Book Review: Mythical Man by David Ly

Mythical Man, David Ly. Palimpsest Press, 2020

To enter the world of David Ly’s debut collection Mythical Man is to enter the body of Ly’s imagined monster: a monster erected to catechize the pervasive sexual racism in queer spaces. A tender monster that interrogates the legacy of Western imperial projects contributing to the perceived desirability and masculinity of the queer Asian man. Divided into four subsequent parts, Ly’s poems are erotic and sensual, pointed yet tender, intimate yet kissed with mystery. The collection’s title page is obscured by a veil of vellum; with one page turn, the reader falls into a world of 21st century monsters and monstrous encounters. 

Through a series of “mythical man” poems, Ly constructs then deconstructs the identity of his figure. In “Mythical Man (I),” Ly suspends his “mythical man” in time rendering the figure vulnerable to the reader’s gaze; laying bare the figure’s discombobulated physical makeup. Ly’s mythical man has a volatile “smokey-eyed stare” framed by “viper scales.” His hair decorated with “white peacock feathers,” and a “taxidermic bird-of-paradise.” His body is enveloped in a bodice constructed from the “exoskeletons of Hercules beetles.” The man’s appearance is messy: a cacophony of animal remains, soft fabric and hairspray yet he is still the subject of “admiring eyes.” Ly destabilizes Western notions of beauty; beauty is absurd, arbitrary and socially constructed. Instead, Ly creates his own monstrous image of beauty. With his volatile stare looking straight at the reader, the mythical man begs the question, “who is to say I am not beautiful?” 

In “Mythical Man (II)” the speaker achingly pursues a unity with his partner in a way that obscures his personhood. He declares, “I want to be / absorbed into you, / our atoms / amalgamating / until we become a hydra.” Ly uses the body of the Hellenic hydra as an analogy for the monstrous erasing of the speaker’s body and identity that at times seem too overwhelming for the speaker to handle because as the myth goes, after slicing off one hydra head, two more grow back. The speaker soon realizes that to inhabit this idea, to melt into one body is to suppress “the real magic / that makes [Them] / powerful on [Their] own.” The poem’s ending lines gesture towards a dynamic and powerful discovery of one’s power and personhood. What is most moving about this poem is its honesty. The speaker is not afraid to lay bare the too relatable yearning for intimacy and romance in the 21st century so deep that it can cause one to lose grasp of their identity. In the vulnerable journey to discovering his self-hood, the speaker realizes that one’s “real magic” is not contingent on another person but rather within themselves. 

Ly’s “Mythical Man (III),” alludes to the biblical story, “David and Goliath.” What is clever about this poem is that not only does this reference the biblical story but it is a look into a mirror from the poet’s point of view. Ly writes, “You are not small. / David you can be good. / You did try. You do try.” This becomes a pivotal point in the “mythical man” series where the speaker discerns a developed sense of selfhood. Much like Lacan’s mirror stage, the speaker identifies with the image in the mirror and gives way to the emerging perception of self-hood. Self-affirming and self-forgiving, the poet draws upon his power to construct his mythical man. While the figure in “Mythical Man (II)” still grapples with his identity, this poem’s figure is poised and assertive in who he is; he is not small, he is good, and he did try. 

And finally, the ultimate “Mythical Man (IV),” abandons Western tropes and cliches to reconnect with what Kai Cheng Thom calls “the emotional geography of diaspora.” In this poem the poet’s hands “echo” that of his ancestors desperately searching through every “rusted lock,” for the promise of perpetuity, something “beyond … what can be created or destroyed.” 

What is rich about Ly’s collection is that it is raw. From a lover’s hot breath, the “warm tongue on a first date,” to cum splatters and bite marks, Ly is intentional about his uses of the erotic. In “Stubble Burn,” Ly’s raw retelling of an encounter that occurs between himself and a sexual partner spotlights the violence of Asian fetishization. A scene in a coffee shop thick in anxiety and nerves opens the poem: “Keep it innocent. / Keep it innocent / Don’t stop / add sugar. Add sugar / Add sugar. Add sugar.” The poet’s control is weak, and the repetitive phrases evoke an anxiety in the speaker’s voice. Though much like the themes of Ly’s poetry, this repetition is nuanced. As the poem unfolds, so does the gut-wrenching interaction between the two: “I’m your rice queen slips / through his teeth and you swallow / salt. If cum splatters can be read / like tea leaves yours are / shaped like black beetles.” Lacerated with words meant to kiss him the poet’s skin starts “to crawl,” what was once a “lovely” moment becomes the burn of his stubble, the salty sweat birthed from panic on the poet’s “sweaty brow,” his syncopated breath and the “lump” forming in the poet’s throat. Ly indicts the politics of preference in queer spaces. He catechizes the ways in which gay white men will repackage their racism under a thinly veiled coating of “preference.” In this case, the speaker is fetishized and hypersexualized; he is reduced to an object of sexual pleasure for the “rice queen’s” use. Ly delivers a powerful punch in the ultimate stanza of the poem reclaiming his power writing, “You feel bigger than the skin / that holds you, which he worships.” The poem ends just how it starts: with repetition. This time the repetition acts as a reminder of self-transcendence: “say only what you want. / not what you think he would like. Speak / less sweetly. Less sweet. Less sweet.” Much like “Mythical Man (III),” the speaker in the poem assumes a powerful self-assuredness. The speaker’s repetition is no longer to appease his partner but rather to recenter himself. 

What is clear in David Ly’s Mythical Man is that his use and abandonment of Western tropes, uses of the erotic and sensual are all intentional in the making of Ly’s monster. What he does well is be honest with the reader and himself. Ly bares it all to interrogate the sexual racism in queer spaces, and the all too relatable pursuit of self-hood in the 21st century. Nothing is missed in Ly’s collection and once read, the reader will feel the visceral words simultaneously cutting and embracing them.

Baonguyen Huynh Nguyen is a Vietnamese American writer and poet. He is a graduate of the University of Southern California where he holds a degree in Literature. In his free time, he reads books on early Vietnamese history and poetry from the Vietnamese diasporic landscape.


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