“Strange” is one of those words I try to avoid using. Historically, whatever power it may have once conjured in the minds of those who read it, or those who used it to describe something, all of that power now seems sapped by overuse. It’s been devalued. The word “strange” means about as much as saying that something is “normal”—and by that I mean that it means nothing.
All that being said, Feng Sun Chen’s debut full-length poetry collection Butcher’s Tree is a strange book. It’s the kind of book that gives a descriptive word like “strange” some core muscle, some hidden teeth. It’s the kind of book I’d imagine coming across in the library of sunken, ghost-ridden submarine, stranded at the bottom of the ocean, a library filled with damp and algae-clung books. Maybe with a giant squid for a librarian, a giant squid who can talk and who knows your name. Or maybe you’d find it mixed in with a stack of centuries-old leather-bound children’s books, astounded and a little repulsed by its complexity and darkness.
Take the omniscience and time-weary voice of myths, add in the best parts of fables, namely the anthropomorphic language and the supernatural weirdness, ground it in some extremely compelling poetry, and you’re still nowhere near what’s happening in this book. Butcher’s Tree seems to exist in its own dimension—a not-entirely-unfamiliar dimension. It’s familiar in the way things like myths and fables are familiar but it’s twisted into something unrecognizable, like finding an insect in your dirty clothes, but when you look at it up close you see that it has too many legs and a human face.
Take, for example, the poem, “Hades:”
One day the girl dived
to go pearl harvesting
and was never heard of again.
Perhaps the water was too thick
for her cries to reach shore.
Perhaps she is still
there, in a cave, laden
with pearls, rich with light waiting
to hatch out,
her hands cupping thousands
of pale eyeballs.
There’s certainly something familiar about the way this poem unfolds, something comfortable, almost boring. “One day the girl dived…” “…was never heard of again.” But by the time we get to those final, unsettling lines, the poem is in some weird new flux, “…rich light waiting/to hatch out…” “…thousands/ of pale eyeballs.”
Hades, of course, is a name familiar to mythology. And Chen’s poem seems to be telling an origin story of sorts, yet in a way that de-familiarizes the reader, a skewing of some innate trust. This de- familiarization of subject matter, storytelling, personal confession, and references to classic literature is where the book ultimately gets much of its unique strangeness, that word-power that’s so often fleeting. Like this excerpt from “Groceries:” “My god is so small that I have swallowed him. And that was how Eve got her Adam’s apple.”
Or these lines from “Prometheus:”
My livers could fill whole oceans, several planets worth.
Meaningless livers. Endless livers.
I can’t say it. The word is ripped from me daily.
I have become a huge liver. A liver of it.
Many poems in this book have titles that directly reference the stories whose magic we have passed down through generations, childhood games, or traditions. “Fountain of Youth,” “Duck Duck Goose,” “Story I Heard While in Bed,” “Quest.” It’s a nice touch that gives the collection a unifying quality.
The final third of the collection is comprised of a sequence of poems entitled “Grendel is a Woman,” which begins with the lines “Grendel is really a woman. He and his mother are one entity.” It’s a marvel, a reconstruction of myth. “He cleaved his body, every stroke. This must be/what it is like to be born, he thought, skin raw with himself.” Chen’s forcefulness if feral here, purposeful, and the book concludes on a pretty magnificent high. There’s nothing else quite like this out there.
Or, as Chen writes in her poem “Epistle:” “Anything is permissible as long/as it is explosive.”