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A Hurry of English, Mary Jean Chan

ignitionpress, 2018  £5.00

Conflicted loyalties

Mary Jean Chan’s poems are well known since her debut collection Fléche won the 2019 Costa Poetry Prize. This pamphlet, its 2018 predecessor, contains a number of poems from that prize-winning collection. They explore the complex ‘coming-of-age’ of the poet.

The poems are personal to a point of self-exposure from which some writers might shy away. Chan does not hide the battles of realising her sexuality, nor the struggle this presents for her mother and wider family.The cover design is the same for all three new Ignition Press titles. A dark orange/red stripe occupies the first vertical third of the cover. The two thirds to the right is black. On the black with a single overlap to orange, are 6 triangles of various sizes and shades of orange, scattered almost as if they are page corners falling downwards towards the right hand bottom corner. In the bottom right corner, where the triangles lead the eye, there is the name of the pamphlet in lower case sans serif white print -- quite small -- and below that in a slightly smaller font the author's name. The name of the press is smaller still and in black, bottom left on the dark orange stripe.

There’s a tremendous sense of responsibility towards the poet’s mother who has endured ‘those Red-Guarded days / and nightmares’ (mentioned in ‘Always’) and the mother-daughter relationship is a central focus of the collection.

The poet expresses the difficulty of reconciling a gay relationship with a parent who considers it a ‘[disgrace],’ as in the poem ‘//’. In this poem the two girls are described as ‘chopsticks: lovers with the same anatomies’. The mother uses Cantonese as a means by which ‘expletives detonate’ in front of the English partner who doesn’t understand the language

The poet’s emotional stress is raw and never entirely resolved. Chan introduces this idea with her opening poem, ‘Always’:

Mother, what do you think?
You are always where I begin.

The pamphlet is dedicated to Chan’s parents ‘who understand what poetry is for.’ Even in this dedication there seems to be a protectiveness, an understanding of the criticism they, too, could face. The poems that reveal the history of the mother’s life are helpful for giving context so that each individual can be viewed with compassion.

As a set, the poems have pleasing variety of form. The tone, however, is predominantly sad, not least because of the opposing pulls on the writer’s loyalty, as in ‘Notes Towards an Understanding’: 

                                  My mind was tuned to

two frequencies: mother’s Cantonese rage,
your soothing English, asking me to choose.

Zannah Kearns