Reviews / February 2011 (Issue 13)


Bruising and Healing: Sherry Quan Lee's Chinese Blackbird and Melody S. Gee's Each Crumbling House

by Jason Eng Hun Lee

Image  Image

Sherry Quan Lee, Chinese Blackbird, Modern History Press, 2008. 81 pgs.
Melody S. Gee, Each Crumbling House, Perugia Press, 2010. 75 pgs.

I.

A series of identity crises form the crux of Sherry Quan Lee's poems in Chinese Blackbird, a four-part collection that deals with the poet's mixed racial heritage, her marginalized childhood, issues of motherhood and finally her love of women. These emotionally charged poems run a gauntlet of multiple representations, which serve to focus on Quan Lee's fragmented selves and communicate that anxiety to the reader. Predictably then, her language is taut, sparse, sometimes jarring, but always candid about her struggles, and often lightened by wry or humorous insights.

Blossoming between disparate communities "like a magnolia/– whose sepals never fuse," Quan Lee is caught between her mixed Black/Chinese ancestry, while also having to cope with her mother's attempts to pass her off as Caucasian. We see in these early poems the use of concrete labels like "Chinese" and "Black," terms that Quan Lee rails against even as she clings to them for definition.

For example, we are reminded in "Incarnation" that "Mother remained starched/white rice steaming in a black/kettle." These images keep Quan Lee's predicament alive in the narrative whilst highlighting the various depths of pressure that she feels. That struggle is made explicit through powerful juxtaposition, as in "Chinese Blackbird," where the offending terms are forced together:

                        This woman's wings.
                        Tear shaped.
                                                            Perched on a limb
                                                            she sings, on a limb
                                                            she sings.

          Woman! Wings! Chinese /
          Black
            bird.  Black/

            bird.  Chinese.

 

                        Her parents'
                        desire.

In another poem, "Theun Wing," which deals with Quan Lee's absent father, the narrative flow of the poem is interrupted constantly by a rhythm, in this case a song, which overlaps with the poet's voice:

          Father was a model minority
             Jesus Loves the Little Children
          assimilation fit
             red and yellow black and white
          like a baseball glove

This is good writing, marked by an underlying consciousness that dislocates the narrative and gives the reader that feeling of alienation. There are times, however, especially in the latter half of her work, where Quan Lee's thoughts appear scattered and inconstant, where her craftsmanship is not always evident in bringing out the disorientation and turmoil that she undoubtedly feels.

Furthermore, as the collection unfolds, repetition starts to creep in. One problem with using all this colour imagery, and the stock racial associations they imply, is that they detract from the forms of self-representation that would allow us read Quan Lee on her own terms. While they remind us of the societal pressures she is forced to confront, at times I felt that they could have been dealt with using precise, expressive language in order to bring out the nuances of her personal history more.

Still, Quan Lee does attempt at times to move beyond race imagery, stating in "I Am the Snake I Feared" that "White/is not a color, only distilled light/that blinds me." So too are there revelations about self-love in many of her poems, and the savvy voice that emerges from "Diva Breakin the Blues" is refreshing, but these moments are all too rare in a collection that talks about the "bruising" caused by stereotype and self-denial. When they do occur though, they are worth savouring. One moment of truth stands out in "Winter Solstice" where, "pausing/from the chaos of colored lines," Quan Lee finally achieves that desired state of equilibrium, but only by bringing about "the smashing together and destruction/of incongruities" that hamper her development.

II.

Melody S. Gee's debut collection chronicles a series of journeys across space and time, from China to America, and back, but where that imagined return to her Chinese motherland never really occurs. Like Quan Lee, Gee experiences both mental and physical dislocation, and her poetry is likewise suffused with a language of loss, uncertainty and nostalgia.

Her opening poem, "Migration," evokes the pain of settling down in a new country through the image of monarch butterflies who must "break their bodies over mountains/and heave themselves onto warm trees." One might expect this moment of arrival to herald a new beginning for Gee and her mother, but instead mother and daughter are stuck with that eerie double displacement reserved for first-generation migrants.

This becomes clear when they return to China only to find themselves depicted by villagers as "ghosts moving through their country/through their own country" in "What They Saw." Looking for a past that she has inherited but cannot make sense of, Gee attempts to understand her mother's exodus, but even the legacy of Mao's Great Leap Forward that haunts the narrator in "What You Believed" leaves more questions than answers:

          Do you wonder if the marching
          soldiers could have been children

          stepping softly, if the red guard
          alarms could have been only a tottering
          cow's bell?

The beauty of Gee's poetry here lies in its ability to keep that past unreconciled, to situate these moments in crisis without making them too melodramatic or strained, and to keep the reader sifting through that past looking for a sense of closure and finality. And yet no such closure seems possible. It leaves only an elusive trail, as we see in "History Filled In": "Soon there is no trace of where she began/to leave, where she turned back,/where she began again without starting over."

How then does Gee assuage this longing for inheritance? Well, it seems by making imaginary leaps across time, or by inserting herself as a casual observer in this imagined past. Take "we skip the years like the stones you throw, breaking the water/to reach the other side," as she writes in "One Year Extra." Or the excellent lines that open "Each Crumbling House": "Your mythology of memory/ forgets and lies./Memory makes ghosts/grow shadows." Moving between fiction and reality, Gee plays to her strengths as a poet, fusing her experiences together in an act of translation:

                    I translate myself into
          my mother's grammar of exile
          made ordinary, grammar of
          echoes without voices.

Though there is a lot of thematic repetition, Gee's images are never forced and she uses a different cast of objects—a bitter melon, a door half ajar, jade presents for her wedding—to connect to the memory of her ancestors in interesting and unexpected ways. Their presence is also hinted at in the many landscapes that Gee creates, with the "white/silent faces breaking open" in "Where We Are Gathered" a particular favourite of mine.

Of course, that is not to say that Gee is entirely preoccupied with narratives of the past. There are poems here that enable her to seek shelter in the present by finding solace with her lover. The voice that laments "I do not know how to know/the rain without you, how to be/wet without you" is a sensuous one, while there are also tangible references to John Donne and William Carlos Williams that help present her day-to-day romantic encounters.

Ultimately one feels that, though there is a gradual working through of issues for Gee, there is no final denouement. Her final poem, "What You Remember," only provides another departure, where "the words you have not forgotten: China,/revolution, ocean, daughter" are constantly brought into sharp focus. And yet these words point to the very heart of good confessional writing, telling us that

          We have words for the cut
          and what remains on either side,
          words to tell ourselves
          the broken thing is more
          itself now, and it need
          not heal to be whole.

These lines show us that, no matter how difficult it may be to retrieve a common ancestry, it is always a struggle worth articulating.

 
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