of censorship laid bare and open and obvious. Yet this is not a collection that is solely fuelled by revenge. I was worried it would be at times—is this an I Spit on Your Spaceship type of text?—but I was proven wrong countless times. This poetry collection embodies that deep compassion inherent to Guanyin, while also not ignoring the pain and trauma that came before it. In Watterson's understanding of the Guanyin stories, she points out that every single character in the story is the reader; in this Jungian sense, every single character is part of us. We have to be the king who is horrible to Guanyin, as well as Guanyin in the moment she finds it in her heart to forgive him. That is what mercy, compassion, and empathy means. That is why the myth is so stunning and beautiful. And while Zhang’s cover image of Guanyin holds battle axes and arrows. There are jewels upon jewels there too.
By presenting the brutality of history, colonialism, racism, sexism, and the destruction of the environment in her poems, Zhang also casts into high relief the beauty of science, nature, and the delightful things in life that I also see in her poems. I see it in the language that Zhang uses to construct and deconstruct this world in order to populate it with strife and struggle as well as hope and humanity. These poems will stick with me for some time, as should the suffering—and triumph—of Guanyin, in her new incarnation as the Bandit Goddess with the Thousand Arms.