Going Higher: Unearthings by Wendy Chen

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In a fascinating interview with Adam Zagajewski that recently appeared in the Los Angeles Review of Books, Louise Steinman quotes this passage from Zagajewski’s new book A Slight Exaggeration (FSG, 2017):

Poets possessed by great emotion, subservient to the energies of talent, no longer perceive reality. Why did Brecht serve Stalin? Why did Neruda adore him? Why did Gottfried Benn place his faith in Hitler for several months? Why did the French poets believe in the structuralists? Why do young American poets pay so much attention to their immediate family and neglect a deeper reality?

The implication of this quotation is, I think, that young American poets are sometimes blinded by their obsessions with their relations, that the “great emotion” they feel toward family causes them to “no longer perceive reality.” Pointing to this passage, Steinman asks Zagajewski whether it’s “possible to pay close attention to your immediate family without neglecting a deeper reality.”

Here’s Zagajewski’s answer:

Well, yes, of course it is possible to combine interest in your family history with a more general quest for truth. My negative reaction comes from my first years of teaching creative writing in the United States—there were so many “family poems,” which, taken as a symptom rather than as a personal artistic choice, had something almost mechanical and therefore depressing. But if you take it a bit higher, make it more sophisticated, you leave the realm of the mass addiction and have the freedom of choice in terms of both subject matter and form.

In the interest of full disclosure, I should note that I studied with Zagajewski at the University of Houston, and, alas, submitted many “family poems” to his workshop. I should note, too, that he is a terrific, generous teacher. It would be a mistake to characterize Zagajewski’s critique as a condemnation against writing about family, a subject that Zagajewski himself writes about very well, by the way. Rather, I read it as a challenge. Family poems, lest they suffer from myopia, have to “take it a bit higher” and try to be “more sophisticated.” In other words, if the family poem focuses solely on the family and goes nowhere else, then the poem may indeed “neglect a deeper reality.” In this case, the trick is to not keep it in the family.

A good example of poetry about family that goes “higher,” is Wendy Chen’s debut collection Unearthings, just released by Tavern Books. Unearthings opens with “All Their Awful Particles,” an incantatory poem that resurrects the speaker’s dead family members. “I am calling up the dead,” Chen writes, “the dead of my family. / I pull them out of the earth by their hair, by the fistful. / I scrutinize their bodies, green as acid, for traces of mine.” Examining her dead, the speaker sees “suicide, suicide: / the family sickness.” Haunting and arresting, this poem announces Chen’s project, her plan to “scrutinize” her family. This scrutiny, though, isn’t limited to just her family—this is not a book of inconsequential gossip and confession. Instead, the book asks questions about history and the artist’s responsibilities, including the artist’s obligations to both the dead and the silent.

“They Sail Across the Mirrored Sea,” a three-part poem for which Chen won the Academy of American Poets’s Aliki Perroti and Seth Frank Most Promising Young Poet Award in 2014, serves as one of the manuscript’s central poems, and as a fine example of how Chen’s poetry considers both the personal and the historical. The poem opens in a spring at the outskirts of the speaker’s grandmother’s village in China. The Grandmother, Chen writes, “always spoke fondly of the shrimp,” which “frothed / in the pool” and “moved like a great fleet of dragon boats / from one end of the spring to another.” Chen uses these shrimp to construct a subtle and disconcerting metaphor, where the shrimp, many headed for the net and then the wok, stand in for the villagers themselves, all of whom will be victims of history, another sort of net. For the shrimp, “the spring was a lake— / an ocean—a continent of water. It was all / they needed to survive.”

The next two sections of the poem consider first China under Mao Zedong in 1967, shortly after the Cultural Revolution, and then, in the third section, the invasion of the speaker’s grandmother’s village by the Imperial Japanese Army in 1944. Both of the later sections, of course, deal with harrowing circumstances—the seizure of family property in 1967, and the loss of the village in 1944, not mention the horrific stories of the war crimes committed by the Japanese army during that time. “And what did they think of her small net?” Chen asks, thinking of the shrimp. She wonders if they thought it “[a] fibrous constellation pulled out of the sky, / descending, penetrating the defenseless water with ease, / carrying them toward the edge.” In many of these poems, history is overwhelming, cold, and murderous—a net that sweeps in at the “defenseless.”

So the central question for Chen becomes not only how to approach such histories, but whether or not to tell them. In “Fastened II,” the speaker says to an unnamed person, “You wanted to forget. / You told me to remember.” Later, in “Ordinary Clamor,” a poem about the speaker’s volatile father, we find these lines: “Mother says I remember only / what should be forgotten.” The speaker, though, disagrees with her mother. “But I remember,” she says, “the sweetness too— / the way he’d clean my bike.” In “Li Qingzhao on Elegies,” Chen writes in the voice of the great Song Dynasty poet Li Qingzhao, who serves as something of a guide throughout the manuscript and in this poem proclaims, “I do not want to be remembered,” going on to say that “Memory… is a pathogen, / accumulating like microbes on an empty chair, between the ridges / on the sheets beside you.” Obviously, there’s an ambivalence toward memory here, one that allows Chen to look at misfortune as clearly as she looks at happiness.

In “Rites,” we see the speaker’s grandmother again, this time as an old woman who, as the speaker cuts her hair, wonders if the speaker “will mourn her.” “She doesn’t believe in the afterlife,” Chen writes of the grandmother, “only the proper rites.” Later in the poem, the speaker dries her grandmother after a shower, and, in a moment reminiscent of “In the Waiting Room,” the speaker looks at her grandmother’s body:

The long veins
in each breast
are blue,
a surfacing blue
so clear it will take more
than a hundred years to forget.

Ultimately, it seems Chen has no choice but to write about this history, as her speakers couldn’t forget it if they tried. It’s this mandate, this haunting, that gives these poems a sense of urgency and, I think, makes them consequential. They’re certainly not the “mechanical and therefore depressing” family poems that bothered Zagajewski when he first began teaching in America.

Chen’s sense of history is reason enough to appreciate her poetry, but equally thrilling is her language. Her skill as an image-maker and her sense of space (it’s interesting that she’s also a visual artist) allow her to write the sort of lines that remind me of good guitar licks because they offer both their own independent pleasures and, at the same time, complement the greater work. Her saying the shrimp “frothed / in the pool” is a good example, as is this description of the Connecticut River: “In winter, we’d walk / by its strip of Listerine / blue ice.” In Unearthings, Chen demonstrates both formal variety and control, which, along with the manuscript’s thematic cohesion, make Unearthings a unique and promising first book.

James Davis May is the author of Unquiet Things, which was published by Louisiana State University Press. His poems have appeared in Five Points, The New Republic, New England Review, The Southern Review, and elsewhere. The winner of the Poetry Society of America’s 2016 Cecil Hemley Memorial Award, he lives in Georgia and teaches creative writing at Young Harris College. More from this author →