Author’s Preface

I was inspired to write identity papers after a young assailant at a subway station in Brooklyn tried to kill me with a hammer in August 1994. At the time I was finishing a Ph.D. in literature at New York University. Later, as I was writing this, I thought of Ralph Ellison and Etheridge Knight as models, but with respect to race and violence our society has become so complex and perverse that I found it necessary to create new forms of language that were as visceral as they were lyrical, as brutal as they were intellectual. Just as I traveled from a research library to a gutter in less than thirty minutes, I felt that the poetry too had to span our language from the research library to the gutter. I sought to write about race and violence in what was, above all, an honest account. In fact, the most explicitly violent parts were closest to what I actually remembered, including the strangest bits of dialogue.

But what began as an infernal poem became a journey to a completely different kind of vision, one in which one could recognize the violence of our culture yet still find a way to be whole and human again. Something had to be more enduring than the superficial passions for revenge. So in the end of the poem, even in New York City and Philadelphia, even amid all the ills and catastrophes of our great cities, love becomes possible again.

At the same time, I was compelled to see how I was perceived racially in the USA. In 1995 I learned that FBI statistics showed violent crime declining for all ethnic groups except Asian-Americans. I had to rethink how hard it is to be human in a society that glamorizes violence and, worse yet, often gives that violence an Asianand/or other ethnicface.

Nonetheless, I have always believed that I am not merely the sum of the historical accidents of my birth and cultureno human being whose identity could be so exactly paraphrased would be worth reading about except out of socio-cultural-historical curiosity. Something in us exceeds, eludes and subverts factual definition, even the biological definition of what we are. We would be too small-minded if we did not admit the possibility that the vastness beyond our knowledge exceeds the little that we know. Thus, the names for the main characters here, Phoenix and Early Morning Light, which are translations of the familiar names of myself and my wife, are meant to suggest some of the mystery of our existence.

In a way, the particulars that haunted me became parts of me, so I learned to love them as one loves the trace of a voice during its instant in the winddesperately. But just because I endured, for example, delusions of homicidal rage did not mean I swore allegiance to them. I walked the line between the worldsa mysterious power guided me like a thread through the chance music of explosive moments. I have owed this balancing act to the inspiring, historical people and particulars along the journey, and I have owed everything equally to the ability to refrain from completely identifying with anyone or anything, even a homeland. For whenever one arrives there, one finds the desired place was always within. But even the self, in turn, may become a utopian elsewhere that is literally no place, that is, if one insists on legislating boundaries. Isnt it more honest to admit that there are various times and circumstances when one experiences a feeling of knowing the self in the most complete way? When someone tried to kill me, I knew very distinctly what mattered most to me, and this enlightenment started to change me. In a similar way, when my son was born, I knew in an intuitive way that what mattered most to me had begun to change me permanently because who I was was indissoluble from my relationships with others. As Hwa Yol Jung has said, to be truly human, is to be interhuman.

Finally, then, one suspects that the deepest truth may be revealed more between perspectives than within any one. So I counterpointed the voices against each other here for a reason. Each voice memorializes specific realities; meanwhile, the juxtaposition of voices and their simultaneous, spontaneous harmony reveals a greater truth.