Father’s Keeper: Imagine Us, The Swarm by Muriel Leung


“A history racing against itself knows only / meaning through monument the isolation of grief in a great unknown,” Leung reminds us in “A Careful List of All My Failures,” the poem that follows “The Plural Circuits of Tell.” But how does one make “meaning” or “monument” from the disappeared father? In “Life of a Drowning,” Leung turns again to the body, the speaker’s own body as a child diving into snow and through air in attempted flight and then into “an imperfect dream,” where she tries to make sense of “the path of water from one country to another” (reminding us of her father’s long-ago mythic swim) by washing her father’s body—a familiar funeral rite—until he “dissolves.” Enacting “the isolation of grief,” the speaker is left to chase herself through a series of surreal, water and grief-logged scenarios: as a guppy in a fish tank, the inhabitant of a submerged city inside a jar, inside the mouth of a man in a rowboat in a flooded Queens basement. These displacements end in her mother’s voice asking “Can you manage.” The irony of the question is that it is “not a question”: Leung’s speaker again must assimilate, this time hiding her grief in metaphor, reassuring her mother that she is “a marriage of fine and fine.”
In the end, what knits these multiplicities of history and grief together is imagination—a means of bridging past, present, and future with the hypothetical. Leung’s final poem, “When I Imagine the Possibilities of the Swarm,” returns us to the foundational image of the book, but this is a “swarm” unseen, theoretical in its acts and their repercussions, a swarm that asks us to “suppose” a new scene on every page. We see the father resurrected from his death bed to run around the hospital as his daughter watches:

The gap in his hospital gown exposed a tiny sliver of a star
of which I held on. Every room in his body flooded
with the aquatic luminance of night.

Here, Leung seems to re-embrace the lyric. There are no treaties or scientific explanations unpacking this “luminance” of the father’s body, just the affirmation that now, “with apology, he would live for forty more years.” But the following page changes the story again, asking us to “suppose I got into the car with my mother and we just drove” away from the loss of the father, reuniting in a mythical roadside diner with generations of “family women,” who help them continue the drive, “our pockets lined with sugar.”
Page after page, the anaphoric “suppose” continues, mimicking the flights of a swarm’s scout bees on their reconnaissance missions: “Suppose it is easy to believe…suppose everybody I ever loved made up a tiny universe…suppose the impact was a bell, a warning…”  In which supposed future will we land? Leung’s final “suppose” feels most radically imaginative of all: “Suppose there is an end to our suffering.” The largeness of the “our” is perhaps what is most striking—even hopeful—in this last hypothetical. Like the scout bee who has been tasked with flying out alone to discover a new shelter for her lineage, this speaker now calls “every woman and femme” to join with her in the collective work of survival. “I will never write another elegy again,” she proclaims, renouncing the crowded hive of griefs and histories that have filled the book. Instead, she looks forward to an existence she doesn’t yet know but trusts they will find:

All the possibilities of the swarm ignite. The humming of many
wings amassing into a greater noise. We can write our origins
sacred here and renounce the country of our fear.
There is only a singular pulse when we fill the sky.