Cyril Wong reviews Turn by Wendy Chin-Tanner
By Wendy Chin-Tanner
Sibling Rivalry Press, 2014
Reviewed by CYRIL WONG
Wendy Chin-Tanner’s poems in her debut full-length collection, Turn, returns with part-nostalgia and part-anguish to her Chinese-American childhood in New York City, while contrasting these memories with her current life. The ambivalences of the past and the future react against each other through the prism of parenthood in a dialectical way, producing a poetic synthesis of emotions and revelations for what it means to exist as a wife and mother in the present day. Pathetic fallacy is self-consciously utilised in projecting inward conflicts and almost unbearable emotions upon the natural world; the external becomes a mirror for the internal, providing a much-needed sense of catharsis as the mirror reveals how the personal can also be absorbed into the timelessly universal.
The book begins with a moving tribute-poem (“Tempest”) to the poet’s grandmother who “soothes … with the smell of her, / of Tiger Balm and something acid, / and female underneath”, a mother-figure tenderer than her immediate mother, at least in the poet’s articulation of memory. The past is perceived in terms of physical tactility that is never far from literal pain and with a corollary ability to selflessly withstand it, but also rich with the intimacies of unspoken female love. Such implicitly gendered demarcations are made clearer when the following poem (“In the Dutch House”) paints the grandfather as a man of darker contradictions, emotionally dependent on the forbearance of his wife but also abusive to both her and their children, forcing the poet to ask starkly: “What kind of man was this?”
Historical to mythological figures from Hua Mulan to Persephone become the subjects of subsequent poems, which attempt to undermine easy stereotyping inherent in earlier gendered demarcations. For example, Persephone’s mother becomes culpable for not hindering her daughter’s fate at the hands of Death because his “stench” rejuvenated the earth. The poet, in a personally revealing and psychologically revelatory piece, points out that in her own life, she has been afraid to let her own mother witness her labour, alluding to the lineage of “bitterness” (both emotional and viscerally physical), symbolised by “foam bricks” of cotton pads wet with blood, that inexorably connects mother to daughter (“Mother”). The female experiences of vaginal blood-letting to childbirth, the complex psychological and physical consequences that accompany such landmark events, are portrayed as sources of pained ambivalences: such experiences are simultaneously shameful, even traumatic, but paradoxically, they also provide reasons for celebration. Couched in lyrical descriptions of meaningful physicalities and a growing awareness of future loss, the poet paints a more straightforward and affectionate moment as regards her father: “my fingers tried to read / the patterns in the tracks running up his arms … his temples showing only a dusting of white; // snow freshly fallen onto soil” (“Father”).
A celebratory note rings out between the sexes later in a moment of copulation, when the poet describes the sex act in almost cartoony ways: “Our hips bucked, and the confetti from your / cock burst … a tickertape parade / celebrating inside … our victory, rising so high above / you and me and everything we knew” (“Veteran”). A childlike wonder and innocence comes through in spite (or because) of obvious consummation, in which the poet abandons a previously “female” condition of pain layered with joy for a more transcendental form of “high” beyond dichotomies of gender. But it is through childbirth that the poet finds a clearer, celebratory link between past and present, as mediated through passionately gritty language: “pubic bone yawning wide / open like a rusted gate that could not close” (“Saying Yes”). The poet finally understands what it means to be a mother, like her mother and grandmother before her: “you do not forget the pain … and you imagine that you could sail / up like balloons over what had ruined you, / the wrong beginnings, the wrong turns” (“Saying Yes”). Whatever mistake she has made, or which has been done to her, in the context of her childhood and later adulthood, have in a sense prepared her for her role as a parent in the present moment.
But the poet is also determined to locate the eternal that exists beyond, but which also incorporates, the intensely personal and the complicated knot of intimate relationships. In one poem, she writes that “we are no longer as / we were that winter … the river beneath its sea / of silent glass seethes … The steady live rush carries on” (“On the Thamespath”). Then in a later poem about recognising signs to remember a dead relative, she recalls being told “how matter could be neither created nor destroyed, and, since the universe was breathing … like sand dissolving … it was possible for particles to behave as waves, / waves as particles, joined in space and time” (“Signs and Symbols”). The universe mirrors the changes and the complexities of our emotional to physical risings and fallings exactly, but more than that, there is a timelessness beyond our narrow conceptions of time, an eternity of ever-lasting change, a “live rush” that carries on in spite of our thoughts or actions; with nothing truly lost since we remain inextricably and literally “joined in space and time”. As the poet writes in the end, in spite of past regrets and previous betrayals, all we are left with, then, after acknowledging our places within the infinite, is our capacity to love: “The wheel / turns and we love again / not in spite of death but because” (The Wheel”).
CYRIL WONG has been called a confessional poet, according to The Oxford Companion to Modern Poetry, based on “the brutally candid sexuality in his poetry, along with a barely submerged anxiety over the fragility of human connection and a relentless self-querying”. He is the Singapore Literature Prize-winning author of poetry collections such as Unmarked Treasure, Tilting Our Plates to Catch the Light and After You. He has also published Let Me Tell You Something About That Night, a collection of strange tales, and a novel, The Last Lesson of Mrs de Souza. Cyril has served as a mentor under the Creative Arts Programme and the Mentor Access Project, as well as a judge for the Golden Point Awards in Singapore. A past recipient of the National Arts Council’s Young Artist Award for Literature, he completed his doctoral degree in English Literature at the National University of Singapore in 2012. His poems have been anthologised in Language for a New Century: Contemporary Poetry from the Middle East, Asia and Beyond (W. W. Norton 2008) and Chinese Erotic Poems (Everyman’s Library 2007), amongst various journals and publications across the world.