A Hurry of English, Mary Jean Chan
ignitionpress, 2018 £5.00
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.
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.
The intimate tension of the couplet
I’d like to share my absorption with Mary Jean Chan’s use of unrhymed couplets, starting with her extraordinary Forward-Prize-shortlisted poem, entitled ‘//.’
Slash/slash: the title is a concrete illustration of connections and oppositions. A daughter invites her lover to a family meal, where mother ‘expects you to fail at dinner. To the Chinese, // you and I are chopsticks: lovers with the same anatomies.’ Chan’s double slash in the title depicts both the chopsticks and a stanza break. White space between couplets suggests isolation, but these lines are enjambed. The persistence of the lovers — ‘You came home with me for three hundred days’ — weaves across the mother’s resistance.
Sexuality emerges during a fencing lesson, via the alternately indented couplets of ‘Practice’.
Even in poems formatted in quatrains, such as ‘Notes Towards An Understanding’, the idea of two elements is central; the daughter becomes ‘tuned to / two frequencies: mother’s Cantonese rage, / your soothing English, asking me to choose.’ That line break (‘to / two’) shows how loved ones, and language, can be familiar, yet differ radically.
An erasure poem, ‘what my mother (a poet) might say,’ censors the visceral couplets imagined by the daughter, and replaces each of them with a single-line conventional refrain: ‘that Mao wrote beautiful Chinese calligraphy.’ The poem’s final deleted line pairing (‘
that her neurons are a crumbling Great Wall/ that I am a new earth arising from hierarchies of bone’) might also gesture towards the couplet’s presence in classical Chinese poetry. We cannot escape inherited language, culture and genes.
The couplets of the closing poem, ‘Tea Ceremony’, attempt a mother/daughter rapprochement, but resolution is only found elsewhere, in quatrains or unbroken blocks of text, such as ‘Beyond desire: / two clasped bodies holding the heart’s ache at bay’ (the concluding sentence of ‘They Would Have All That’).
Through her precise use of form, Mary Jean Chan speaks to every child who grew away from her mother, chose a different lexicon, and selected her own partner – to almost all of us.
I was profoundly moved.