An Engagement with Monica Ong's Silent Anatomies

by Lindsay Child

Monica Ong, Silent Anatomies (Kore Press, 2015)















“What is the point of wailing horns, of fighting / a fire with no address?” asks Monica Ong in “Etymology of an Untranslated Cervix.” Her debut collection Silent Anatomies examines the challenge of how to understand societal marginalization when its nature is nebulous and convoluted. In particular, Ong grapples with how the intersection of gender and race as an Asian American woman has affected her and previous generations of her family. Through the societally marginalized identities she explores, Ong not only asks the question of how to understand them, but also seeks to answer the question of why gaining an understanding is relevant. Through medical imagery, either in metaphoric language or visual illustrations, Ong paints a powerful picture of how significantly sexism and other forms of oppression have a physical effect on the body. She weaves a tapestry of her family’s history and her own experiences, and following any one thread of the tapestry is impossible without seeing an elaborate intermingling of ideas that reflects the complexity of Ong’s own experiences.

Throughout Silent Anatomies, Ong features a series titled Remedies, where each poem is depicted as a label on a medicine bottle designed to solve perceived problems like having a daughter or speaking with an accent. Each medicine bottle showcases Ong’s background as a visual artist, as she created the bottles herself . “Perfect Baby Formula” features a picture of a baby boy above the words “Why Settle?,” where Ong writes about how this medicine is designed “for pregnant women to curb the onset of physiological and psychosocial deficiencies in early fetal development.”  With this poem, Ong satirizes the traditional preoccupation with preventing such undesirable qualities in a son as “homosexual tendencies.” Like the rest of the medicine bottle series, “Perfect Baby Formula” addresses issues that are socially stigmatized as needing a medical solution like hormonal alterations. Other poems in this series that prominently address how society pathologizes difference are “Yeong Mae’s Whitening Solution” and “Yeong Mae’s Oral Whitening Rinse.” Both address the need that Asian Americans feel to “whiten” themselves, by bleaching their skin or ridding themselves of any foreign accent. In Mandarin, the words “Yeong Mae” mean “always beautiful” or “forever beautiful,” and in choosing this as a title Ong shows how she sees this whitening as a result of a culture that only considers traditional Western beauty standards and overlooks other forms of beauty.

Both Yeong Mae poems feature pictures of women on the labels, with their faces partially obscured and their eyes blanked out or mouths covered to fit European beauty standards. In contrast, the image of a boy on the label of“Perfect Baby Formula” is not only unobscured, he is described by Ong in notes about the illustrations as “pictured without pants as a way of providing undisputed evidence of his male gender.” While the women are judged by European beauty standards and have parts of their faces blanked out in shame when they inevitably fall short, the boy is seen as something to bring pride to his parents. With her artistic selection of these images, Ong creates a clear picture of the societal views surrounding sexism in regard to culture.

Another of Ong’s poems that addresses how sexism affects the physical body is “Etymology of an Untranslated Cervix.” Ong explores how in the Bafumbira culture of Uganda, their language lacks a word for the cervix. The words that do exist for vagina are considered taboo, referring to a “dirty, shameful place.” As a result, the doctors face extreme difficulties in diagnosing or treating cervical cancer, when even mentioning the location of the cancer is unacceptable. Ong writes “Danger: (    ) is waiting in red," using the blankness between the parentheses to reflect the linguistic gap that poses such a health risk to women in that society. While Ong never mentions the word “cancer,” she uses rich descriptions like “Cells rupture. Quietly. / A carcinoma colony creeping in her blank space. Spreads” that not only paint a clear picture of the cancer but also communicate the danger that results when it goes undiagnosed due to this societal sexism. Ong directly addresses how language is not always neutral and how we need to examine the biases in it: “This dialect was not designed for her.” She contrasts this with how “On the Western shore, I can spell it out, letter by letter / print a scan and map every tumor’s point of entry, / / conduct daily surveillance on each tendril / until it is white with radioactive surge.” The differences between the two cultures and how language allows cancer to be diagnosed in one but not the other is shown powerfully in these lines, and the consequences of undiagnosed cancer are also clear. With the final line, “Ink spilled. Bleeding” she emphasizes again the dire medical impact this stigmatization has on women.

Ong’s exploration of gender and ethnicity provides the reader with an understanding of the way they affect each other, and how the intersection of the stigmas each group faces has a medical impact. Her father’s medical background and her own artistic background intermingle throughout Silent Anatomies in the book's rich and detailed imagery, whether in her descriptions of cervical cancer or in the photographs of her medicine bottles. Ong shows that whether in her personal experiences or in the lives of women a continent away, sexism has an impact that must be understood, and she demonstrates that recognizing the problem is key to eventually solving it.

Lindsay Child is a first-year student in the School of Education at Boston University. Sometimes, it feels like the closest thing she has to a hometown is an airport terminal. Her hobbies include reading, writing, and refusing to shut up about causes she is passionate about. This is her first publication.