Reading Silas Gorin’s The Pineapple Club, by Lynn Otto
In the fourteen poems that make up The Pineapple Club, Silas Gorin offers a richness of sound and imagery that work together to evoke (for me) a different place and culture and, at the same time, convey intense feelings that transcend place and culture: desire, frustration, shame, hope, resignation. According to a note that Gorin sent along with the poems to Triggerfish’s editor, which was then shared with me, the poems are “in a narrative sequence” with “three or four poems yet to be written.” He explains that there are three main characters—Lili (who “gives up her PhD to work at The Pineapple Club”), Mr He (“He is pronounced in the Chinese way: Heurgh”), and Mr He’s wife—and “peripheral characters that are implied. One of them is Mr He’s mother . . . who appears ‘off-stage’ in ‘The Outlaw.’”
The narrative is not spelled out in the poems, though on first reading (before seeing Gorin’s note) I could perceive that a romance blooms and founders, a woman struggles to maintain her identity and autonomy, and Mr He hits bottom and then strikes out for the straight and narrow. I didn’t differentiate two female characters, and even after reading Gorin’s explanation, I found it difficult to ascertain who was speaking in each poem, particularly when the speaker seemed to be a woman. Maybe it’s hard to tell the difference between Lili and Mrs He because their experiences are not so different. Gorin writes, “I am conscious that the sequence is one that is obviously written by a man. [ . . . ] However, it is supposed to be critical of a system of power which has as its ultimate expression the complete objectification, and classification, of women.” Thus it may be intentional that the roles of wife and mistress are ambiguous. The poems do indeed tangle with the objectification of women, along with imbalances of power and the tension between sexual desire and autonomy.
The short collection opens with “Jade Crickets,” full of assonance and alliteration. In its title and six lines, this poem gives us the world of the (presumably female) speaker—an Asian setting, the presence of extended family, the awareness of guilt, the remoteness of forgiveness. It reveals that she is “eager,” curious, and proactive, and it suggests themes of the collection: transgression, pursuit, and, in a sense, fertility or fruitfulness, or, one could say, meaning (“the birth of a world”). I believe this character is Lili, who reappears (and is named) later in the collection but always with more constraint.
“Prep Juice And Stainless Steel: A Romance” seems to compare romance to the preparation of something for consumption—drugs, food, the dissection of fruit, the extraction of juice—a reshaping of ingredients to “present as a new life,” which is “an art.” The poem links this reshaping to “man’s real purpose: / Chinoiserie revisited with irony: an ultimate control,” which suggests that fabrication, even of art, even with the distance of an ironic stance, is an act of domination. (One could read “Chinoiserie” as self-referential, given Gorin’s subject matter and ex-pat resident status in China.) And the third stanza performs this control, giving instructions, carefully paced, as from a master chef/artist/poet to an apprentice, and, finally, in the last three startling lines, as from a master to his material (not a different addressee, but the same, having been shifted into a new role): “bite down on the apple, dear / suckling; lie biddable; / bide your time.” Such a deft line break after “dear,” with the roast piglet suddenly appearing after the turn.
In the third poem, “Mr He in Love,” metaphors and similes pile up, rapidly shifting from body to water to building to tree. The pace and confusion of these shifts just add to the sense of the same qualities characterizing the love affair between Mr He and Lili, who are named in this poem. I enjoyed Gorin’s rendering of Mr He’s conscience: “duties tinkled, like bells in a distant courtyard; / thoughts knocked on the door of his summer / with tiny hands.”
A woman (I think Lili) speaks and is spoken of in “A Red Candle.” The poem, with its sentences breaking over two-line stanzas, appears more delicate and hesitant than the previous three. But the woman is resolved—she’ll be beautiful for herself alone and only pretend to be for others.
The speaker of “Double Happiness,” a sonnet, could be Mr He’s wife, remembering their wedding day, or Lili, now married to Mr He. The dual possibilities of “the dust / had settled” perhaps argues for the latter. The speaker “couldn’t quite suppress / a smile” when she sees the new apartment, which is “hanging on the thirteenth floor / like a battle wound” (a foreboding image). Though she calls the man beside her “bold and handsome,” she credits herself, saying, “He got the strength to boss / his fear from me.” She resolves to stay focused on “fixed / pointedness . . . my tool for both of us.”
The idea of woman as food or sacrificial animal reoccurs throughout the sequence: In “Outlaw” a woman recounts a tension-filled visit from her mother-in-law. In a parenthetical note, she is advised to “Bring her a slice of cake; show her your sweet side.” As she does so, she sees herself as a sacrifice on an altar.
The eyes of the protagonist (Lili or Mrs He as a schoolgirl?) in “Detention” are described as birds, trapped and pinned, as she searches for the answer to a multiplication question in a disturbing classroom scene. Unless the poem is a flashback, it’s hard to fit chronologically into the sequence, thought it certainly fits thematically. In this poem, the imbalance of power is ramped up to include gender, age, and educational setting. Gorin builds suspense in this poem (I’m going to take off, I’m going to stand up / I’m going to do what the teacher says”) and then “kicks the chair away” from under us all. Thanks to a perfect line break and no punctuation, the last line reads “it is Sir”—a chilling ending.
“Charm” opens with a barrage of hard c and k sounds, then slides into alliteration of s and st, creating tension and a sinister mood. There’s rhyme as well (“electron,” “dawn”; “swollen,” “bullion”). Dreams are mentioned twice—“Electron dreams” and “silver // bullion dreams”—and these seem to be ambitions. The poem’s last two lines end with the words “restless” and “struggle,” and those words seem to sum up the mood of this poem.
The consumable female is certainly featured in “Hors D’oeuvre.” It’s telling that the title refers to a little snack, an appetizer, instead of a more substantial meal. Also interesting is that the woman isn’t so appetizing and isn’t so little: she’s “in gall stone green,” her “crown” is “caul capped,” and she’s “plump as a maggoty mum / with stuffing.” The poem continues with contrasts: she crawled “empty of pride” but “remained tight lipped.” And “at the core of the fruit” is a “fresh rat heart.” She is told she her screams will “swallow the sun / and turn new day in / to night.” The poem summarizes the situation tersely: “Tough choice, between fear and hunger.”
The next four poems focus on Mr He—in “The Gift” he is mocked and finds himself having lost everything, “a black leech mouth / to the dog dirt ground.” In “Mr He’s Last Chance,” he resolves to “set off for north, the road rod straight / obedience true.” “Tight Spot Blues” is a song to a stimulant and suggests Mr He’s straight road had a little detour. “Moon Gimp” offers images of age and decay, but these seem not only to apply to Mr He but also to his world, which seeks to sustain the status quo: “Snake / skin tombs protect their clutch // as peck peck peck the boy inside / works hard to please his master.”
“The Melon Seller” returns to the woman, now older as well. The first two stanzas ask “How could”—how could life change so drastically? “Cold / comes the answer for the melon seller.” The cold seems to be both physical and psychological, a purposeful frigidity—“Cold as she guts each pristine slice / numb as the blade that slides / through honeyed flesh. / She’ll never yield / except to that livelihood fruit.” The poem ends with an image with strong sexual overtones—the fruit’s “string of yellow seed // sown on exclusively Gucci designed / tan leather shoes from a faraway time”—bringing to mind her earlier life as the mistress or wife of Mr He, the recipient of his expensive gifts and his spilled seed. Her choice now is a rejection of that seed in favor of her independence: “She’ll never yield.”
The poem doesn’t ask that we cheer for this outcome. True, there is greater inner strength in both characters, but both are alone, one characterized with images of “bone ash dust” and “dry / thirst” (“Moon Gimp”), the other with images of coldness and a “finless fish / turning alone in the ocean” (“The Melon Seller”). The poems don’t offer an easy solution to the tension between the desire for autonomy and the desire for sex or love, or to the complications of dependence and relationship, or to devastating notions of women as consumable. One could ask whether the woman is any less objectified when she is associated with coldness for her unwillingness to yield. Still, the poems do render these tensions vividly and reward the reader with a great deal of poetic pleasure.