Reviews / June 2013 (Issue 21)

Deepest Yearnings Revealed: Grace Chia's Cordelia and John Wall Barger's Hummingbird

by Cecilia Chan


Grace Chia, Cordelia, Ethos Books, 2012. 106 pgs.
John Wall Barger, Hummingbird, Palimpsest Press, 2012. 96 pgs.

These two poetry collections, Cordelia by Grace Chia and Hummingbird by John Wall Barger, explore themes so different, use voices so dissimilar and portray personae so divergent that it seems almost impossible to discuss them the same review. The reviewer is desperate to find something in common between these two books, a link connecting their wide array of imagery and portraiture. Nonetheless, I believe that through their use of mythical metaphors and chaotic sights and sounds from travels both poets are able to attain the thing they most yearn for by the end of their books.

The titles, of course, hint at the overarching concerns of each collection. Cordelia, the youngest, least-favoured, yet most kind-hearted of King Lear's daughters, is the tragic heroine in Shakespeare's play of familial love and loyalty, and Chia's poems unsurprisingly contain frequent references to the poet-persona's family and to her father in particular. In "My Father's Methods," for example, we learn how the family shies away from public stares, hiding behind lowered curtains. The poet-persona, however, finds a way to cope with this sense of oppression:

no longer feel trapped,
I've bolted the door to my father's methods.
The cell's up here,
up here, in the hollow, in the confines – so
when he shuts the door
I see not him

Haunted by family secrets and a deeply guarded past, the book questions the poet's identity and where she stands as a member of the family, as an artist and as a woman. The poet-persona conveys her uncertainty and self-doubt in "Fear of Trying":

verses incubate
            flee like tadpoles
The judge dictates: whatever it is, it's not
going to be accepted.

Here's another.
Swallow black ink.
Eject the reject.    Cheers
                      to another aborted attempt.

And in "Lunacy":

On this bed of metaphors
I lay slain –
the poet and her body of symbols
each cut to size to fit
the puzzle of her pain,
each diamanté tear blinking in the
broken light of her
nightly wakefulness

We also witness how the poet-persona questions herself in "A Woman's POV":

I forgot to screw on my head
when I woke up this morning
and it tumbled onto the floor,
cracked like a glass globe;

And later:

I forgot to sharpen my tongue
when I went out to face the world;
words blunt, each phrasal thought
shaved into meaningless chippings
as trashy as the lips I paint

"Made in Singapore: iCordelia," the title of a poem near the end of the collection, offers a clue to the poet-persona's identification with the tragic heroine. Chia's Cordelia is not only the daughter of a family with dark secrets, or a headless, inarticulate woman, but also someone who is finding her place in her home country.

Thankfully, Chia's Cordelia meets a happier fate than the bard's. In the final poem, "Deliverance," we get a resolution of sorts, and we see the poet-persona find a sense of confidence and make a much yearned for connection with her family:

Child, with this one word you
salvage this broken mass, give it meaning,
bring down arms, make it whole again;
and I remember once more why it is
that you are the one
who deliver me.

If the title to Chia's collection is important, the same may be said of Barger's work: Hummingbird. The back cover provides the following description of myths associated with the bird:

The Portuguese word for "hummingbird" is beija-flor – flower-kisser. In Aztec mythology, Huitzilopochtli is the hummingbird god, the bloodthirsty god of war, requiring nourishment in the form of constant human sacrifices to ensure that the sun will rise again; […] the hummingbird is a territorial, aggressive creature whose life depends upon its quest for fuel, compelling it to taste up to one thousand flowers per day. Its pulse, as it flies eight hundred kilometers across the Gulf of Mexico, can rise up to twenty-one beats per second.

Aptly named, this book portrays the well-travelled poet-persona John Barger as a restless hummingbird.

The collection is divided into three sections, presenting readers with overwhelming imagery sampled from travels: noises, sweat, unfamiliar sights and untimely mishaps.

Section I opens with "A Start," a vow to set off on a journey to the unknown:

till the pass is impassable,
                                                  till the past is beneath you,
a green ravine slashed by the nails of the world.

We then follow Barger as he ventures around the world, a wide-eyed tourist soaking in every single thing that assaults his senses. He provides us with a patchwork of the disparate fragments he collects as he traverses from his hometown Halifax through to New York, Atlanta and Las Vegas before finally crossing the Gulf of Mexico. In Oaxaca, the poet witnesses a pilgrims' procession in honour of Huitzilopochtli, the hummingbird god. The images are immediate, unpolished and disorganised, such that you feel the same level of exhaustion as the traveller himself.

It takes time for the poet to filter out the white noise from the vast quantity of information he comes across. But once he has done it, he begins to bring into focus both external and internal landscapes in his poems.

In Section II, Barger presents us with more focused scenes as he advances to Europe. His emotions are more personally felt, as depicted in his drunken state in "How I fell into the Liffey River"; the beauty of a flamenco dancer in "Insomnia" and in the images of lust in "Hydra" and "On the Day I Picked Emily an Orange." We see the poet-persona more engaged in his environs, not just documenting fragments, but selecting and seizing the significant ones.

In Section III, Barger leads readers into Asia—a log cabin in Taiwan, the River Ganges in Delhi and the sacred landscapes of Dharamsala. On this final leg of his journey, we finally witness a breakthrough in Barger's poetic voice in "Concerning the Handwritten Letter I Received in India Reporting that my Labrador Retriever Back Home was Dying." In this poem, we are given a privileged glimpse of the poet's varied psychological landscapes: struck by an intense sense of loss, he transforms into a girl, a bonsai tree, a pack of wolves, a foyer, among many others, before finally revealing a sense of fear and uncertainty.
Soon after this piece, the poet-persona looks back to what he has left behind, and possibly what he most yearns for—home. Such is the journey of a traveller—it commences when he sets out into the unknown and continues until he is called to return to where he belongs.

Website © Cha: An Asian Literary Journal 2007-2018
ISSN 1999-5032
All poems, stories and other contributions copyright to their respective authors unless otherwise noted.