Reviews for Cycling with the Dragon:
"Elaine Woo’s debut poetry collection opens with a birth, a book slipping into life surrounded by a “throng of reading witnesses.” Cycling with the Dragon is this book, a collection interested in the intersection of life and craft, the forming and gathering of thought and word. Woo’s speaker takes on traditional womanhood and the world as it stands, and emerges transmuted, a strong and able bellwether to an alternative way of being."
"Cycling with the Dragon is all about survival, from a difficult childhood with a demanding mother and cultural prejudices amongst peers, to an adulthood in which control, or at least a sense of balance, must be sought. Woo does this through facing and addressing those around her but also by communing with nature. I believe it’s Woo’s forthrightness in describing her struggle that led Ray Hsu to call this “a work of bravery.” And so it is."
"With her background as a Chinese-Canadian poet, Woo depicts minority experiences and challenges with raw and heartfelt emotion. Her ability to play with diction, imagery, and form allows her to bring a distinct voice to explore identity, gender, family relations, racism, nature, and the creative process...And like a mesmerizing song, her book is one to be savoured slowly, again and again, creating a deeper impression with each re-reading."
"...The opening poem offers visceral imagery, such as “skin aflame” and “sinews unclench” (“Word Babies”). Oil is said to reproduce when “bombs crater earth” while the personal is played out, mother’s fist on “daughter’s scalp” (“The Enemy”). A pattern poem on sleep an ode relies on numbered neon snakes, signs of mother’s rage and resentment. Father figure possesses “his winged spurs cross the sky” (“Guardian Angel”). Japanese and Chinese are counterpoised by a sign “NO DOGS AND CHINESE ALLOWED” (“They Eat Dogs”). Her familial tribe contains Lewis Carroll, Louisa May Alcott, and others (“Mom Substitutes”). Pattern poems alternate between exotic spacing and translations by Changming Yuan, inspired by a protest against Enbridge. “I fragment/ Elavil knits me together again” (“Unresolved”). Nature and a poetical inventory are effective (“Difference United”). More so, the display of auditory, visual, and catharsis (“Bustling Gold”). Colour denotes class (“Garment Tags”). A form poem (“Tree”) has judicious use of indentation. Wings are crushed of not so rare birds.
In part two, the breath pause meanders across the pages (“The Hood”). Recycling is the topic conveyed by incremental repetition. Her brainscope refers to Blondie and Dagwood (“He”). “Lady See” and “Lady Do” are companion poems in a pair. A centre-justified “With Word” is pregnant with meaning. The “Baden-Powell/ Babe” references birth weight (“Perch on the Edge”). The thought-balloons have comedic aspects (“Peace on Earth: Cacophony”). A figurative army is clothed in fashionable colours (“Out of the Box”). A persona exhibits an aversion to kitchen activities (“Kitchenitis”). “Mom” is addressed (“Descent”). “Ma” means a mother-in-law. Proportions are reversed, such that a mouse is hauling a dinosaur (“Soulmate”). There is a modified “Night-Time Symphony” of common and uncommon instruments. A waiting room is a lesson in libido constriction. The unbridled breaks free (“Glow The Night”). The “un-whole” compete. Further, “I am youYou am I”, refreshing identity (“MirrorMirror”).
In part three, the persona of a crafts person heightens art, jewellery, and finally words as raw materials (“In the Making”). Her experiences are combined with freedom (“Nod To Myself”). Ivory piano keys are muted (“Blue”). Nature was “orally raped” by plastic (“Crying”). Age is raging (“End of Pretty”). Erudition is only one component (“Lost & Found”). The reported criminals in the media appear to be racially profiled (“Word Mirror”). A micro-play or drama is preface to sociopaths (“Heart Bypass”). Edvard Munsch’s famous painting “The Scream” appears (“Cordova & Dunlevy”). An entire “Season Off-Key” deals with a Shell refinery. A phrase from The Metaethics of Radical Feminism” informs “Feminine Ecology”, in part because “ageism is a feature of phallic society.” A dialogue between “My Brother” and the presumed sister reveals family dysfunctional relationships. In a penultimate poem, the Carnegie Library and the Chinese appear in an “open gash of humanity”. The final poem is about “our Japanese acacia” (“Source”).
"Woo's language is wide-ranging and constantly moving. At times, her poems are close studies of sound and scale: "Virtue of Smallness" moves from the scale of a minuscule pinky toe to the infinite ocean, conflating these two dichotomies altogether ("barnacle cone houses") in lyrical onomatopoeic lines ("soft-skinned / bladderwrack bulbs" or "hard-hatted clams" are my favourites.)
In "Guardian Angel," the poem directly following "Virtue of Smallness," the poet shifts her focus to imagery and an atmospheric depiction of childhood sickness:
wrapped in shrouded darkness I seesaw upright in my top bunk
hot curdshurtle from my depths incinerate my throats' mucosal lining
dumps a swamp on my blanketed lap
stink puts me on high alert
No matter her focus, Woo never strays far from the vibrancy of her chosen words. Her images are lively and colourful, even when the subject matter is dark or difficult. This comes to the fore in "Sleep: Not Really a Reprieve," a poem circling around verbal abuse from the speaker's mother in a childhood recollection:
epoch night after night
sky splitting at the seams neon snake #1 Mom's face foams forth
a shaken carbonated drink
fiery she arcs her head
cutlery tines of forked tongue wounds
You buried any chance
I have of a meaningful career
Shaped like a coiled snake in its presentation, the true magic of this poem is the language that drives relentlessly for a cathartic but difficult revelation.
This poem and many others in Woo's collection evoke the true violence and possible dangers of empathising with others. In "We Perch On the Edge," Woo's speaker speak to a just-born babe "swaddled in a heated cube" whose "half-moon forehead / guards a brain / not yet patterned to resilience." In the world that Cycling with the Dragon depicts, this need for resilience and survival is necessary against the repeated traumas of childhood, the lack of fulfillment for aspirations and desires. However, this plays into Woo's vision and her motivation for experiments with interpreting personal life through a larger scale. In "Feminine Ecology," she ends the poem with an equation of the female body that
fires, storms and calm alike,
all kindling for discovery
birthing the linguistic
explore the contours
of the universal.
Here, Woo reveals her brave vision: weathering through the "storms" of trauma is necessary for giving birth to language ("linguistic") and fully understanding the "contours" of this universe."