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Pleiades Literary Journal

Half-Lit Houses. Tina Chang.
Four Way Books, 2004

by jerry williams

Physical, emotional, and spiritual hunger fuel the core of Tina Chang's first collection of poems, Half-Lit Houses—hunger for memory; hunger for ancestry; hunger for definition (both self and song); hunger for a living/breathing father; hunger for God or "anyone who will listen;" and, of course, hunger for food. With the urgent curiosity and imaginative receptiveness of a great detective detailing a crime scene, Chang reconstructs history and moment in a lyrical yet declarative poetry that leaves the reader feeling haunted, transformed, satisfied. Divided into four sections, each preceded by an italicized poem, Half-Lit Houses supplies a tuneful resolution to the speaker's entreaty in "Letter to a Stranger," the book's final poem: "What kind of music is coming from me? What kind?" From page to page, Tina Chang alternates between sighing and screaming, between remembrance and instance; and via measured tercets and quatrains, whiplash oxymoron, and caesura, she demonstrates an expert attentiveness to the fleeting beauty of the natural world, an attentiveness that gracefully amends Deep Image School directives. Indeed, the branch will break.

By way of example, "Fish Story" retrofits the ubiquitous cooking poem with a massive jolt of significance. In Chang's version, the speaker addresses the fish directly ("Always / that same cooked silver of you…"), then she eases back in time, from food preparation to picturing the fish "weav[ing] through coral" to the inevitable netting and gutting of the helpless fish to its being fried (reprise) and ultimately ingested, one last swim down the cook's gullet, a cook who happens to be the speaker's dying father. The father "does this / with hope" as if "the bowl of the sea / and all its blue water, amphibians, salty mammals // can be absorbed in one swallow." As a reader, I recognize the fact that this could be the father's last meal. I understand the speaker's anguish and her desperation to keep the father alive through memory. Therefore, every syllable of "Fish Story" pulsates with color, with flavor, with meaning. I am reminded of Alfred Hitchcock's "Bomb Theory" in which two people sit talking about a celebrity divorce or some other such inane topic. When the filmmaker allows the audience to discover a ticking bomb under the table, unbeknownst to the two characters on screen, a seemingly trivial conversation turns momentous, suspenseful. Tina Chang utilizes this technique to great effect through much of Half-Lit Houses.

For instance, in "Hunger," one of several poems that explore the author's pre-history, "the bomb" gets angry and transforms itself into the godless famine that plagued mainland China during the Second Sino-Japanese War. Let us hope the knife in this poem was at least as sharp as Chang's meticulous language, her hagiographical surveillance of unnamed heroines and heroes, and her rigid moral outrage.

Hunger

[Hunan, 1940]
There is a city called Hunan
where she opens her arm with a knife.
The blade sings of pavement,
of wall, of the place on her bicep
where it will carve out some young muscle.
When she cuts, she does not feel
the blade as vendors chop wide-eyed
fish heads from their epileptic bodies.
Her blood rushes out like a shower
of tiger lily. Then she covers her arm
with a palmful of coal. Years later,
the cradle of her arm is shrunken,
fading back. The gutter of her skin
tells of epidemics, hysteria.
When the knife was resting on a shelf,
she carried the diamond of flesh
to her grandfather and told him to eat it
so the sickness would release him.
He died that evening as she sat
holding the image of herself unraveling.
Minutes before his departure,
she made him swallow it whole
the part where the knife had severed
the nerves and taken away a bit of her.
Merely populating the minutes,
there was just a bit of sky left.
And the moon was just a pest,
a flicker.

Not to find oneself utterly inside this horrific human drama and calling for change equals a crime against decency, against feeling. By comparison, the sky is the speck in the universe, not the person, as so many stoned astronomers would have us believe. "Hunger" is not merely a poem, it is a lesson in suffering with a donation of blood. Catharsis comes to mind.

Before I forget, an acoustical peculiarity exists inside Grand Central Terminal on 42nd Street in New York City. If you proceed to the main entrance of the Oyster Bar, turn your back to the restaurant and look up, you'll see a tile dome riding on four piers. Walk over to one of those piers and stand with your face to the corner, and send a companion to the pier diagonally across the way. If you speak softly, your voices will sound in each others' ears as intimately as if you were sitting together in a cardboard box on the sidewalk, despite the surrounding cacophony of the train station. This whispering gallery would make a perfect venue for the public reading of Tina Chang's Half-Lit Houses—inside yet outside, murmuring yet oratorical, gargantuan yet invisible.