Reviews / November 2011 (Issue 15)

Predication of Articulation: Voice and Silence in Jennifer Cheng's Invocation

by Akin Jeje

Jennifer S. Cheng, Invocation: An Essay, New Michigan Press, 2010. 42 pgs.

Spare, eloquent and hesitant, yet charged with an immense determination, Cheng's poetic essay intertwines emerging voice and overwhelming silence in an ice-cool, understated juxtaposition of uneasy solitude coupled with a deep urgency to speak. Invocation is a struggle to empower expression—whether verbal, emotional or even ontological—located in the viscerality of the narrator's being. Indeed, the journey towards articulation begins at the location of the narrator's very viscera, where "The world begins with a voice shut tightly, a closed throat, "a voice driven to bring itself into being, no matter if, at the start, "bitter molasses drips from my tongue into still water basins." Pain and uncertainty are a necessary part of the process of articulation, and in Cheng's restrained poetic style, the narrator's odyssey is one where voice is struggle and wonder, inarticulation and loquacity simultaneously.

In Invocation, voice assumes texture, quiet cadences and volume, with magnitudes ranging from sibilant whispers to low moans that fill expanses and skies. Throughout the work, the author's tone is controlled, almost reduced, perhaps out of fearing to probe the spaces where a fully articulated voice could resonate. For Cheng, an exploration of voice, with all its hidden marvels and pitfalls, is not definite or linear. However, one of the few critiques I have for her otherwise moving, powerful invocation through silence is that maybe it is she, not merely the narrator, that pulls back from interrogating her existential dilemma to its fullest. The black and white photos interspersed among Cheng's terse stanzas—some of her own family, others from various literary works and educational texts—assume authority in their very stillness. They project a clinical aura that is nonetheless infused, at times, with an incongruous tenderness. These photos, intersecting with the verse, serve as signposts for the narrator's metaphysical trajectory towards the exploration of her voice.

Cheng maps out her narrator's path with scenes of childhood and family, spectrograms of vowels, a diagram of the throat, silent statues, hieroglyphics and other markers of being and utterance both immediate and arcane. The silence of the photos reinforce the silences that intersect her journey, silences being silenced from without and within, silences that at times bolster her resolve, and at other constrict the fullness of the voice she seeks. The narrator speaks of those "born mute and those who develop levels of silence later in life." To the narrator's credit, while she is cognizant as to the limits of expression imposed on her and others, she also recognizes that "the speech act runs parallel to the act of assertion, of proof."

Thus, silence provokes challenge rather than acquiescence to a final fixed state. The "closed throat" becomes a locus for genesis, where hard-won utterance becomes a platform towards a greater fullness of being. As Cheng's narrator moves through silence and voice in her quest, she embraces both a dispassionate and mystical stance in response to her surroundings. She speaks impersonally of those unable to speak, of those who speak but whose speech is rendered incomprehensible to others and of those who lose their voice inexplicably. She speaks of herself, obliquely, of limitations of language imposed on women and children in certain households:

Before women were unseen, they were unheard. They lived in silent rooms. Children who are repeatedly forgotten by those around them soon begin to slip. They find themselves in a place feeling like something of a foreigner.

The silence imposed grips its sufferers like an illness, where they become "overwhelmed by the largeness, the lightness of the bodies surrounding you." Entire worlds are consumed in this largeness of the void:

As if Jonah had been left in the whale, and the tree had withered on its own. As if a moth had fallen into a glass jar and lay bare. As if the air were made of a thick, viscous fluid and at the same time something empty. As if it all turned to salt. As if a great shape had somewhere departed and in its place, a hole.

For Cheng's narrator, nightmares adorn her, interspersed with the stillness of time arrested in the photos. She is awake, listening—"I think of small creatures beating softly in the darkness"—but her voice eludes her, even at the most crucial moments:

One sunlit afternoon I fall asleep on my white bed, the thin curtain at the window completely still, and dream my mother is dead. I wake in my sheets, wet and crying, my body heaving and aching. I walk around the silent apartment aimlessly, the light still coming in through the window heavily. I call her on the phone but do not speak.

Her true origin of voice begins at the genesis of language, where, "before words, things were formless and void. Darkness was hovering." Without expression, life is mechanical as the narrator moves through the daily drudgery of a pallid existence. The blankness is so complete that nothingness dominates the next page—no verse, no photo—just the all-encompassing void, but it is from this point that the struggle for self, for voice, for expression begins, reluctantly, but with a quiet, forceful persistence: "I make noises, stop, try to move my tongue, tongue over lips, tongue to the palate, mouth open, closed." However, even as the narrator finds the beginnings of her voice, faint and forced as it is, she is still beset by silence around her, where "even the saints do not wait; they lurk with lips sewn shut."

Heartbreakingly resonant and nuanced, Cheng's Invocation invokes the voice of the voiceless, the struggle to find voice amidst wide expanse of silence or silencing, while treasuring all that beyond words. Invocation is at once eloquent and sad, thought-provoking and hopeful. My only critique of this otherwise fine poetic essay is, ironically, in its terseness, its exacting economy of words. While its very spareness is essential to the atmosphere of silences and quietudes it conveys, its paucity of words at times leaves the reader famished, craving more from Cheng's exquisite scraps of verse, but leaving the reader unable to articulate what more could be desired.

Cheng's understated style may be frustrating to those who crave to delve deeper into the realm of constricted emotion that pervades her work, but this conversely may be one of her greatest strengths—imposing a tightly controlled voice for fear that the first full utterance may be a scream or cry of anguish, rather than a measured, if torturous discovery of self-expression. Even in its hesitations, Invocation's subtleties are sublime. A picture may speak a thousand words—Invocation speaks a testament to the power of language itself—or the momentousness of struggle for those deprived of it.

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