A Thin-Bladed Grace: Kristin Chang’s Past Lives, Future Bodies
I have always admired a butcher’s artistry, although “artistry” is likely not a word commonly associated with their particular craft. But there is something beautiful in the way that one can take a tool as indelicate as a blade and use it to peel back flesh and sinew, to hew away gristle and fat, and to extract from a body’s roil of musculature each individual cut of meat. It is with this butcher’s artistry, this thin-bladed grace, that Kristin Chang crafts each line of her debut chapbook Past Lives, Future Bodies.
Her poems literalize the literary adage of “cutting the fat”—each poem is rich with imagery yet possessed with an irreducible quality. From the first lines of the opening poem, “Symmetry,” to the book’s conclusion, Chang delivers a litany of precise, explosive line breaks. Each descending line reforms and refines the meaning of those before it.
once, we renamed
______our fathers by burning them
out of our bodies, smoking the sky
______into meat. I have my father’s name:
張, meaning archer.
______I consider coming clean
through you like an arrow.
Page after page, Chang’s line breaks become a blade, a letter’s crease, a hinge opening the next line like a room. Her chapbook is a master class in the potential of enjambment, imbuing each break with the wonder of and trepidation of the unknown.
Perhaps the best examples of this brilliant line-craft can be found in “Closet Space,” a staggered contrapuntal which explores the struggle of deciding if, and when, to come out while living at the intersection of Taiwanese and American identity. Chang weaves the two columns’ narratives in and out of one another:
to grow out of
my mother’s touch
I flirt with girls. I say
I know my way around
the privilege of a history
to hand back unworn
like a dress from
childhood. Every time
These passages entwine to become:
On a craft level, this poem serves as a microcosm of the work Chang does throughout Past Live, Future Bodies, each poem blurring the lines between personal and familial narratives, often leaping between perspectives and locations—both physical and temporal—in a single line’s breadth. This queered approach to history and memory pushes the bounds of both, insisting on a telling which resists erasure both by internal and external forces. A history “unstitching this country / along its rivers, this body / shrugging free of its seams.”
Many poets approach the chapbook form as a laboratory for poetic experimentation, while others allow it to act as the confines for poems chasing a singular obsession. Past Lives, Future Bodies is firmly in the second camp. Chang’s entire collection is a meditation on hunger: hunger as an extension of food and its preparation as cultural ceremony; hunger for a history unmarked by imperialism; hunger by way of queer desire; hunger for a familial connection that is not interrupted by trauma; and hunger for a family, and a nation, that loves unconditionally. These hungers thread through each poem, binding them together, letting each tackle (in fragments) the collective themes of the book.
It is no mistake that I began by comparing Chang’s craft to butchery, as she herself uses the language of this art to reckon with hunger throughout the chapbook. In “on loving a white woman,” she interrogates her own self-reduction for the sake of being desire, “she compares / your breasts / to dumplings / so you learn / to butcher / yourself / bite-sized.” In another piece, “In Pine Bluffs, Arkansas,” she recalls how her mother’s abuse at the hands of Southern racists prepared her for a world in which—as a queer Asian woman—she is both “the piglet & the butcher’s / hook it was born for.”
The woven narratives of this chapbook are blood-caked and slaughter heavy, their language handed-down as “Poem for my mother’s cleaver” would imply. The speaker learns to understand love through a lens of violence, of misogyny, of racism. She is taught that “men are like knives” and “a bed is an endless cutting / board.” But each poem grapples with how to cut something brighter and more beautiful from the suffering they contain.
Each luminous metaphor lays claim over sadness or violence, remaking it. It is through this power to reshape that Chang’s poems understand, reclaim, and recontextualize the stories they tell. Her agong (or grandfather)’s bladder releasing upon his death becomes “piss // scattering like pennies / on the bed” upon which she commands the reader to “Make a wish.” An egg thrown against her mother’s face “fries, yolking // her skin to sunlight.” In the closing to “天天” each sentence undergoes a series of stunning transformations as the speaker addresses an imagined bride:
Wound me & I’ll make it my last
name. I’ll marry into
my body, grow it
a girlhood to go with
my best gown, your best
gallows. When the sea tosses
my mother’s boat
like a bouquet, I catch her.
I wed a country & bear it
Past Lives, Future Bodies is a collection of poems that simmers and soars. Its tightly crafted stanzas propel each piece at a frantic pace that makes it almost impossible not to read in a single sitting, yet the thematic depth of Chang’s work demands that readers return to these poems again and again. On successive readings, I was stunned by the book’s exploration of queerness, gender nonconformity, and Confucian daughterhood—with poems like “History of Sexuality”—and the poems’ clever indictment of racist micro- and macroaggressions, with lines like “the doctor says / all medicine is white / lies & lying,” or “apples are native / to asia… meaning paradise / was eve’s / colony / of fruit.” This chapbook is a painstakingly wrought and wildly brilliant debut, and is sure to leave any reader (myself included) waiting impatiently for another book from Kristin Chang.