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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.

Fiona Larkin