revew: Mary Jean Chan – A Hurry of English
A Hurry of English/
by Mary Jean Chan/
There’s a distinction between bravery and confidence; confidence happens when bravery has been necessary, or when power is held, over oneself or others (or both). Mary Jean Chan’s first collection A Hurry of English steps in and out of bravery and confidence; its grip on power is gentle, but persistent. A fist safely clutching a fledgling.
The poem At the Castro is split. It leaps from one edge of the page to the other. It is two places at once. As so many of us are. Life and joy are subject to death, to halting – simultaneous and slipping from one to the other. Escape, the joy of ‘limbs loosening into whiplash/ toes into tambourines’ is tempered by the fear that it might be taken away. A Hurry of English is a collection of compound states. Being in two places at once is not a paradox and being one’s own antithesis is a lived experience. Chan writes as a Hong Kong Chinese Queer woman. Her experiences, situation, are her own but her collection embodies so well that power in literature, in art, to reach out and hold your hand.
(Read: my hand)/ Queer people write about love like no one else can. Queer poetry has an ability to negotiate interiority and external actions so fluidly. I think maybe its power is in embracing self-contradiction; embrace Queerness as a flower that grew out of a brick of concrete. Something against design. This collection is beautiful. You’d be able to read in half an hour. But I find myself pausing after almost every poem, just to sit, to steep in it. I have a habit to storm through a piece of reading I’m doing, without much stopping for breath or thought – particularly with plays or poetry. Perhaps I have been reading the wrong things when I have done that. It is not Chan’s Queerness which gives her her power, but the combination of all that she is and the taking hold of it which this collection represents. It is as much a collection about being a daughter, being Chinese and being from Hong Kong and the infinite other things Chan is, it is an act of translation.
There are multiple translations enacted in the writing and reading of anything, even wordless things. My admiration of Chan’s execution is far outshone by the ringing of something inside myself answering. The best I can hope for from a work of art is that it might turn over some stone inside me, that I might see a new shining face I did not know was there. Revelation is not universal, though. Nor is it the beginning or end of the world. It is one of a succession of small steps toward becoming a different me.
A Hurry of English is dense, smart poetry. It finds itself often on the brink of catastrophe (Dragon Hill Spa: ‘It is the year 2016, but you know/ how women tame their own bodies/ into bone, dig their own graves in/ daylight.’) But as often it is a triumph of a long-fostered ability to love (Tea Ceremony: ‘my mother smiles a smile that/ breaks my breath into laughter’). Mary Jean Chan writes an emergent life, complex and sad but holding power against a bourgeois backdrop. Oh the misery that the wet nurse and the family help can only be objects of poetry, cannot give voice to their own lives. Chan gives, it feels, as much space as she has to them, in When I Say That My Mother Cooked, which uses the Ilocano of her family’s Filipino cook. Chan acknowledges the deeper powers which act behind her life in Wet Nurse (Shanghai 1953): ‘The milk pours from my body into/ a strange mouth. It is always hungry/ and so am I.’
I struggle to write this penultimate paragraph. As sensitive, as powerful as the poetry in A Hurry of English is, it comes a place of strange power, of a power I do not fully understand, that comes from a legacy of employing help, of power over people. Chan disavows the structures behind that with her verse but I do not know which part of me that satisfies. I am reminded of a larger struggle in myself that wonders what value bearers of power can ever bring. But at the same time Chan and her family have their own journeys and negotiations with power behind them. And at the same time A Hurry of English buoys other parts of me up. It is a generous collection. And though generosity may be predicated on having first, in order to give, it does give. I receive a sort of energy, a nod from across a room, a moment where my hand is held.
I feel myself immanent. I feel not the bravery, not the path to get here. But the being here. The being able, now, to speak.