WHERE CONTEMPORARY POETRY INTERSECTS WITH CRITICISM
VOL 1, ISSUE 2, DECEMBER 2004
THE WELL-CRAFTED SURFACE: TINA CHANG’S HALF-LIT HOUSES
BY SARAH TALPOS
In her debut collection, Half-Lit Houses, Tina Chang proves to be a master of the well-crafted surface. Whether written in tercets, quatrains, sections, compact single stanzas, or long-lined multi-stanzas, these poems refract like gems with intense density and shard-like clarity. They are compressed from the materials of a fractured history, spanning continents and generations, with a diction that is at once concise and sensual. Ultimately, her poems speak for the pleasures of the body, even as they long to escape it; they seek familial and historical bonds while longing to sever them. This tension informs the poems with a poignant ferocity.
Half-Lit Houses is divided into four sections, each with an introduction of several notable lines that serve as an invitation to what lies ahead. For example, section I begins,
Every memory I have coveted and stolen.
Every minute I have recorded as if the night
would erase it from me. So I write on paper quickly
saying, This was my house. I once lived there.
The possibility of erasure strikes a chord of urgency, introducing one of Chang’s central themes, the transient nature of home.
The poems in this first section cluster around the speaker’s origins—birth, immediate family members, and early experiences. The opening poem, “Origin & Ash,” is characterized by a finely described severing of time. The severance is enacted by lines and stanzas of varying length surrounded by white space. It begins with the speaker’s birth, listing her baby gifts: “boxes of poppies, pocket knife, and elaborate necklace/made of ladybugs.” Each image evokes something different—transience, severing, small beauty. These items propel us from birth to adolescence, during which the speaker witnesses the burning of her farm: “I hear the cries of horses, long faced famished, the nigh the barn burned./God and ashes everywhere.” Along with the burning of the barn, the girl is introduced to a highly charged sexual incident:
I kissed the servant with the salty lips.
There was a spectacular explosion, a sound
that severed the nerves, I was kind to that shaking, the horses,
the smell of them, like wet leaves, broken skin.
The burning of the family home conflates with this other indelible and irrevocable event. Even as the speaker willingly partakes in this severing of nerves, she seeks a connection with her past. Initially described as “toothless” and without faith, her unburied dolls become embodiments of her past condition as well as her present. She is both “plastic, worn cheeks grinning” and a fantasy of red ants feeding on the dolls. The speaker becomes both the subject who unburies the past, and the object, the past she unburies.
The poems in section II are poems of history, their events occurring presumably before the birth of the “I” in section I. Several are located in Hunan, China, with famine or hunger as their subjects. In “Hearsay,” the contemporary speaker initially displays a desire to hear about her familial and cultural past by asking her mother to speak:
…And tell me the part
that I hope is not true:
How your brother reaches toward you
as he would for bread…
The speaker leads us to believe that the sibling incest occurs because of the brother’s extreme hunger. Toward the end of the poem, the speaker seems unable to withstand any more knowledge of the past. She separates herself from it, defiantly saying, “I have stopped listening.”
While the siblings in “Hearsay” are trapped within hungry bodies, the young speaker in the poem “Kneeling” managed to escape hers. The girl is asked to kneel in a dark basement on grains that press into her knees. Alone for hours,
…the body surrounded by darkness
becomes the darkness, and there a chasm grows,
deeper and wider, separating until she is cleaved
into twin girls: the one who breathed inside
that small space, and the one who grew
a separate language…
This separate language releases the girl from the pain of her body. When the door finally opens at the top of the stairs, she rises and “is flying.” But this image of liberation has an underbelly as well, for we begin to sense that released from the body, the girl cannot return, cannot land. The final image of the poem is one of panic, the girl “tear[ing] at her arms until she alights.”
Any discussion of Chang’s book would be incomplete without mention of the father, who, in his illness and death, takes on Christ-like qualities. In this way, he appears as both God creating the world, “hammering the length/of trees,” and as a man living within a diabetic body, “an atlas of wounds.” In “Inquiry of Sciences,” the speaker’s dead father has the power to awake her from sleep, yet she realizes she has not thought of him in months: “Songs inside me are new ones./ Please be new ones…” It is telling that the title of the book’s last poem, written as a letter to the father, is titled “Letter to a Stranger.” Here, the speaker is both intimate with the deceased father, having “drifted on the bouquet of [his] red tongue,” and yet desiring of separation.
One of Chang’s strengths as a writer is her ability to let mystery reside within each poem. Rather than divulging too much information, she uses recurring images—mangled animals, birds, wasps, rain—to stand in place of a more conventional narrative. Each poem becomes, in essence, a kind of half-lit house in which the speaker is given temporary shelter. These poems reconstruct the poet’s fractured past—a place of fragility and volatility, to be revisited with utmost care. Readers may occasionally find themselves wishing for just a bit more illumination, particularly in poems like “Vanity” in section III, yet Chang’s ability to both tell a story and suggest meaning through images is remarkable, making Half-Lit Houses a welcome debut.