Why We Chose Jennifer Huang’s Return Flight for The Rumpus Poetry Book Club
A couple of weeks ago, I had to tell the story of the blind men and the elephant to my technical communication students. I found it useful to describe one of the challenges that often comes up when writing collaboratively: that individuals might not get a sense of the entirety of a project because they only experience one aspect of it.
In a similar way, I felt this happen as I read the poems in Jennifer Huang’s debut collection, Return Flight. This analogy is a bit clumsy, so please bear with me. In this telling, I am the blind men—all of them—and the poems are the individual aspects of the collection, perhaps even of Huang themself. Every poem gives me a limited view of Huang and their life. I have the advantage, unlike the blind men in the story, of being able to eventually piece these experiences together and maybe get a sense of the whole, but it’s a complicated and challenging act.
Before I tell you more, a quick reminder that in order to receive your early copy of Return Flight, read along with the Poetry Book Club, and participate in our exclusive chat with Jennifer Huang, you’ll need to subscribe by December 15!
The poems in Return Flight are all deeply intimate. In “Customs,” Huang describes breaking a bannister and their father’s reaction: “My father saw and warned he’d break my arm, leaving / me to wonder if my arm was mine or his.” Then, later in the same poem: “And no, I can’t praise my father / for never hitting me—his threats a metronome keeping my life / in rhythm.” Between these lines is a moment where Huang’s brother hits them in the back out of nowhere, a sign that one can learn violence is okay without necessarily experiencing it firsthand. Near the poem’s end, Huang drops a hot pan and “flinched / as I waited for the voice,” an example of how those instincts linger even when the threat isn’t present anymore.
There’s a different kind of intimacy in “How to Love a Rock.” The poem’s first word is “Notice,” which should be the first instruction given to anyone about anything, I think, because so often our mistakes or errors or harms can be traced back to a failure to do just that—a failure to notice. The instruction verbs in this poem are, in order of appearance: notice, tell, ask, ask, caress, share, and, finally, give. These verbs let the reader know that even though they will be taking actions here, they’re not in charge of the outcome. Even caress follows ask—as in you don’t do it until you have permission. “Ask to feel her smooth. Caress / till your thumb can find a home in her brook.” And the final imperative, give, circles back to the tell from early in the poem in, “Give her space to / say not words; then, when she’s ready, many.” And because the beloved here is a rock, the feeling that this is an action that will take time, eons perhaps, adds to the sense that none of this should be rushed.
I’ve barely scratched the surface of this stunning debut collection. Subscribe to the Rumpus Poetry Book Club by December 15 to receive your early copy of Return Flight and to take part in our exclusive online chat with Jennifer Huang in early December. I hope you’ll join us!