A House Made of Water
By Michelle Lin
Sibling Rivalry Press, March 2017
108 pages, $14.95
Reviewed by Dewey Fox
A little past the midway point of Michelle Lin’s new poetry collection, A House Made of Water (Sibling Rivalry Press, 2017), in a long piece titled “Heavy Rain,” the author asks—of herself rather than the reader—“But how to think linearly?” The seemingly straightforward question—one that most artists have posed to themselves hundreds of times—becomes much heavier, much thornier, when framed against the rest of Lin’s book, for Lin has little interest in thinking or presenting her work linearly. In fact, in all but a few of her poems she eschews any pretense of A-to-Z narrative. The parts that make up Lin’s story are all present: memory, femininity, family, culture (from dual viewpoints of assimilation and tradition), identity (racial and sexual). But Lin opts to relate the tale in a gloriously Cubist fashion, bending and then offering it back so we’re able to see all its constituent pieces at the same time. In this way, the book’s title—with its built-in contradiction—perfectly represents the material contained therein. This is an account constructed in the most unstable fashion, in fragments and images, yet it somehow holds its shape.
The aforementioned “Heavy Rain” may be the book’s standout work. The poem, laid out in discrete prose stanzas that range from eight sentences to one word, bounds back and forth between aphorisms, short lists, possible real-life details, myths, and syntheses of each. Lin transitions from the description of a horror movie plot (a kidnap victim is placed somewhere filling with water as people search for him) to this observation: “It’s a myth to get sick after standing in the rain, but I still come / down with a cold each time.” And she follows a menacing anecdote concerning a security guard at the Lincoln Memorial pulling an umbrella out of her hands on a rainy day by relating a childhood anxiety: “One of my first fears was of acid rain. I saw every bitten hole / in leaves as a burning. I imagined myself, a forest, eaten.”
Water in “Heavy Rain,” as in the title of the book and many more of the poems in the collection, is a creator and destroyer, and an agent that both cleanses and obscures. One stanza sees Lin’s mother back in her native Taiwan following a horribly destructive typhoon. In another, Lin observes, “The names on the Vietnam Veterans’ Memorial disappear in the rain.” Lin admits that her headaches are caused by dehydration, and that her “anxiety medication, too, requires large amounts of water,” but also states, in a blunt, two-sentence stanza, “I hate water. I go for days without it.” Lin, it seems, particularly in this poem, is unafraid of contradictions, of things not adding up. That they do—that we’re able to draw a picture from the intensely felt fragments she has organized for us—is a testament to her skill.
“Delicacy” is another of the collection’s best works, and it might come even closer to unifying Lin’s vision. The poem uses dental floss as its main image—that tool of the bizarre but beneficial human cleaning ceremony—specifically the used, bloody pieces of it her mother leaves lying around. “My mother loves to leave / floss behind on the furniture,” Lin writes, “used, absentmindedly. / And sometimes I stand with the strings / pulled through my hair or pressed / into the seat of my pants, / and yes, I’ve kept this all / this time, waiting to make a poem.”
And she does make a poem of it, pulling together the pieces of everyday detritus that we use as totems against our decay: “and I / am afraid there’s nothing / beautiful about death / or floss, so I spin them as / tightropes strung with fire, / curtain my face with paper / that doesn’t belong to me.” This is Lin using her art to come to terms with life, using the parts of her story—even the ugly and mundane—and rearranging them into something much more beautiful and dangerous—perhaps a flaming tightrope made of dental floss. Of course, Lin says this much better than I can in the poem’s concluding lines: “Intimate as the skin / between her teeth, I write / about her but never to / her. Believe that slice of / string, that familiar red. / Make pretty what’s left, wear bright bones, enamel.”
One hopes to do more in a review than touch on only a pair of poems out of a collection of several dozen, but the incongruous combination of reach and inwardness in Lin’s work means that, when writing about it, I can do little more than produce a gloss of the poetry itself. “Heavy Water” and “Delicate” are merely the two works that best distill Lin’s strengths, namely her ability to let the everything unfold synaptically through image, language, and bits of information that seem only loosely related but, when viewed from afar (or on the second read), show a framework sturdier and more grand than might be seen at first. But A House Made of Water is a much richer book than can be summed up in those two poems. Read A House Made of Water and you’ll begin to see Lin’s story in all its fractured and unstable splendor; you’ll not be disappointed.