By Wendy Chen
104 pages, $17.00
Reviewed by Alice Y. Lu
Wendy Chen’s poetry collection Unearthings, out now from Tavern Books, is brave and delicate. At once, Chen describes both the individual and the collective immigration experience. What part of culture comes from family and what part comes from the motherland? As the 2017 selection for the Wrolstad Contemporary Poetry Series, which seeks to highlight young women authors, Unearthings finds Chen exploring how one finds individual consciousness in the midst of ghosts, boundaries, the unspoken, and difficult experiences.
A poem on shrimp, “They Sail Across the Mirrored Sea,” hints at the ongoing theme of body and self:
were they aware of body, and not-body?
of mind, and not-mind? In the air,
blind as they had ever been.
How should Chen, as the child of immigrants, navigate the spaces of unfamiliar histories and unspoken words? A shrimp is something like that child, blind in some ways and uncertain of the limits of awareness. “At times, the spring glowed, thinking itself/ an ocean and its inhabitants/ phosphorous beings.” There is the body, but there are also worlds, oceans, and stories beyond that one body.
“They Sail Across the Mirrored Sea” is inspired by an epigraph from Mao Zedong, and Unearthings draws much of its inspiration from contemporary and classical Chinese culture.
“It is a house” references the Chinese folklores of the moon rabbit and the woman on the moon. The rabbit pounds a mortar and pestle to create the elixir of life; the woman was exiled into immortality and looks out on Earth with a telescope. The poem exposes the shame inside the family home, which might be situated in a New England suburb:
the moon is empty of the rabbit and the girl
even they are ashamed of what I have done
now it is dark.
Some immigrant families choose to retain folktales, others to retain holidays, ancestor worship, and pop culture. Here, this relic of the motherland no longer belongs to the child who brings shame to the home.
Some of Chen’s poems speak softly. “August 18th” is a slice of time so unassuming that you might be standing on the porch yourself:
From the summer porch,
past the hour.
How wonderful it is to inhabit a body and to direct that body into a moment on a summer night, when one might stand outside and observe a single flower. The flower in reference, “cerebrus,” may be Aconite, used as arrow poison. Even when writing on violence within the family home, the language is delicate and comes back to the theme of water and wholeness:
There were days
when the plates
Their wholeness held
light like water.
Everything is fragile and might fall apart at the next moment – like water, like flowers blooming at unnatural hours, and like the claiming of one’s self. That is – everything, even the plates, are haunted.
Despite the sensation of haunting, there is also the sensation of overwhelming wonder in “Fastened V”:
It was a new world.
It had an astral underside.
It was starry all over.
You were something very young.
In the process of emigration and resettling into a new geography, one might encounter the ghosts of the motherland:
That is your great-grandfather, coiling
round us like the rope/ that wound around his neck.
Father always said it was his death that saved him […]
We must have been there with him,
swinging in the dust underneath his feet.
Some ghosts cannot be caught or forgotten. But to stay in the adopted world, the sense of wonder must be greater than the sense of haunting.
You hold onto some things, and you let go of others. In “Rites,” the balance of letting go and holding on is as much about death and family as it is about immigration. “Mother thinks we will be born again […] She says that we will/ meet again.” It is a beautiful idea to think that not all is lost at the end of a journey, that we can let go of life while holding on to what made the life meaningful.
The long veins
in each breast are blue,
a surfacing blue/ so clear it will take more
than a hundred years to forget.
Surely not all is forgotten in death and migration. Surely, if something is remembered, the individual can hold on and let go at the same time.
Wendy Chen’s collection of poetry is a wonderful read. It is a great balancing act between sorrow and wonder, between haunting and rebirth. Chen’s language echoes from the page to the mind, because it is so clear. Nothing is wasted on pretenses – the language is beautiful and lyrical, but it has a marvelous momentum and tells only the truth.