[Review] “Reading History Slowly: Wendy Chen’s Unearthings” by Michael Tsang

{Written by Michael Tsang, this review is part of Issue 42 (January 2019) of Cha.} {Return to Cha Review of Books and Films.}

Wendy Chen, Unearthings, Tavern Books, 2018. 104 pgs.


In her debut poetry collection Unearthings, Wendy Chen muses on important issues of history, gender and race through her sincere, often minimalist, poetry. However, although many of her poetic lines are short and sometimes a bit too blunt, it would be facile to dismiss them as lacking in refinement, for sometimes a single word makes a more powerful line. The conciseness of poetic lines has the effect of forcing the reader to slow down and let every word (or line) hang on itself. The reader must resist the temptation to skim through a poem too quickly, because to do so would be to miss the emotions and themes being explored.

One clear theme in Unearthings is the exploration of an Asian female cultural history that involves figures such as Li Qingzhao and Madame Butterfly, by whom an incredible number of Chen’s poems are inspired. Conversing with Li Qingzhao (penname Yi’an) in “Memorial,” one of the opening poems of the collection, the speaker says: “Yi’an,/it has been almost a thousand years/since you last walked on top of the city wall./Still, I follow you, doggedly,/like a child in a story.” This suggests something larger than just a passing interest in Yi’an’s work; instead it points to a deeper rapport between the artists: the speaker crosses the linguistic boundary by translating Li’s poem in the daytime, but at night “in dreams [Li] comes untranslated,” suggesting a more subconscious solidarity. But the poetic voice in this volume also departs from this solidarity. Unlike Yi’an which means “the dweller/who is easily at peace,” the speaker is a dweller who tries hard to find peace through her own poetry, a thematic concern that echoes throughout the collection.

Several other poems, such as “Imago,” draw on Madame Butterfly as a source of inspiration: “Madame Butterfly is/grateful.//She was made/to please.//Her natural lifespan is spent/passing/among the cherry trees,/kneeling down in snow.” Here, varying lengths break up the rhythm, forcing the reader to slow down and imagine their own version of Cho-cho.

There is an active desire to reclaim or reappropriate both figures, either for the speaker’s own sake or to spare them from the gaze of others. Adopting the voices of Butterfly and Li in “A Dialogue on Fences,” the speaker-Butterfly says: “They write and rewrite my body/for a theatre whose doors are barred against me. […] It is not my life they want. It is that final death scene,” while Li says “the composers keep stumbling over our bodies.” In the collection’s closing poem, “Li Qingzhao on Elegies,” the literary heritage of Li’s poems “stands like a colossal statue/in a galley of statues.//The crust of each face,/mashed with its distant, archaic smile –/now falls away.” That “distant, archaic smile” is both serene and eerie, calm and haunting.

In the meantime, Chen shows that she can verse in longer breaths, as in the refreshing poem “Psalms” which creatively adopts the length of Biblical verses and intertwines personal history with Chinese literary references. This points to another major “unearthing” that runs through the collection—the attempt to recapture family moments, big or small, and retrace a family history that is embedded in a broader, more turbulent Asian history (such as the Pacific War and the Great Leap Forward in “They Sailed Across the Mirrored Sea”). This Chen calls an act of “unearth[ing] the dead, our secrets” and also compares it to catching ghosts (“Psalms”).

A representative poem is “Ordinary Clamor,” one of the centrepieces of the volume. The poem broadly sketches the gender imbalances found in Chinese culture, for example, by portraying a grandfather who dislikes daughters, siblings scared into silence and a mother who has to leave her family but asks her children to “stay, for love.” By recollecting her encounters with mother figures, the poem’s speaker counteracts patriarchy by conjuring a matrilineal chronicle. The poem can also be read as a traumatic account of growing up in a dysfunctional family, with the speaker “remember[ing] only/what should be forgotten.” This trauma is articulated with allusions to the Chinese language:

There were days
when the plates
remained whole.
Their wholeness held
light like water.

This short vignette hinges upon two Chinese proverbs, po jing nan yuan (literally, a broken mirror cannot be whole again) and fu shui nan shou (spilled water cannot retrieved), which both express the sad irreparability of family relationships.

The story of a broken family is also echoed by the vignette form of the poem—which starts another episode on a new page—as if the speaker remembers a new bit of the past on a different day. Yet, towards the end of the poem the speaker also attempts to move on when she tells her sister about the need to “cut these old strings.” Perhaps weaving them together in poetry is a way of moving on.

Compared to her vocal exploration of gender, Chen’s meditation on racial politics in the US as a female Asian American writer is less “in our face” and is confined to a few poems, such as “No use to say” (“No. I am not/American./For you, I am/from no country but the East.”) and the playful, sarcastic sonnet “In Praise of Humiliations” (“they discuss at their conferences the dynamics of inequality/devote an hour a timeslot or two […] how could it be me be you/no name no face to put a name to”). I longed to see more of this sassy exploration of race, both as a personal expansion of the motifs, and as a contribution to discussions of Asian American identity.

Already in this debut volume Chen shows that she has what it takes to work in the intersections of personal matters and more macroscopic issues. I look forward to her future work, which will hopefully explore a more extensive range of themes.


Michael Tsang.jpgMichael Tsang is a native of Hong Kong, and holds a PhD from the University of Warwick, researching on Hong Kong English writing. His broader research interests are on postcolonial and world literature with an Asian focus. He writes stories and poems in his spare time, and is always interested in languages, literatures and cultures. Michael is a Staff Reviewer for Cha and a co-editor of Hong Kong Studies. Visit his Warwick profile for more information. [Cha Profile]


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