An Atlas of Unmappables: Jennifer S. Cheng’s Moon: Letters, Maps, Poems

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In her expansive and idiosyncratic project, Encyclopedia of an Ordinary Life (Crown/Archetype, 2005), the late Amy Krouse Rosenthal wrote, “Show me a story that describes a moon in a new way, in a way that matters, in a way that will make everything okay.” She meant this literally. Readers of her hybrid memoir were encouraged to send their innovative writing about the moon directly to Rosenthal through her website. People did. I did. But if Rosenthal were alive today, I’d send her a copy of Jennifer S. Cheng’s Moon: Letters, Maps, Poems, another expansive and idiosyncratic project by a writer who has shown me why the moon—and so much else—matters.

Reading Moon was a hypnotic experience for me, simultaneously immersive and elusive. I’d surface from the pages having lost track of time, sensing the world around me had shifted, subtly, but unable to pinpoint how. How, after all, do you describe the force field of a particular literary project, the gravitational pull of a fellow writer’s work? In the case of Jennifer S. Cheng’s Moon: Letters, Maps, Poems, I chose to engage these questions in the form of a letter, a map, and a poem.

 

{Letter}

Dear Amy,

I think about your book Encyclopedia of an Ordinary Life quite often. I appreciate how you situate yourself and your project in relation to a formative literary influence—Sei Shonagon’s The Pillow Book—itself a hybrid wonder from late tenth/early eleventh century Japan. We’re always writing under the influence of other writers, aren’t we? And they’re writing under the influence of others, too, so nothing ever exists purely on its own, untethered. I’m so grateful for the rope tow of writers all around.

Anyway, I’m writing today to tell you about a book (enclosed) that recently pulled me into its orbit—Jennifer S. Cheng’s Moon. Stylistically, she’s writing under the influence of writers like Virginia Woolf and Fannie Howe, whom she epigraphs at the outset of her project. Content-wise, she’s engaged in a fascinating dialogue with, as she describes in her dedication, “all the mythical women of my childhood: Chang ‘E, Nu Wa, the Snake Sisters, and Goddess Tin Hau.”

Chang ‘E is the Chinese goddess of the moon. I love how her name in English is also, visually, Change—that she embodies change the same way the moon embodies change—cyclical, recursive, never static. The same can be said of this collection.

I’ve taken the liberty of marking a few passages from Moon that seem to speak to your interest in having your interest in the moon renewed. I realize poets often reach for the moon as their go-to metaphor, but I promise Cheng’s depictions are unique: crisp, compelling, and deftly compressed. Beneath them we can feel the coiled springs of unsaid and unsayable things.

For instance:

“And here we have the moon, bending its shadow toward the earth, and then away again.”

For instance:

“Look: moon as the motion that is undoing in this moment.”

For instance:

“[…] a woman who is compared to the moon has no wish to be closer to such a solar circumference but instead falls farther and farther until sleep is no longer an absence but something to mottle your eyes and make them blink.”

And finally, this most vivid of moon-moments, in the imagined voice of Chang ‘E:

                                    When I say moon, I
almost never mean the moon. When I say
moon, I mean the light of the sky is about
to disappear behind the beached ocean
and I cannot hold it anymore, it is spilling
between my fingers. When I say to you it
is a strange moon day, you should know I
mean the unsettling of our underbellies,
strewn across such rigorous comings and
goings.

All my days are strange moon days lately, Amy, thinking about climates of all kinds and the various, overlapping ways they are imperiled—certainly the ways that they are changing. I want to say, I wish you were here, but that feels like inviting someone to a heartbreak festival, a sadness soiree. Only art gives me hope—the people who make it and the people who believe in its value. For what it’s worth, I don’t think anyone actually means the moon, or just the moon, when they say it. We mean monocle and spotlight and mirror. We mean that which is sometimes dark and sometimes light but always moving around us. We mean conscience maybe, compass maybe. As Cheng writes near the end of her book, “We are speaking of one thing, and we are speaking of many.” And so we are.

Plums to you,
Julie

P.S. One more moon to moon over:

Let us say the moon is a house I have not yet
learned. Moon as if it were lover. Let us say
she, let us say hers. Let us say how the body’s
desire is a longing for home.

 

 {Map}

Unlike the map provided at the entry point to a large venue, Jennifer S. Cheng’s collection does not begin with the literary equivalent of a red dot and a reassuring “You are here.” It begins with the literary equivalent of an open circle and a ruminative “Where are you?”

The writer is “you.” The reader is “you.” We are all traveling together as a collective. In light of the book’s cosmic motifs, it might be more fitting to say, We are traveling together as a syzygy.

The “Prelude” to Cheng’s project presents a lyric thesis in fragments. I lift them from the page, inspect them like runes, or moonstones…

Sometimes in order to build something, you must unbuild it first.

            In other words: Sometimes in order to understand where you are now, you must
            unmap what brought you hear.

To find the center, I turned toward the edges fraying in the dark. Perhaps I was looking for its broken parts. Perhaps I wanted to un-know a myth.

            In other words: What doesn’t make it onto the traditional/official map
            (of a people, a family, an individual life) may be just as salient, or even more
            so, than what does. Master narratives eclipse so much.

“A myth is a narrative we are given as children. It comes to us whole and all surface.”
            In other words: Myths are the stories we tell each other about how we got
            here. They are made from selections, omissions. What if we pursued the stories of
            how we didn’t, of where and what we weren’t? These stories might reveal
everything,
            via-negativa style. They might expose, in Cheng’s words: “[t]he in-between that
no one
            tells.”

So the map is not a map exactly. It’s a blueprint of Cheng’s un-buildings. She has arranged her book into seven sections, with the text of the “Prelude” and the “Interlude” printed primarily in italics—a style of writing that resembles waves and simulates their motion. Cheng also uses braces instead of brackets or parentheses to demarcate where her sections begin and end. The braces appear as vertical waves, markers perhaps of Cheng’s ambivalence toward the act of marking itself—her book’s implicit resistance to sharp borders, firm boundaries.

Fig. 1: Cheng’s markings, unmarked

Table of Contents

{Prelude}: Sequesterings
{I}: Iterations
{II}: Artifacts
{III}: Biography of Women in the Sea
{Interlude}: Weather Reports
{IV}: Love Letters
{V}: From the Voice of the Lady in the Moon

Fig. 2: Cheng’s markings, with my annotations

Table of Contents

{Prelude}: Sequesterings
*Cheng begins with the story of the Lady in the Moon, who she seems to regard as a kind of mythic proxy for herself. For some girls growing up, this proxy figure may be Cinderella or Snow White, depending on the prevailing myths of their homes/family/culture. Cheng writes, “In the story of the Lady in the Moon, there is only one ending: to live out her nights as a captive, over and over, as if some necessary penance, as if a sorrow to see a woman paper-thin against the lesser-light.” Something here about being raised to be the “lesser light” to a male sun and/or son? The girl who learns about the Lady in the Moon implicitly resists growing up to be just like her—captive, repentant, sorrowful. I’m anticipating a feminist rebuttal to the story of the Lady in the Moon, but maybe not a rebuttal outright—because formative stories live in us too deeply to simply be excised. Something revisionist, though, that takes this myth apart to understand its inner workings.

{I}: Iterations
*Here Cheng follows up on what I am craving after the “Prelude.” In thirty-three numbered sections—perhaps her age at the time of writing?—she distmantles/reconfigures the story of the Lady in the Moon. She makes it conditional, speculative, beginning with “Perhaps its begins with the day before she left […],” unmooring the certainties of traditional tellings. She uses “Or:” to present alternative possibilities, even within sections. Throughout, it’s clear the Lady in the Moon is a proxy for herself and for her female readers, too. At the end of this section, the thirty-third entry, I’m riveted by the multiplicities: “A woman is a lady is a goddess is a virgin is a child. Or she is a shadow, a temptress, a hindrance, a fool.” What woman hasn’t felt implicated by all these names? Cheng introduces the power of the word “instead” as her final pivot-point: “Instead: An unsettling distance, unmoored. She flew to the light of the moon.” I’m flying now, too! I’m following Cheng, who is superimposed over the Lady in the Moon—active, aloft, defiant!

{II}: Artifacts
*Within the section, more sections, sub-sections, which is fitting for a book of so many multiplicities—these section headers are in bold: “What She Left Behind” (Cheng is leaving her American home for a spell—literally—perhaps in her thirty-third year); “Place She Will Roam” (“little island in the South China Seas”—She means Hong Kong, yes? She is returning to Hong Kong, where she lived at some point/for some time in her childhood); “Things She Will Make” (She is testing the limits of another myth—”you can’t go home again”—this she does, though she and home are altered now, strangers to each other); “What She Left Behind” (which includes a home in the States, a life in-progress with someone); “Maps” (mostly white space here, which reveals her thinking about what is actually mappable, e.g. not much; the section, in its entirety, reads— “a confluence of planes. between the hours. there and there and here and there—”); notice lowercasing at the beginnings of sentences here, which begins as soon as she writes about feeling small); “Her Dreams at Night” (invokes the word “pilgrimage,” which I interpret as the kind of journey that resists a map—perhaps a pilgrimage is a body-map, a map made only in the act of movement?) “Her Voice” (“because a story, a narrative: a place where we get to forget/ something, as much as remember”—there’s that via negativa again!); two more sections titled “Her Voice” follow (anaphora signals something important—her voice x3—she is finding it!)

{III}: Biography of Women in the Sea
*Cheng returns to her one-time home in Hong Kong, and suddenly the mythic women from her childhood return—how could they not?—to re-present their stories. These are the women foreshadowed in the book’s dedication: Nu Wa, mother goddess of Chinese mythology, the Snake Sisters, Goddess Tin Hau, and of course Chang ‘E, who is most closely identified with Cheng, our guide. Each story intersects with the others, and with the living story of Cheng in Hong Kong—away from her partner, away from her young womanhood in America. More moonstones to collect: “To think of the world as a series of doors, to consider not walking through.” (Nu Wa—a “via negativa” moment!); “It is the contradiction of losing homeland in search of homeland” (Chang ‘Eanother “via negativa” moment!). Mythic proxies all.

{Interlude}: Weather Reports
*Brief, italicized, dense, intense—a document from the interstice. Two outcomes are forecasted here, like weather: “We go away, and we return. Or we go away.” Which outcome will Cheng choose? She is her own multiplicity now. She is the “we.”

{IV}: Love Letters
*Bolded sections within sections again. This book has unexpected symmetries and a masterful design. I would describe it as a perfect, impossible place, an atlas of unmappables. Here are the subtitles: “Arrivals,” “Myth-Making (I),” “List of Everything I Will Need,” “Month 1-2,” “In Which the City-Island Is,” “Sleep Notes,” “What Is Between Us (I),” “Tiny Love Letters,” “A Record of My Wrongdoing,” “October,” “Cartography,” “Myth-Making (II),” “Asterisks,” “What Is Between Us (II),” “Body & Landscape,” “What Grows,” “Creation Myth,” “How to Love the Lover’s Body,” “What Is Between Us (III),” “Presents I Do Not Send You,” “Betrayals,” “What the Body Knows,” “Myth-making (III)”A summary of this section might read: A young woman leaves her husband in the States to spend a year in Hong Kong in search of her history/heritage/origin story; her husband visits once; their marriage is tested by distance; she misses him, but also—she needs to be alone—and not just anywhere-alone—alone precisely there, an ocean away—so far she might as well be on the moon. Of course summaries are insufficient because they only capture milestones, not moments. Moments are the essential runes, the moonstones…For instance: “The researcher asked each of her subjects to draw a map of their neighborhood, so that she could see the land through their eyes. We are always measuring ourselves against the rocks that carry us.” “Love Letters” is my favorite section of the book, the strongest confluence of narrative detail and metaphorical significance.

{V}: From the Voice of the Lady in the Moon
*All persona poems titled “Chang ‘E” in this section. They echo the fact that Cheng has been changed by her time home-away, as I will call it. Perhaps she has merged more fully with her mythic proxy now. She can speak as/through the Lady in the Moon with new confidence. Now she speaks of building after the un-building of the journey that took her to Hong Kong: “So there is nothing to/be done except to build my house over/ there, where the water is deep and the rocks/obscured in seaweed.” She cannot draw a simple map or tell a transparent story. Both would lack truth; both would lack depth. “And what of the house made of ruins?” she later ponders. I would say—well, it’s a hybrid house, isn’t it, made of the old and the new? Which is why this book is, must be, a hybrid form. Cheng’s project even ends with the image of a map, which cannot be made simple so must be made new—”I want to mark a new map for a body/ opening, body holding unto its own windblown anchor.”

Fig. 3:

There is no key to Cheng’s map. Or: Cheng’s map is made entirely of keys. Or: Cheng’s keys are legends after all. Or—the open circle filled at last—All of the above.

 

{Poem}

Influence
For JSC

Once
a teacher
explained
how the
sweetest
response
to a poem
is an echo.

Say something back. Be heard.

Her voice
passed
through
me, struck
walls,
returned.

Perhaps I was the poem?


Julie Marie Wade is the author of nine collections of poetry and prose, including Same-Sexy Marriage (A Midsummer Night's Press, 2018), SIX (Red Hen Press, 2016), Catechism: A Love Story (Noctuary Press, 2016), When I Was Straight (A Midsummer Night's Press, 2014), Postage Due (White Pine Press, 2013), Small Fires (Sarabande Books, 2011), and Wishbone: A Memoir in Fractures (Bywater Books, 2014; Colgate University Press, 2010). A recipient of the Lambda Literary Award for Lesbian Memoir and grants from the Kentucky Arts Council and the Barbara Deming Memorial Fund, Wade teaches in the creative writing program at Florida International University and reviews regularly for Lambda Literary Review and The Rumpus. In 2019, Noctuary Press will publish her first co-authored collection with Denise Duhamel, The Unrhymables: Collaborations in Prose. More from this author →