It’s difficult to imagine a book with so many edges fitting as well into our contemporary literary fabric as Dorothy Chan’s Attack of the Fifty-Foot Centerfold, out from Spork Press. A home for such a piece would be a puzzle, the 2,000+ piece kind, for which looking at the cover would offer no help; there’d simply be too many things happening to figure out where any individual piece may end up. Chan offers us the completed thing, though, to her eternal credit, and the result is a book that uses formal verse and subtle moves to wrangle a cacophony of influences into a supremely contemporary voice.
That voice, born fully formed in the very first poem, confidently weaves her Chinese-American family history with roots in Hong Kong, New York, and Las Vegas with a burgeoning identity flush with appetite. That appetite, readily apparent in the first poem but from thereon continuously contoured, is multi-headed: a voracious appetite for her ancestral foods, for sex, for sexual representation, and for monstrously rejecting the bounds that white, patriarchal America attempt to place on her.
What kind of appetite develops in a girl who lovingly devours the kinds of foods white people consider “Bizarre Foods?” Who saw her first porno at age three, who connects her love of sushi with Japanese businessmen’s fantasy of eating sushi off of women’s bodies, who later fantasizes of posing with a butt lamp as a centerfold model? The answer is a contemporary appetite, a Frankenstein’s monster of inverted sexual power and representation where the pleasure of food and desire and sex, though they may originate from far corners of the earth and brain, share the same language.
Attack is split into three sections. The first, “Snake Daughter,” serves up origin stories for much of the speaker’s eventual appetite. There are fond memories of Kowloon market visits with her grandmother and family meals (the second section especially focuses on this), and the language Chan uses here both evoke the sensuality of eating and the identity-affirming pleasure she takes in remembering these episodes. She recalls her grandmother picking out “some fat ass pork for dinner,” loving how “she’s such a boss,// letting the world know what a carnivore she is.” The same memory also has “the parallel universe next door of beauties/ in skimpy green Santa suits passing out “sake ads,”/ as they gesture to winding staircases/ of the apartments above.”
Chan recalls with pleasure spitting out chicken bones while eating porridge and then follows with irritation “and these men/ can’t handle the truth that this isn’t Bizarre Foods for me.” There’s her dream of “eating corn on everything/ since the day I was born,” the loveliness of “chewing a piece of squid forever,/ or tasting the sponginess of a tamago egg/ just as sweet as it is yellow.” Chan is dialed in on the uncomfortable truth (to Puritan America, anyway) that food and pleasure and sexual desire in childhood aren’t as foggily separated as American culture would have us believe, but foundationally present at an early age and eager for an outlet. And Chan expertly collapses these impulses, at times by weaving together her stories, and at other times by sharply using a line break, as when she recalls an early visit to Hong Kong and stumbling upon an adult magazine: “but Miss Hong Kong,/ I’d throw those flowers out because they make me sneeze,/ and I’d nix the romance on the beach because/ the sand tickles my feet, but I’ll devour your whole box/ of truffles and caramels– why are we even reminiscing?”
The final section, “Centerfolds, Histories, and Fantasies,” turns that reminiscent voice towards indulgences that cut a sharp political-sexual figure, one that finds the sexual gaze both problematic and desirable. The title poem features a fifty-foot centerfold with a “Double Z” bra smashing her way through Los Angeles, devouring a multitude of foods, by turns intimidating and titillating men. It’s a tidy but powerful metaphor for female, multinational appetite; of course it’s monstrous, aren’t all appetites, in a way? But no, Beatrice is meant to be desired, not to desire. And if the unthinkable, the inversion, were to happen, what chaos would ensue?
In Chan’s vision, it’d be a psychosexual apocalypse, but fun. So, kind of like 2018 America, with its “female comedies are actually funny!” and “women talk about sex too!” pseudo revelations, only, again, fun.
And Chan is funny. Amidst the cutting line breaks, the thrice-repeated chorus words (“Girls,” “bills,” “work,” among others), the evocative descriptions, the movie references, the adherence to and breaking of form, there’s a sharp humor at work. Because of course white boys will make a monster out of a brown Beatrice with an appetite. Why not embrace it and have fun?
The title poem ends with:
“and my men come by with buckets,
pour the champagne down my body,
and I dare ten of them to lick me, but they freeze
at my womanhood so much that I’ll just have to
share myself with the world as the cars stop and stare
me down Hollywood Boulevard, all the way
to the beach, if there’s still a beach.”
Is the beach annihilated because of Centerfold Godzilla or is it gone because of some apocalypse that also brought about a monstrous female appetite? Maybe they’re one and the same? Maybe “apocalypse” is the wrong word? Maybe I’ll just call it the future.