The Not So Harmless Medicine of Justin Chin: Poet of Culture Clash
Updated: Apr 5
FORGOTTEN POETS: A SECOND LOOK
The Not So Harmless Medicine of Poet Justin Chin: Poet of Culture Clash
Harmless Medicine, Manic D Press, 2001
In 1969 Justin Chin (September 8, 1969 – December 24, 2015) was born in Malaysia and raised in Singapore by a father who was a physician. He enrolled at the University of Hawaii at Manoa and as a freshman signed up for an introduction to creative writing. Encouraged by his teachers, in 1990 with the university’s support, he visited San Francisco where he attended the first Out Write: The National Lesbian and Gay Writers Conference. Captivated by the radical ideas presented at the conference, he moved permanently to the city in ‘91.
When Chin arrived the U.S. was still in the thick of the Multicultural Movement, which was undergoing clashes with the conservative politics of the Reagan eighties. These continued skirmishes were referred to routinely as the Culture Wars. The conflicts centered around a host of societal issues—abortion, gun politics, separation of church and state, privacy, drug use, homosexuality, and censorship. A twenty-two year old Chin found himself immediately immersed in volatile discussions of American identity and whether minorities should assimilate or retain their strong cultural differences from the mainstream. Many saw this debate as purely an attempt to dis-unite the country and unravel its national fabric. The traditional idea of the “melting pot” had become problematic. Academia was awash in Cultural Studies classes, which looked especially at American literature’s intersectionality of nationality, ethnicity, class, gender, religion, disability, age, sexual orientation, family status, and even geographic and regional difference. Lesbians and gays were confronting issues of diversity in their own community and culture as well. The jubilation evoked by Stonewall and the progress it initiated with its unified front, was beginning to confront the concerns and demands of people-of-color within the movement, who felt racially and socio-economically marginalized and excluded.
Harmless Medicine (2001, Manic D Press, Inc.) was Chin’s second book of poems It reflects the work of a slightly older and perhaps maturer writer, one who has already shunned the hasty, convenient labels of youthful political expediency. In Mongrel, Chin’s 1999 collection of essays written between 1994 to 1997, Wikipedia describes Chin as questioning the usefulness of such easy categorization, by acknowledging that “men and women, white people and people of color, straight people and LGBT people, lesbians, gay men, bisexuals and trans persons do not sound the same. We are not homogenous.” He also admits: “I’ve given up the dream of the Queer Nation. Race, class, gender, ideologies, and values will always divide us . . . I am so over being queer these days, and I don’t care what I call myself these days or what anyone else calls me; it’s all a matter of convenience these days.”
This repudiation of quick cultural and political labels seemed tied to Chin’s growing concern with America’s capitalist-driven media, which thrived on a superficiality of false narratives, flashy mediocritizing, and commercialization. Chin since youth had been fascinated with what he intuited, while watching American TV in Malaysia, as American consumerism’s corrosive effects. Chin became a savage humorist and critic, skillfully mocking the language of conventional American advertising and popular culture. But at the same time he was mesmerized by its powerfully imaginative and creative abilities to visually excite and project hyperreality as well as fantasy. And Chin seems never to have lost his boyish innocence regarding its make-believe and cartoonish distortions. Chin the writer and critic in fact appropriates the language and surreality of American media to poke fun at its campiness and blatant absurdities, but also to show its destructive force as well at creating false narratives, exploiting marginalized cultures, and crushing their sense of belonging, self-image, uniqueness, and self-worth.
Chin likes to reflect American popular culture’s bland superficial cliches, its catchy phrases and colorful branding. He delights in the bright cartoonish fictions of American marketing, its thick syrupy, exaggerations, promises and deceits. To Chin American mainstream culture is perpetually gussied up, wrapped, sloganized, and contextualized to suit whatever focus group or test market it’s been pitched to.
Chin finds his only means of survival as a queer Amerasian outsider is by sharp caustic critique, one that cuts through the bullshit and exposes the irony. His irreverent mockery is similar to that of the Dadaist a century before him, who sought to repudiate and violate any self-serving social and artistic conventions.
He greatly admired how Dadaists used humor in art to subvert its pretensions and rampant commercialism. The Dadaist ethos later would lead to the Fluxus movement of the late 50s in America; the prime Fluxus artists being Marcel Duchamp and John Cage. The Fluxus artists took the performative aspects of Dada and Futurism for their inspiration. In a conversation with Gerry Gomez Pearlberg in the January 2002 online zine frigate, Chin is heard to state even after praising Dada and Fluxus: “. . . Dada [has] been so diluted [today], so commodified—every bit of irony, smartness, and charm has been smacked out of it. It’s coasters and bookmarks and cocktail stirrers, which could be interesting , but they end up as cute . . .” And later in reply to Pearlberg’s question if the Fluxus movement had suffered the same fate: “Oh, PLEASE! This is America. Everything is/can/and will be commodified.”
Nonetheless Chin seized upon the “sheer brattiness and intelligence” of Fluxus artists. Their smart, critical, anarchic approach did much to problematize the dominant art of their time. Wikipedia says of Chin’s writing: “problematizing and critique were some of the core goals of his writings.”
As mentioned before Chin used his childish fascination with American TV, American cartoons, American commercials and Hollywood movies to subvert and satirize the poisoness aspect of market culture. When asked by Pearlberg about the state of American news programming and its treatment of established fact in science, Chin replies:
News today is about entertainment and lifestyles. We don’t have real news in the U.S. The science that filters into the news is in service of the bland lifestyle we are supposed to want. How many news reports about anti-aging formulas, anti-fat pills, anti-cholesterol pills do we need to have in one week? The real grit of science is lost—how we are constantly poisoned by corporations in air and food, how pharmaceutical companies are so damn evil, how we give up our freedoms to be enslaved to the idea of progress. What I hope is that the arts, poetry, writing and literature, will allow us to train our minds to think, so that we can question all the stuff, all the information, all the babble shoved at us in the name of “American Life,” and “Progress” and “The Millennium” and all that hooey.
Dreaming as a boy to be a mad scientist with a “mad-scientist lab . . . somewhere in snow-covered Switzerland with an endless supply of hot cocoa” and to research and track “the Yeti, Bigfoot, and the Loch Ness Monster,” Chin exercises a vivid imagination. When asked by Pearlberg about the influence of American cartoons in his work, Chin says:
I like cartoons. I enjoy watching them even to this day. Well, the good cartoons of course—the Saturday morning line-up on the WB [Warner Brothers Network] is worth getting up early for. I read Donald Duck and Uncle Scrooge comics avidly. I like how cartoons have this whole made-up world, where there can be no consequences to actions. Wile E. Cayote keeps getting killed over and over. Donald [Duck] can be a brilliant mind in one narrative and a dunce in another. I love that. It’s that way off wacky fantasy world, the narrative that decimates the censor within us.
Indeed, Chin delights in neo-Dadaist style with decimating America’s self-censoring filters and its projections of normalcy, a normalcy that has been vetted, sanitized and drained of all controversy. At the start of his career, Chin became involved in spoken word and his experiences at poetry slams would help him hone his rhetorical skills and his powerfully animated writing style. We find in his poems the word play and stylistics of the American oral tradition such as hip hop, standup comedy, the prose monologue, blues, African-American call-and-response, and spirituals, etc.
The title of Chin’s book, Harmless Medicine, lends a sharply critical sense of irony. The medical culture of Malaysia incorporates the varied elements of alternative, Chinese, Malay and Indian medicine and philosophy. These elements include notions of Yin-Yang and Ayurvedic healing, and the older doctrines of the four elements: fire, earth, wind and water.
Playing off these differing approaches of Eastern and Western medicine, Chin uses the term metaphorically to symbolize the unique cultural philosophies and behaviors between East and West. In this regard Chin asks himself which culture and approach is better and less harmful, one where material goods, services and knowledge are incessantly sold to the highest bidder and peddled to an ever more gullible society, a society plagued by pollution, debt, emotional and physical debility; or the culture that values community and embraces a slower more humanist approach, one genuine in its simplicity and caring. For Chin, “medicine” in America suggests the endless injection of products into the minds of Americans, forced upon their less and less discerning judgement, which does not always understand the potential harm these products could inflict. Additionally, Chin understood his own ironic situation of being HIV positive and dependent upon a cocktail of highly expensive Western medicines, which much like the lethal virus they battled are toxic and harmful in their own right. Despite his critique and mockery of Western industrialized medicine and its culture of free market capitalism, he must drink its “poison” so to speak, if he wishes to exist.
Chin’s most effective critical approach in his poetry is his use of intertextuality. Intertextuality in postmodernist literature has been described by Wikipedia as “the shaping of a text’s meaning by another text.” Furthermore “It is the interconnection between similar or related works of literature that reflect and influence an audience's interpretation of the text. Intertextuality is the relation between texts that are inflicted by means of quotations and allusion. Intertextual figures include allusion, quotation, calque, plagiarism, translation, pastiche and parody.”
This tool is used significantly in Chin’s poem “Imagining America.” At the length of twelve pages and in nine parts it has the expansive breadth of Whitman and Ginsberg. It also captures the rousing, revolutionary spirit of an anthem poem, which acts as a hymn of praise or loyalty but also more specifically as a lyric work that represents the ideals of a group of people.
Chin draws from the rhetoric of both Whitman and Ginsberg with their expansive discursive voices that try to encapsulate broad views of America, listing and describing in detail what they have seen and heard that is characteristic of the American character, the country’s culture and the so-called American Dream. Whitman in “Leaves of Grass” has a more positive, unified praise for America’s promise of freedom, brotherhood, sisterhood and the power of the individual. Whitman’s strong emphasis is on a robust individualism, sturdy of body and mind, and couched in a shared commonality. His is an American identity that includes both a strong sense of collective belonging as well as honest, personal expression. The brawny men and women of Whitman’s America are white for the most part and of European descent. They are hardy and muscular and big. One thinks of any number of Whitman’s longer poems: famous for their messianic optimism and celebratory praise, for example “Song of Myself” and “I Hear America Singing.” Ginsberg takes a more critical and condemnatory approach, one that challenges the realities of that American promise and finds more at fault and less to be praised. Here, I’m thinking of Ginsberg’s poem “America” and to some extent of “Howl,” two powerful trenchant odes of rage, accusation, and betrayal. Chin like Ginsberg creates poems of a polemical nature; poems that act more as indictments and zany social critique. He frequently alludes to his personal physical and cultural differences, his foreignness and status as a gay, Asian, one who is part of a marginalized community which has suffered exploitation. Chin is battling AIDS and the discriminatory actions of American society, its government, and its health care system. To this end Chin defends his friends and fellow disenfranchised countrymen in the face of what he sees as a merciless and dominant capitalist culture, but a culture that has also entertained, fed, clothed and educated him. This culture in many ways has acted as a virus, an infection, constantly assaulting, infiltrating, and undermining his thoughts, health and world view.
In Chin’s epic poem “Imagining America” in nine parts he displays his intertextuality with both Whitman and Ginsberg:
If the world has seen America though the movies,
I imagine how the world has seen me.
If America has seen my homeland through the movies,
I imagine how America has seen me.
The has-been actress on the telly plumps pity with a side of
Christian do-good. Her red fingernails reset on the knobby
head of a belly-bloated child,
even as the promises of the spilled semen of green cards & Amex
holidays slash their way across the Third World.
Even as the gay community clamors to join the military,
a drag queen in Malaysia bleeds to death after a group of soldiers
hacks off his penis to teach him a lesson.
“Take it like a man, boy.”
Even as GIs & soldiers go on R&R in the sunny Third World,
screwing their way into the psyche of a queen named Exotica,
a 16-year-old boy dies because of the infection caused by the sex toy
that shatters in his rectum, shoved there by his Big Daddy who cries
& moves on to the next one.
“Take it like a man, boy.”
Even as AIDS inches further into wound of the Third World,
an AIDS-infected flight attendant lives out the rest of his life
in Bangkok, screwing without a condom & living out his dream
of spreading his love to a bevy of beautiful boys.
“Take it like a man, boy.”. . . (p 67)
As in both Whitman and Ginsberg, Chin employs a direct declarative address to the reader to convey perceived truths and critical observations, and he copies their styles’ uses of parallelism, refrains, lists, and vivid visual imagery.
Chin similarly employs anaphora, particularly noted in Chin’s repetition of “If” at the beginning of the first two stanzas and “Even as” repeated in the third, fourth and fifth stanzas. Chin’s long lines that alternate with shorter indented lines, his lax run-on sentences of enjambment, as well as his bold layout of wide open spacing further mirror Whitman’s and Ginsberg’s expansive styles.
His use of “I” as in “I imagine” in the first stanza echoes the powerful declarative agency again of both Whitman and Ginsberg. But we notice that Chin interjects a note of irony by choosing the verb “imagine” rather than the more affirmative verb “to be,” as in “I am.” Both Ginsberg and Whitman seek a strong cultural identity in their poems, they adopt a coarse, democratic language that reflects the American character. Chin also engages in a language some might see as profane, crude, and too frank. But this too captures the diction of Whitman and Ginsberg.
Chin uses language and vocabulary lifted from the newspapers, TV shows, tabloids, the mainstream popular media’s pejorative labels and abusive epithets: the “Christian do-good,” the “belly-bloated child,” the “Amex holidays,” the “Third World,” and “Exotica,” and the idiomatic imperative: “Take it like a man.”
In section five of his poem, Chin resorts to a series of prose aphorisms:
. . . A tragedy is not considered tragic unless those involved appear on
television on a newsmagazine show or a talk show to talk about their
experiences. Similarly, no moral lessons can be truly learned unless it is
revealed & pontificated upon on any number of national television call-
Freedom of speech guarantees that everyone must have their say;
everyone must talk & speak & voice their every opinion & thought;
from newspapers, magazines, radio shows, talk shows, call-on shows,
soapboxes, electronic mail, the internet, skywriting, & graffiti, there is no
shortage of quiet space that cannot be filled with the talk & chatter of
Lawsuits are the new form of activism. To make a difference in the
community, you must sue your way across the political stratosphere,
spinning courts & jury trials & giant cash settlements & punitive
damages . . . (p. 72)
In the second stanza paragraph we receive a clue as to Chin’s language strategy, where lists of imagery rush forth in a manner that seems to convey America’s constant, relentless need to broadcast itself, to advertise, to endorse or disclaim. In this hurried distraction, freedom of speech becomes less an occasion for carefully considered thought and measured opinion, than for endless, irritating chatter or babble. Americans crowd their private space with noisy self-serving talk, constantly “selling” their ideas until true dialogue and consensus and an individual’s voice become overwhelmed. Again in the Pearlberg interview Chin states:
. . . I think a lot of babble works its way into our psyche, which
is how babble works, and so when you can make something out of it, that’s
always great. I was thinking of the TV pharmaceutical ads as well as the
papers that come in the bag of medications I get from the pharmacy, which
I never read but should. I think every poem is a critique. Every work of art
that works as art is a critique. Otherwise, it all goes into the pot of babble.
I prefer Babel to babble.
The distinction between the private and the public in Chin’s poetry is fast disappearing in the American psyche. The American mind is awash in information, soundbites and cooptive, enticing rhetoric.
In Chin’s eighth and ninth segments of his poem we come squarely back to Ginsberg. Here Chin appropriates from Ginsberg’s famous jeremiad “Howl.” Chin’s “Imagining America” draws directly from “Howl’s” angry and impassioned lamentation with its lists of woes and cautionary prophecies of doom:
I imagine America.
I see a sea of coffins, smooth & polished, twisted of fragrant wood,
filled with potpourri & the ashes of Bibles.
& in these coffins, a sea of waxy bodies overpoweringly quiet, as in life
& in death, fighting none, defying none;
carrion for crows & vultures to pluck & feed, for countless virus
& bacteria to regenerate . . .
And here is the body that bears the contract of false colors, the scrutiny
of day & of night, of milk & of salt.
Here is the body that aims for the highest familial constellation, the
lowest degree of tractability.
Confronted by the great mirror of this love, I come deep & dark &
Confronted by the great mirror of America, I come queenly & elegiac, I
come intractable & longing;
burden of grief & hardship, burden of irretrievable tonnage, the
fluxuating stuff of hearts & lives, I come perpetually reconciled;
bellyful; pissing in my wake an antidote to bitterness.
Subjectifying my returning want & flesh from non-creation; returning a
crest of invisible skin; this is how I breathe in the pages of space &
pictures & peculiarity;
I will not make a silent sound; I will not be numbed by the misfortunes
of the present
These are the last days here; & every approach now free from suspicion,
brimful of every silent night, falls into place; desire, mine; breath . . .
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
All you refugee dreamers & crocodile wrestlers,
I’m fumbling to make you American.
Everything has been swept away.
I see a history called lifetime.
I see a lifetime burning down.
I see the death of the body.
I see the death of the nation.
I see the death of the family.
I see the death of memory.
I see the death of nostalgia.
I see the death of borders.
I see the death of the sky.
I create my culture everyday.
I write a bible of diaspora.
I piss in the embrace of men.
I bruise the broken speech.
I lullaby the dead in fields of fever.
And what are you going to do?
And what will you do?
Chin is a sharp provocateur, a trickster of the best kind, able to weave this language of American pop culture to his advantage. Chin’s “I” shows us the tragicomedy embedded in what Andy Fitch in his paper “Personal/Perspectivist Space: Pop Poetry’s Differential Calculus” in the Fall, 2010 issue of Interdisciplinary Literary Studies, terms a “Pop poetic-subjecthood.” (p.33) Taken from Fitch’s perspective, Chin could easily be compared with and numbered among such poets as Joe Brainard, James Schuyler, Lewis Warsh, Eileen Myles, and David Trinidad, who all experimented in Pop poetry. But to my mind Chin succeeds far more effectively with his radical, innovative and explosively animated language. (p. 19). Fitch writes:
. . . I will attempt to articulate why, to my mind, Brainard’s serial
repetitions, Schuyler’s kaleidoscopic catalogues, Warsh’s deadpan juxtaposi-
tions, Myles polytemporal anecdotes, and Trinidad’s appropriative assem-
blages deserve praise for constructing an expansive, post-Romantic “I”: an
“eye” that enables postwar poetics to assimilate the affect-heavy, perspectivally
fluid simulacra of pop-cultural narrative. (p. 19)
Chin has constructed such an expansive “eye” that masterfully reflects the fluid simulacra of American pop-cultural narrative.
In the poem “Undetectable” Chin utilizes the campy plot of the 1966 American science fiction film Fantastic Voyage starring Raquel Welch. With its special effects and imaginative production design, the film shows the implausible journey of a select crew deep into the interior of the human blood stream. The crew consists of an intelligence agent, a Navy pilot, three doctors and a doctor’s assistant. Thanks to the crew being shrunk in a submarine named Proteus to microscopic size, they are able to take on their task to repair an injured-scientist’s brain, who is now terminally ill and in a coma. Chin appropriates the film’s bizarre scenario to imagine his own body’s interior and the fearful battle he wages with HIV.
He marvels in fact at the film and for that matter American popular culture’s oversized optimism and promise of hope through technology and innovation. Reality is so often suspended or ignored to match the powerful American myths of success through determination and grit, even in the face of terrible odds. America wins in the end by its advanced research, unlimited funding and capitalist spirit.
Chin delights at the wacky visuals, such as Welch as a “plucky scientist in her daring skintight curve-enhancing wetsuit” swimming in the patient’s blood stream.” Welch is attacked by white blood cells, to which Chin writes “(eek!).” This exclamation has the quality of a comic strip caption and suggests the flat, stilted tongue-in-cheek language that Roy Lichtenstein liked to include in his pop art paintings. Lichtenstein felt pop art was parody. Chin of course loved irony and parody as well as we have seen and enjoyed playing up the artifice and exaggeration of American media. He further delighted in undercutting the movie’s colorful subplot with its villainous rogue scientist secretively embedded in the crew’s midst. This secret invader is determined to sabotage their plans to save the injured scientist. Chin tells us:
Every lucid hue [of the body’s tissue, cell, organ, blood, lymph] taken away
by the black and white television set.
The mission: to reach the tumor,
go blast it with the specially designed
and shrunk laser gun. There are
complications of course, (why should
fiction not have a smudge of horrible reality?), . . .
And Chin goes on to describe the white blood cell:
envisioned by the special effects department
as crunchy foam fingers, not unlike
the white fungus delicacy soups
in Chinatown restaurants; deed
done, more white blood cells attacking,
oh how will they escape? Through the eye!
Chin in meta fashion interrupts the flow of his poem’s narrative to comment parenthetically on the horrible reality underpinning the film’s fiction. He melds with the film’s synopsis his own reflections on past history and heritage, i.e. by mentioning that the “crunchy foam fingers” visualized in the film as white blood cells, remind him of Chinatown restaurants which he has visited and the “white fungus delicacy soups” he’s consumed. Further we are told that the stunning colorful hues of the film are being viewed by Chin on a black and white television set. This fact not only makes for a less vivid experience of the fantasy on the screen, but reflects perhaps his less economically well-off status as poet. His experience of the film’s bright magical fictive world is much diminished as entertainment. There’s starker reality here at play and one that seems related to socio-economic class, level of affluence, as well as social power and opportunity of access to society.
The exclamation in the last line of the excerpt is forced, stilted and perfunctory. The first stanza of the excerpt above shifts to several stanzas of varied and less consistent form. It is here that Chin moves to a soliloquy of sorts, a language of interior speculation and more personal introspection:
There is a battle in my body. Every day
a small chunk of me is given up in this
microscopic war. Small flecks of cells,
shreds of tissue, muscle, skin, bone
disintegrate, turn to junk, float
through my body and are pissed out.
This atom, this molecule, this bond
between them will quell the virus.
Squash it into almost nothingness,
into something so small, smaller
that it already is, so it won’t show,
cannot be counted.
like ghost and gases, its true existence
ready to kiss or kill. Undetectable.
Only in B-movies:
foreign body kills foreign body,
chemicals and petri dishes don’t lie,
easy redemption, happy ending.
The poem’s language diminishes and grows ever dispirited in tone, exhausted and slows down. The sentences are simpler and less weighted with imagery and the cinematic fantasy seems to bleed into sparse syntax. Chin states:
Everyday, a small bit
of myself dies
in that chemical battle.
An undetectable bit
of myself dies everyday.
I get tired easily. I take more naps.
I dream less.
I smell like the medicine chest.
Some days I think I can
feel every single cell in me.
I can feel every single one
The line lengths shorten and the end of the poem exhibits a heavily cadenced beat that retreats and fades. Notice the repetition of “every single “ twice: “Some days I think I can/ feel every single cell in me./ I can feel every single one/ that dies.” The next to the last line leaves us teetering on the edge of the phrase “single one” and emphasizes again a sense of smallness, isolation and retreat to an almost invisibility, an invisibility which parallel Chin’s own feared fatal descent into full blown AIDS. This skillful crafting creates a heartbreaking pathos, as Chin seems to see his own identity, his own physical being, become undectable as well.
Walter Holland, copyright September 23, 2021, All Rights Reserved