Rain Taxi Review of Books
Half-Lit Houses. Tina Chang.
Four Way Books, 2004
by Tim Keane
Where does one’s self end and one’s family begin? Nowhere and everywhere, suggests Tina Chang’s debut, Half-Lit Houses, which explores the self-as-family through revelation of a single family’s many selves. Chang’s poems rescue the inexpressible, preserve vibrant domestic histories, articulate the very slowness of loss, and answer the chilling aftermath of grief with forms of bliss.
A mysterious, domineering father and his slow death propels the poems in this collection. Various speakers observe the father and even represent him at various points in his life; the poems also revive the transformation of the women in the family—grandmothers, mothers, daughters—and their evocative legacies and hard-won grace and creative willfulness. Chang channels the thoughts of mothers in the ravaged landscapes of China’s Hunan province, around mid-century, as they surrender up their new-born daughters just before they end their own lives: “Missionaries have given us hymn books/I hold one close to my bloated lungs./ My little girl is good with the soil. She will be/ a farmer, a priest, a constellation.” Other women survive to bear children and sustain their lives through tenderness and ferocity, like the mother in “Blueprint” who “is crazy/ because she wants quite. Her voice could/ throw toasters or melon knives. The spatula/ makes us sit, the fork makes us tender/ in the heart.”
Chang’s poems infuse these familial figures with a generous complexity, and she uses the traditional structure of narrative to control her fluid syntax and her hypnotic diction. In “Invention,” she proposes a gospel of a new god who gets the work done in a single day instead of seven, “hammering the length/ of trees, trees like a ware of families.” Is this a vision of artistic omnipotence? Or a father’s delusion? Both, really. Much later, we will bear witness, alongside the family, as the once-virile father’s dead body is washed by his widow, recalling those early Renaissance images of a vulnerable Christ taken from the cross: “Even as He lay twisted and naked His spine/ spiraling to the mud there was a cluster/ of red-winged angels reaching toward Him.”
Reading Half-Lit Houses is to know the family as a force at work within our selves, filling the timeless space we inhabit everyday. We see it in “the affliction of trees,” in “folds in places/ the wind may have overlooked,” and in “Chinese characters contained in squares, the moon fixed/ into a picture.” And who is that, “King of Gypsies with a face of a ruined cave”? A figure, perhaps, of poetry itself. Disturbed and enchanted by the rude force of its loving relations, the poet is born into the half-lit houses of language, places where she feels ready to claim her power: “I am the god I don’t know & the fire that burns with no fuel.”