Reviews / August 2009 (Issue 8)

Identity and Re-Invention: A Review of Ching-In Chen's and Todd Swift's Poetry

by Kate Rogers


Ching-In Chen, The Heart's Traffic: a Novel in Poems, Arktoi Books, 2009. 119 pgs.
Todd Swift, Seaway: New and Selected Poems, Salmon Poetry, 2008. 128 pgs.

Canadian Todd Swift's Seaway: New and Selected Poems and The Heart's Traffic by Ching-In Chen, a San Francisco-based poet, deal with issues of identity and re-invention of the self. But they approach these themes from almost opposite angles. As an expatriate, Swift follows his poetic heart in a variety of cultural environments, redefining himself as he goes. As the daughter of immigrants, poet Ching-In Chen tackles the creation of identity quite differently.

In her debut collection subtitled a novel in poems, Ching-In Chen uses word play and forms such as the villanelle, pantoum and zuihitsu as well as persona poems to layer a narrative in four parts. The experiences of Xiaomei—an immigrant to San Francisco—drive the story from the start.

The poems are powerful; to quote Margaret Atwood, "Poetry is condensed emotion", and Chen's poetry is no exception. Loss is a compelling factor in the protagonist's search for herself. In "Xiaomei's First Heartbreak," in "Part II: Inventing the Island", the narrator's father has left: "Gone the clanging midnight door, perpetual raised voice. / Xiaomei wakes in the dew, the traffic of her heart missing."

In America, Xiaomei grapples with much which is unfamiliar after her father disappears. Her insights into the differences between Asia and the West are expressed succinctly: "into the black hole of America, / an odd place with beer-drinking, restaurant-opening aunties / and cousins who like cereal."

In "Part III: The Still Migrating Body", Xiaomei goes even further and focuses on her missing patriarch:

When I remember,
I will be a grown adult
with shiny smiles
searching for Grandfather.

we have stocked the refrigerator
in honor of your smiles.
This legend of television
encourages each adult
to dis-remember

her own grandfather.
In each land, there is a refrigerator
filled to the brim with smiles.

The poem "Names" powerfully evokes the trauma connected with learning a new language. It captures how language, names and identity are intertwined:

First to let go
of the murderous tongue,
end of the intimate and divine source
of the esophagus,
trained in the schoolbacked
wooden chair of youth,
ruler whack of pronunciation
…the final journey, arrives in the first melting
where no memorized faces survive.

Then in the same section, Chen performs her own jazz riff on the word coolie—or labourer—first as Ku Li—in its modern Pinyin form:

cool Li?
Cooled ghee
Chew me
Gruel, tea
Cold feet

She goes on to describe the exploitation of Chinese labourers who built the railroad in the US, but who "couldn't / go / to / the / party" in the short poem "Coolie: A History Report", presented in the style of a child's social studies presentation.

Chen then plunges into Xiaomei's history. "The TrueTale of Xiaomei" mocks Xiaomei's obsession with the past and those who elevate immigrants' stories to legends:

The Great Outlandish True Tale of my pathetic mother, 
         married off at age three,
         to an evil rich man as second wife/concubine,
         How she squeezed sorrow out of her pounding chest.
         How she squirreled way like the workday ant, coin after morsel,
         How one day the bus driver saw my fresh face and haggard one,
                 two sides of the mirror of time         open onto his pale life.
                                          He fell in love with such courage.

[…] that classic immigrant story that breaks their little Pilgrim hearts

As poets and story-tellers we so often eviscerate ourselves and read the entrails for meaning. Chen hits equally hard in the fourth and final section: "Onion Dreams". The first layer she peels begins with excerpts of an interview with Arthur Golden about his book, Memoirs of a Geisha. By interspersing quotes from the iconic subject of Golden's novel with his thoughts on writing it, Chen depicts Golden as being on a mission to write "the Great White Novel". In the following poem—"Two Truths and a Lie"—Chen shows how Western men can idealize Asian women like geishas and how this idealization diminishes and isolates those "exotic others".

In the final section, "The Heart's Traffic", there are sensual poems celebrating women loving women. Chen returns to Coolie as "Cool/li" and "Ku Li" and reflects on her roots. Appropriately, the collection ends with "Inventing the Tiger" in which Xiaomei's story evolves into myth.

Like Chen, Todd Swift is a perpetual outsider, choosing that identity instead of inheriting it or having it imposed upon him. In this collection which spans twenty years, Swift explores such themes as adolescence, sensuality, death, alienation, Hungary, England and France. His language is taut and beautifully crafted. In the first poem, absence is a palpable place: a "white kitchen". In "Gun Crazy", tension and despair build:

Neon wakes me, I peel back blinds,
to jackhammer rain, shake a Lucky
from the pack…How can a man be made
from moments of early loss?

In "This Was How One Lasted", the narrator compares swimming with submerging the self: "I was thin and young with shivers // and would wait for something / to call me in…."

As a fellow overseas Canadian, I got a kick out of "Kanada Post": "I remember some other life as if it's mine. / My country has become a stamp, weather, / And what my mother says, over the phone." Later in the same poem finely-tuned images resonate: "My birth month is rain and light, a dancing pair / of skaters. The smell of winter breaking like glass."

"The Usher" skillfully begins with a teenage reverie about the romance of watching movies but expands into much more:

I could hug these images
into me, a pillow of nostalgia:
my parents traveling by
the kind of plane with propellers

over an itinerary of yellow seas,
missing, but in the absence filled
golden with a kid's love
of mysterious passages.

A child's bed is a narrow
strip to land a history of regret.

Many Canadians of both genders fill poems with bodies of water: it is our birth right. In "The Influence of Anxiety at the Seaside with Tea", the sea and the rain become sentient beings: "The sea is a grey-green, moon-led elephant" and the "rain pulled toads from its hat". Later we see, in the three poems "The Lake", "Seaway" and "The Red Bathing Cap", a heart-rending beautiful depiction of his mother, a dedicated swimmer all her life. The poem is very heartfelt and this can be seen particularly in the following excerpt from the last two stanzas:

I want to go with you tonight,
Keep pace, but you always
Swam out alone, serene. Red Bathing cap—(brightened like
A pricked thumb)—how it goes
In and out of the going black

Steady as your pulse, a sewing
Needle, threading water
With your breathing stroke--
is like a light, a light to me
That says the where and why
Of home, of coming home.
I'll bring your blue towel as
You stand out in summer dusk.

Swift inhabits unexpected people and places. In poems such as "Brando", "The Man Who Killed Houdini" and the notable poem, "Gentlemen of Nerve" (selected for Best Canadian Poetry in English, 2008), the narrator is voyeur, reconstructing the lives of his subjects:

a movie writer, a fellow who adores his wife;
The forty-year-old who walks slowly down the boulevards
In springtime, thinking of nothing much, sidling along

With a mumble, instead of a song, in his punctured heart.

As we can see, both volumes of poetry deal with issues of identity. While Chen engages with myth, Swift writes like a scavenger hunting for images of himself.

Editors' note: Ching-In Chen's (issue #6) and Todd Swift's (issues #2 and #3) poetry has been previously published in Cha. Follow the links to read their poems.

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