Review of Wendy Chin-Tanner's Anyone Will Tell You (USA: Sibling Rivalry Press, 2019)
by Cyril Wong

In Wendy Chin-Tanner’s first book, Turn, the poet drew poignantly on her Chinese-American childhood in New York City to reveal how her present had been informed by the past; how the author’s past as a young daughter growing up was connected with the present demands of being a wife and mother. Turn was a moving record of emotional traumas and life lessons, in which the author’s ambivalences are held together in a poetic synthesis of emotion and revelation. Pathetic fallacy was self-consciously utilised in projecting inner conflicts upon the natural world; the external became a mirror for the internal, facilitating catharsis while also allowing the personal to be absorbed meaningfully into the universal.

In her latest book, Anyone Will Tell You, Chin-Tanner immerses herself in this absorption with greater playfulness, confidence, and extremities of feeling. In the opening poem “Gathering,” adumbrations of this increasing absorption enter the mood of an aubade, in the aftermath of a weird dream about “landed fish” and “flightless birds”—a state of “so many/ useless things/ gathering” within her consciousness and captured in the space of a poem. Then in “Index,” the author’s abiding concerns with motherhood return but with a twist. Repeating “I confess” throughout the poem in ironic self-consciousness as if to showcase a disbanding of conventional selfhood, the speaker confesses that she is “still hungry” for more children, because of past miscarriages, at the same time as she enjoys the process of the self’s dissolution. The duality of pain and pleasure is literally represented on the page, with the lines of verse divided into two separate columns. The trauma and yearnings of parenthood are still unquestionably present and faithfully recorded, but through the ludic act of writing, the gravid notion of “mothering” merges with a broader, aestheticized consciousness that can marvel at the beauty of a life more loosely unified: “babies died/ inside me… I cut my/ long black hair/ I confess/ that it was/ beautiful.”

Along with this aestheticized dissolution of conventional notions of the self (as “woman” and “mother”), the poet also subverts the feminization of the moon in literature. In contemporary poetry, the moon, passively reflecting the light of the sun, is often rendered as feminine (one is reminded, for example, of Marge Piercy’s poems about the lunar cycle in relation to womanhood in The Moon is Always Female). In Chin-Tanner’s poem “Blue Moon,” with its nod to the song by Frank Sinatra about a lonely lover “without a dream in (his) heart,” the poet turns the moon into a symbol not only of solitude but also of relinquishment: “sterile rock… helium balloon whose string tugs at the fist of a fussy child who might… let go.” The poem is actually about a post-coital event (“After the appointed fuck, I wander…”), but the hope of being a mother does not take centerstage here. Instead, the poem focuses on the impermanence of the body—“pale… scarred… old”—as reflected in the appearance of the moon. “Body” and “moon” are mere objects that cannot last; their fundamental reality as objects is emphasized over any connection to the self. Amidst the hopes of fulfilling a particular female destiny as a mother, one has to come to terms with letting go of one’s physical body.

“Time normalizes everything,” the poet writes in the next poem “Supermoon,” in which the moon is again a central symbol, now “yellower” and “closer than ever… circling the unseen sun.” Being unseen, the sun signals a dimming of optimism for the mother who is coming to terms with impermanence. The moon as a symbol of evanescence is still the greater meaning here, more than the moon as a symbol of the feminine self and its maternal aspirations. The sense of impermanence evoked by the moon is lodged metaphorically in the “slippery night” of the poet’s womb: “heart beating time, time beating heart.”

Instead of indulging permanently in a sense of pessimism regarding impermanence, however, the poet re-frames such feelings within a larger, poetic perspective of life as an aesthetic whole, a beauty rendered through the elaborations of verse; a perspective that is ripe with ambivalences but also empowering in accepting all aspects of existence without flinching. Poetry becomes the vehicle for strengthening and broadening the mind to incorporate emotional sufferings within a wider lens of beauty and insight. Looking back at her childhood in “And Not Looking Away (Brooklyn, 1985),” the poet writes about “the sun’s sorrowful gaze” but also “the cement… gleaming like shattered glass.” Beauty is not only seen but also heard. The poet also remembers women speaking until “their words/ began to rhyme… like song.”

The capacity to balance light and darkness in the author’s life has been facilitated by loosening through the space of a poem the demarcations of self. In what is surely the most startling poem in the collection, “Who’s Afraid,” the author evokes and subverts simultaneously a sense of the self as both the subject to be feared and the victim of that fear:

who is the
wolf at the
table who

pretends there
is no wolf
who’s afraid

of the wolf
who eats at
the table

As in fairy tales, the wolf is a perpetrator of violence. The circularity with which the poem begins and then returns to the trope of the wolf suggests that the self is both the originator of life and also the cause of its own demise. By agreeing to give, or remain a part of, life, one is perpetuating the cycle of birth and death at the heart of nature. This may be a simple idea, but the poem complicates it by situating it within a book of poems about the mother, and the mother’s child, since the daughter may become a mother in the future. Poetry provides a range of possibilities about who or what the wolf is. The wolf is neither male nor female in the poem. The self that it represents becomes both matter and anti-matter. The act of eating in a domestic setting suggests that no family can prevent the violence of death. The fact that the wolf “pretends there is/ no wolf” may point to the way that we pretend, whether as parent or child, that we have nothing to do with death; we pretend in order to carry on living without overwhelming fear or pessimism. However, the wolf that pretends is still the wolf that “eats.” Life and death reside in all of us: life’s joys but also life’s unbearable end form our nature. The poem allows the poet to juxtapose all these different ideas in a way that is momentarily harmonious.

In such a way the poet has expanded her vision to encompass the personal themes of motherhood and mortality in a larger aesthetic and ethical perspective. The collection moves towards the end into a poetic playground of colors and sounds distilled from the book’s personal themes: “sky bleached/ to winter// white over/ black water… sky dark blue… blushed/ bruised …” (“Anyone Will Tell You”). In “The Caravan,” “dusk colors/ drain from… greens to… lavenders… to/ black wings of/ dark gliding… little/ deaths barking// dogs calling/ coyotes calling back.” The poem moves from color-play into a closing cacophony of animal-song. The poetic speaker vanishes, almost literally, into a freewheeling, almost mystical, symphony of light and a blaze of aural music made possible by the writing of poetry.

At the same time, the reader also registers that any profound understanding that the self is not separate from nature, mediated through the poet’s images, is not an unchallenging one, particularly for the speaker of these poems. It is a perspective that is born out of the terrors of being a mother, the terrors of giving life and bringing death. The “you” in a poem like “Anyone Will Tell You” becomes more than just the reader; it is the speaker addressing herself and, possibly, her miscarried child, as well as the natural world beyond these words from which all perspectives originate, and to which every sense of ourselves will have to return. The self becomes no longer itself but is connected to every other self, an aesthetic act of surrender that hints at newfound wisdom and courage rendered possible by the poetic imagination.

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Cyril Wong is a poet and fictionist in Singapore.