By Marianne Chan Sarabande Books, 2020
96 pages, $14.95
Review by Bridget Lilletohrup
If memory was an airplane, which bags would you check (“Jet Lag”)? If Magellan’s slave, Enrique of Malacca, had a voice, what would he say (“Elegy for Your Master”)? If there is a space, untouched by the white man’s imperialist hand, can Chan find and occupy it (“Counterargument that Goes All the Way Around”)? Marianne Chan’s first poetry collection, All Heathens (Sarabande Books, 2020), asks the reader to close their eyes and imagine if.
In All Heathens, the axis of Chan’s world is if, her search for the moment in history where she began. But that beginning goes further back than her teenage years in rural Michigan, her young life in Germany, her mother’s life in the Philippines, her father’s journey from China, and even further than Magellan’s imperialist voyages. In this intensely personal collection of poems, Chan’s consciousness spins in a vortex tunnel, laughing at the Bisaya word for masturbation (“Lansing Sinulog Rehearsal, 2010”) and cursing at Buzz Aldrin’s insatiable need to dominate (“On Buzz Aldrin’s Birthday”), re-imagining the colonial past and re-discovering identities within herself.
Within the walls of All Heathens, Chan enters a space of language and power. The poem titled “Some Words of the Aforesaid Heathen People” is the name of an actual list of Bisaya words recorded by Pigafetta, Magellan’s accomplice and scribe. In this poem, Chan exposes the reader to language that was omitted by the colonists’ perspective. We hear Bisaya vocabulary that was not included on Pigafetta’s list. The Spanish colonists recorded the word for “mother-of-pearl” but not the word for “mother.” Chan enters the imaginary once more to understand why this word was not recorded by the colonists. In this perhapsed headspace of Magellan, she writes,
“These heathens did not have mothers at all, only mothers-of-pearl. They were born, not from women,
but from milky shells that tumbled onto shore. Or, maybe, these heathen peoples were never born, only written into life. If a tree falls in the forest with no European to hear it, did it really exist before the 1500s? Did it have a mother to speak of? Was her name Pigafetta?”
Here is a possible moment of beginning for Chan. When the colonists landed in the Philippines, there were a million things that could have happened differently. What if they recorded the Bisaya word for mother? Maybe, then, Chan wouldn’t have to work so hard to bring her own family history to light. The rest of the poem interweaves memories of Chan’s own mother, of growing up in the Philippines, and also touching on what she expects from Chan today. After listening to some of her memories, Chan notes: “She awakens with leaves in her throat, Bisaya in her teeth, a belly full of her mother tongue.” Her mother, in an image, content and connected with her familial roots, though she can only linger on it in her dreams. In reality, we know it was disintegrated by colonial rule. Chan doesn’t reveal anger or resentment in this poem. She lets her mom sit in her memories a little longer.
The transition between each if is seamless, a work of art in itself. In the next poem of this section, “In Defense of Karaoke”, Chan guts the reader by continuing to speak about language and power through karaoke, usually associated with happiness and celebration – but here Chan ends this poem with a cryptic message that calls back to the stagnant sadness in her mother’s dreams:
“you always will / will yourself to life when you have no choice / or voice / unravel into the microphone and listen / to yourself
double / miss your mother father brother / kiss their photographs / kiss America / learn to love it / until you learn the lyrics by heart.”
The microphone, the lyrics, the feigned happiness around karaoke bite Chan, demanding her to change and adapt and forget, just as the colonists who didn’t recognize “mother” as a sentiment important enough to be remembered. America wants Chan to sing its songs, to serve its loyalist purpose. But those are not Chan’s intentions. She is persistent to resist. She is persistent to record. She is persistent to explore all the silenced ifs circling her life. All Heathens is a testament to her persistence.
In All Heathens, Chan traces all lines of herself to possible beginnings. She imagines all possible variations of if, never getting lost but always finding new meanings. All Heathens unveils a circulatory universe of family lineage, identity contexts, and feminine becoming. The lines intersecting this collection are infinite. Chan is looking back to understand her Chinese and Philippino roots as the world loses memories and creates new meaning with each spin. While in this collection Chan moves us from different countries and moments in time, the beauty of her words lies in their persistently present voice. We experience Chan where she is in this moment: as she packs her suitcases on journeys where “Memory travels / through several time zones, / rises up in the air for hours” (“Jet Lag”). And in this new space of fluctuating frontiers, Chan does not let history stand without contemplation and criticism. All Heathens is a spinning vortex, shaking out new beginnings, new possibilities, new ifs, to create, try on, and live by, with each turn.
Bridget Lillethorup lives near some train tracks in flyover country. She is a graduate student and teaching assistant in the English department at the University of Nebraska at Omaha. Her work is forthcoming in The Rupture. Find her on Instagram @bridget.lille and Twitter at @lille_bridget.