A few weeks ago, on Centre Street–just north of Canal, the longtime boundary between Chinatown and the rest of Manhattan–I was on a panel, Re-imagining Asian American (and American) Poetry, at the Museum of Chinese in America (MoCA). Dorothy Wang, author of the recently published book, Thinking Its Presence: Form, Race, and Subjectivity in Contemporary Asian American Poetry (Stanford University Press, 2013), hosted the panel. In addition to me, the panel included the poets Marilyn Chin and Paolo Javier. Each of us was supposed to read for twenty minutes, and then we would begin discussing Dorothy’s book. Never one to ease the audience into her work or otherwise make it simple for them, Marilyn began her reading with the poem, “So You Fucked John Donne” from her book, Rhapsody in Plain Yellow (2002):
So, you fucked John Donne.
Wasn’t very nice of you.
He was bethrothed to God, you know,
A diet of worms for you!
So, you fucked John Keats.
He’s got the sickness, you know.
You took precautions, you say.
So, you fucked him anyway.
John Donne, John Keats,
John Guevara, John Wong,
John Kennedy, Johnny John-John,
The beautiful, the wreckless, the strong.
Poor thang, you had no self-worth then,
You fucked them all for a song.
The poem is part sonnet, part schoolyard vernacular. It is written (or should I say spoken?) in a confrontational, accusatory voice that mixes a sly misreading (“A diet of worms for you!”) with high-toned formal restraint and different aspects (or should I say cultures) of American slang. The other striking thing about Chin’s poem is the smoothness with which she both embeds and disperses her irreverence within the constraints of rhyme, repetition and meter.
As in many of her poems, Chin is interested in folding different languages and intonations into the one she is writing in. This is perhaps true of many poets, but Chin’s roots and experiences are planted in two very different languages and cultures: she was born in Hong Kong in 1955 and grew up in Portland, Oregon. In “Identity Poem (#99),” also from Rhapsody in Plain Yellow, she writes: “Are you the only Chinese restaurant in Roseburg, Oregon?” Difference and dislocation are conditions she is always conscious of.
Chin, who published her first book of poems, Dwarf Bamboo (1987) nearly thirty years ago, had her fourth book of poetry, Hard Love Province (2014), come out in early June. She has also published a novel, Revenge of the Mooncake Vixen: A Manifesto in 41 Tales (2009). With these books, as she does in her most widely anthologized and perhaps best-known poem, “How I Got That Name: An Essay on Assimilation,” the poet combines two different discursive forms to create a hybrid. The roots of irreverence seem to have begun in the poet’s childhood, as well as a sense of the absurd. Here is the first section of “How I Got That Name: An Essay on Assimilation”:
I am Marilyn Mei Ling Chin
Oh, how I love the resoluteness
of that first person singular
followed by that stalwart indicative
of “be,” without the uncertain i-n-g
of “becoming.” Of course,
the name had been changed
somewhere between Angel Island and the sea,
when my father the paperson
in the late 1950s
obsessed with a bombshell blond
transliterated “Mei Ling” to “Marilyn.”
And nobody dared question
his initial impulse—for we all know
lust drove men to greatness,
not goodness, not decency.
And there I was, a wayward pink baby,
named after some tragic white woman
swollen with gin and Nembutal.
My mother couldn’t pronounce the “r.”
She dubbed me “Numba one female offshoot”
for brevity: henceforth, she will live and die
in sublime ignorance, flanked
by loving children and the “kitchen deity.”
While my father dithers,
a tomcat in Hong Kong trash—
a gambler, a petty thug,
who bought a chain of chopsuey joints
in Piss River, Oregon,
with bootlegged Gucci cash.
Nobody dared question his integrity given
his nice, devout daughters
and his bright, industrious sons
as if filial piety were the standard
by which all earthly men are measured.
Think of the sense of betrayal, absurdity, anger and embarrassment that follows being given a new (or transliterated) name by your father that your own mother can’t pronounce. However, to read this work purely as a product of the poet’s ethnicity is to do both poet and poem a disservice. Didn’t Andrew Warhola change his name to Andy Warhol? He wanted to assimilate and often made up stories about where he was born. Chin recognizes that she can’t do the former and won’t do the latter. Isn’t assimilation and its impossibility a crucial issue in America today?
In addition to being a poet, novelist and anthologist, Chin was one of the translators of the Selected Poems of Ai Qing (1982). An important modernist poet and proponent of free verse, Ai Qing was sent to a labor camp in 1958 because he openly criticized the communist government for its treatment of the proto-feminist writer, Ding Ling. He is the father of the Ai Weiwei, the internationally known artist who befriended Allen Ginsberg and knew Bei Dao, Gu Cheng and other American and Chinese poets when he had an apartment/crash pad on Manhattan’s Lower East Side between 1983 and 1993. For these poets and artists, language–its use and misuse–is central. When the New York Times publishes an article, “Does Poetry Matter,” it once again bypasses the real question: Does language matter?
In Chin’s most recent book, Hard Love Province (2014), simultaneity is one of the operative modes. This is the first section of the poem, “Nocturnes”:
Beautiful moon the murderer begins to sing
The thief takes off his mask to smell the heliotrope
A dirty girl’s face against a clear night pane
Dreams of a strawberry pie at Marie Callender’s
A junkie steals asters from a rich man’s grave
And spreads them on the modest mound of his mother
A lone girl walks with moonlit haste in the shadows of
As elsewhere in the book, Chin’s use of spaces and phrasing slows down time, almost cinematically, as if everything is being seen and/or remembered in slow-motion.
For her the contradiction is that the world goes on despite her grieving. In “Formosan Elegy,” she writes:
I sit near your body bag and sing you a last song
In “Cougar Sinonymous,” one stanza reads:
I climb the Acropolis swim in the Aegean
Flirt with Kouros but don’t give him my name
Drink tea at high noon eat octopus at dusk
A woman at forty is proud of her lust
The shift from the autobiographical “I” in the first line to the more inclusive category of “A woman at forty” in the last line typifies Chin’s project: she regards herself as a spokesperson, unashamed of her physical desire. She is, as the poem’s title states, a “Cougar.” One key to Chin’s work is her volatile simultaneity of reverence and irreverence, anger and tenderness, all understood through the lens of longing without a stitch of self-pity.
Chin, whose awareness of race and the collisions between them, doesn’t shy away from difficult subjects and, to her credit, doesn’t try to reach overarching conclusions or offer a sentimental salve. This is the first section of her prose poem, “Study Hall, Deterritorialized”
The brown boy hits me, but says he is sorry. The brown girl, his
sister, says it’s because he likes me. I say, yuk! He likes me. Well, I
hate him. The black girl pinches me and says, Scaredy-cat, tattletale,
little pussy, I dare you to hit back. The white girl grabs my Hello
Kitty purse and spills my milk money. I karate-chop her arm.
The white boys says, My father says that your father’s egg rolls are made
of fried rat penises. I answer, Yep my father says that the reason why his eggrolls are made of fried rat penises is because Americans are weirdos
and like to eat fried rat penises. The black girl laughs deep from her
gut and high-fives me. Just as I am redrawing the map, my little
fresh-off-the-boat cousin from Malaysia starts weeping into her
pink shawl like a baby, wa wa wa. The white girl muffles her ears,
Can’t you shut her up.
Chin stays in character, never stepping away from the poem to become a detached observer who puts a particular spin on the events. She neither allegorizes the situation nor turns it into a symptom of something larger. Chin never says more than she can say. She doesn’t use the “I” as way to garner sympathy. For all their narrative drift, her poems are not anecdotes, little stories meant to call attention to the speaker’s suffering or privileged status. As she writes in her poem, “Two Inch Fables:”
This late capitalist immigrant bitch
Will ransom your pretty ass home
At the same time, later in the same poem, she can ask:
What can you do with so many poems
Sprouting dead hairs in an empty coffin
The toughness in Chin’s poems is something we have yet to reckon with. She embraces and writes about the conundrum of being a daughter of two cultures,
a woman growing older, a woman grieving for her lovers, both of whom have died, a woman remembering her childhood. All of these subjects have been written about before. Chin brings something fresh and daring to her work. In contrast to W.H. Auden, who wrote, “For poetry makes nothing happen,” in her poem, “From a Notebook of an Ex-Revolutionary,” Chin counters with:
Jon Yi was born in the caves of Yenan,
Did the Long March on his mother’s breast.
He grew up and became a Red Guard,
Placed a dunce cap on the very same mother,
Marched her to Xinjiang, to die of hard labor.
Twenty years later in Sonoma, California
He confessed to his loving wife––I am a weakling.
A spineless scoundrel, a turtle’s spawn.
A lackey, a whelp-dog. He squealed and squealed,
History made me do it! History made me do it!
Marilyn Chin’s Hard Love Province (2014) is published by W.W.Norton & Company, Inc.