Chen hasn’t settled on a single voice or form, and the one can feel the poet’s excitement at trying out the possibilities of writing poems as the book takes us through prose poems, a villanelle, a renga, a sestina, a double sestina, zuihitsus, crowns of seven, a ghazal, a haibun, a pantoum, free verse, a centered poem, a poem in which all words start with the letter “s,” and many poems that would look at home in a collection of E. E. Cummings’s. She ranges widely, allowing the immigrant, lesbian experience of her protagonist Xiaomei to unify the collection, although it’s the centripetal force of these poems that excites, not the pull back to their narrative center.
What surprised me most were Chen’s experiments with boldface and lightface typography—some of the sections in poems being printed at (I would guess) 50% density, making the words look ghosted (rather than printed) onto the page. It expands her ability to switch voices—making the intensity of the print itself do work that is normally limited to the question of roman or italic. Even in the places where I’m not quite convinced of the success of her experiments, I’m consistently awed by effort behind them, particularly Chen’s refusal to take anything for granted—including the ink on the page. Ching-In Chen’s debut collection of poems is a sprawling and ambitious work. Chen’s attention to sound and sensuality recalls Gertrude Stein, offering up lines like “somber sap spinfuck swarm/ softbody sprawl scheme” (116), or “to pass (out), to fist, to girlfriend (early) to come (out) (you’ll always be) mine” (78). At other times her voice seems to invoke Samuel Beckett, as in “If we experiment and learn and fail we experiment learn fail” (114).
Many of the forms seem to originate in places I can’t find; not on the internet, and not in Lewis Turco’s usually comphrehensive The Book of Forms. I suspect that a few of them may be local or invented. I suspect that the crown of sevens will catch on (if this book isn’t proof that it has already).Ching-In Chen’s debut collection of poems is a sprawling and ambitious work. Chen’s attention to sound and sensuality recalls Gertrude Stein, offering up lines like “somber sap spinfuck swarm/ softbody sprawl scheme” (116), or “to pass (out), to fist, to girlfriend (early) to come (out) (you’ll always be) mine” (78). At other times her voice seems to invoke Samuel Beckett, as in “If we experiment and learn and fail we experiment learn fail” (114).
The book is ultimately about identity; particularly Xiaomei’s investigatory sense of self. As an immigrant from China, Xiaomei is confronted by an exotifying and rejecting America, but ultimately it’s those around her who change. Little Jenny Chang calls her a fob in an early section of the book, only to contact her as an adult in a later section to apologize, having changed her name (back?) to Jing-Jing Chang. Xiaomei’s lover Jani transitions to male becoming Jaden, saying “though I worry I will lose I want who I am on the inside to match what I see on the outside” (79). Chen allows the voices of other characters to enter the book to communicate their own changes so that Xiaomei is never burdened by having to narrate or explain. Xiaomei registers the injustice of the world, and while periodically she lashes out, she mostly takes everything in stride. In her letter back to Jing-Jing (Jenny), Xiaomei responds,
the world unsheathes the body, / the tellers roam and find / the story hidden from you, / only because you weren’t listening / in the right key. (90)
which captures the spirit of much of Xiaomei’s calm wisdom throughout the book—a wisdom informed by her deep sorrow over what she has lost. Much of the book covers the familiar territory of immigrant experience, but Chen has found a way to make Xiaomei’s experience more personal than polemic, and the whole narrative is so partial and episodic that it never settles into a simple story of overcoming or belonging. Xiaomei’s central loss occurs before she leaves China, when she loses her soul-mate Sparrow. Sparrow’s memory haunts the end of the book, reminding us that memory may be the closest we can ever get to having a real home.
As novels-in-verse go, this book is in much greater obeisance to the laws of poetry than the laws of novels—the collection is much less concerned with a clear narrative than say, Vikram Seth’s “The Golden Gate” or Anne Carson’s “Autobiography of Red.” But much of the work of a novel, particularly characterization, is wonderfully executed by the book, even as it resists recounting or referencing episodes that seem clearly absent, like Xiaomei’s coming out, or Jaden’s life after gender reassignment surgery. One of the most interesting poems in the book “The Geisha Author Interviews” is partially made up of text from interviews with Arthur Golden and Mineko Iwasaki. It seems to nothing to do with Xiaomei’s narrative, and yet it thematically underscores the hybridity and capaciousness of how Asian-American identity is constructed in these United States of America.
I found myself admiring the book for being so satisfyingly messy, for allowing itself to sprawl and digress and experiment and explore. I was also pleased to see that the book was on Arktoi books, an imprint of Red Hen Press that is dedicated to publishing “literary works of high quality by lesbian writers.” Considering the “Barnes and Noble Problem” (that each book can only appear in one section of the store—so this book would have to choose among “Asian American Interest”, “Gay and Lesbian Interest”, “Poetry,” and “Fiction” for a single home), it’s good to see that Arktoi is making space for work that is specifically lesbian. I’m always glad to see identity politics become nuanced, rather than abandoned—since our differences don’t go away, they just get more complicated. The book presents identity as being uncontainable, with permeable boundaries—sexuality rubs up against nationality, ethnicity, gender, generation and many other categories. We can’t return to a easy ideas of who we are, and if there’s one thing that Chen avoids, it’s easy ideas.
THE HEART’S TRAFFIC:
A Novel in Poems
by Ching-In Chen
Artkoi Books / Red Hen Press
Paperback, $21.00, 120p
Jason Schneiderman is the author of Sublimation Point, a Stahlecker Selection from Four Way Books.