Review of We Were Always Eating Expired Things by Cheryl Julia Lee (Singapore: Math Paper Press, 2014)
By R. A. Briggs
Cheryl Julia Lee’s first collection, shortlisted for this year’s Singapore Literature Prize, brings a keen eye and an honest tongue to human relationships (both familial and romantic). Like Sachiko Murikami’s Rebuild and the Red Room’s The Disappearing project, We Were Always Eating Expired Things is built around an architectural conceit. Lee’s buildings stand for the relationships that take place inside them: sisters, brothers, fathers, mothers, daughters, married couples, lovers.
The introductory poem, “Take Off Your Shoes Before Stepping Inside,” invites the reader into a magical building where you can find a barmaid and “follow her vacant gaze to Oslo-next-door,” touch imported Portuguese stones “sanded down / by time into moons matching the slope / of a beloved’s shoulders,” or “Sit by the Mekong river, which flows in the veins / of the Milky Way.” (It’s bigger on the inside.) At the outset, the poem enjoins “please, / no running and take the time / to look at everything,” but by the final strophe, the apostrophized reader is ignoring these instructions.
Always, rushing past in napalm-soaked
excitement and recklessness, you see nothing,
but leave ruins and landmarks in your wake.
This betrayal sets the tone for the rest of the book: over and over, people carelessly damage objects and the relationships they represent.
The book is centered on the speaker’s childhood home, where the strains of domestic life are embodied in crumbling foundations and ruined household objects. It’s not all misery—children play games with the noisy pipes, a mother cat has kittens in the ill-tended planter, and “a two-month-old orange can taste just as sweet”—but Lee is not out to tell comforting lies to the reader, or to herself. The family that dwells in this childhood home can be brutal.
We hold our knives and forks
with conviction, we attack as a pack.
We are usually this close to throwing chairs.
(“This House Stands Divided”)
The book wanders through a variety of settings, but each of its nine sections begins with a prose poem that returns us either to the body, or to the childhood home. These section-header poems (titled with roman numerals) form a frame story; like the set of the opening poem, the childhood home is a magical super-building whose corridors lead to distant parts of space and time.
The frame story begins with the expired things of the title; instead of buying and eating food, the family buys it, leaves it until it is spoiled or almost spoiled, and then eats it. Other things are wrong with the house: objects are always breaking (“Cup lids, the chair in the study, my parents’ marriage, camera lenses, people”); feral cats overrun the yard; dinner has gone cold by the time it reaches the table. Poems II and III discuss bodies in vague and foreboding terms: “we” experience sudden pain in the night, but “our” bodies learn to survive in adverse circumstances. (“The body grows in strength as it learns not to fight your mistakes.”) Later poems in the series suggest an explanation for this pain and privation: neglect and abuse within the family. VI is a study of the canes that the mother uses to beat her children, while VII considers the mother’s preference to beat the plain speaker, rather than her pretty sister.
In Poem VIII of the frame series, the childhood home opens out to reveal a different family house “Where the food wasn’t all bad and the lights all flickering and the pipes whining.” But even here, everything connects to the house full of expired things; this other, nicer house is framed in terms of its contrast with the broken family home, and with lists of objects the family took, or left behind, when they moved.
Loneliness is a regular presence in the corridors of the magical house. “How Can the Men Not Help But Love Them” considers masculinity—a state that goes naturally with loneliness. The poem shows men
who pull their splinters out in the dark
so the color of their blood remains a mystery
The title, repeated in the poem’s closing couplet, uses syntactic ambiguity as a formal symbol of emotional ambiguity. “Them” refers to the men’s lovers. (You have to go all the way back to the first line to trace the antecedent.) If Lee had said “the men cannot help but love them” or “how can the men help but love them?” the idiomatic meaning would be straightforward—the sentence would be claiming that the men love their lovers simply and straightforwardly. Mashing the two locutions together throws in an extra “not” or an extra question. This raises a doubt: is the poem saying that the men love their lovers, or that they hold back from love?
Loneliness also shows up in “Why, She Asks,” where a long-distance couple breaks up
… Because touch screens
cannot replace the feeling of flesh upon
flesh and clicks do not make ‘connect.’
“Fault Lines” gives us loneliness in the shape of the speaker’s grandmother, whose hands are cracked from a life of hard labor. She “is good / at doing what she has to do,” but
… no one notices that she strokes with knuckles,
that she sits always with folded hands,
that the fortune teller cannot tell her future.
Another intermittent visitor to the childhood home is Death. “The Lemon Table” sketches the speaker’s impressions of death as she passes different ages, ranging from 7 to 20. Each vignette reveals a combination of attraction and repulsion: the speaker runs after the hearse that is carrying away her great grandmother, marks herself with red and blue pens when she is too scared to cut her wrists, daydreams about ways of committing suicide.
The poems in section V, which address the death of the speaker’s grandfather, are noteworthy for their irony and humor. “Cancer” compresses the feeling of sorrow and powerlessness into a witty telegram: “I LOVE YOU I’LL MISS YOU STOP STOP STOP.” “The Buddha of Infinite Light” finds everyday humor in the grandfather’s wake:
What does one wear to a wake? “Black or white,” my mother says, “nothing bright.” And which bra?
Finally, “Chopsticks” begins with memories of the grandfather instructing his grandchildren in the correct use of chopsticks, and ends with an ironic twist, when, after the cremation,
the family is given chopsticks to retrieve
the parts of him that didn’t burn[.]
In the second half of the book, we encounter the rooms of the speaker’s adolescence and adulthood, which are filled with the emotions of sexual awakening: lust, jealousy, sensual delight, disappointment. “School Trip to the Science Centre,” where children rush through a science museum to reach the McDonald’s at the end of the field trip, is immediately followed by “13,” where adolescent girls rush past childhood to embrace their sexuality. Adult sexuality, like McDonalds, is pleasurable but not always spiritually satisfying.
Lee continues the conceit of architecture as emotion, drawing on a range of interior scenes. “On Seeing A Photograph of Your Wife” depicts the wife of a married lover dancing through a dream house,
(but only through a photograph to hear
you speak her name to shake her hand to feel
her real as a nail clipping would stop me
Remembering a disappointing first sexual experience in a motel room (“They Tell Us The First Time We Make Love It Should Be With Someone Special”), the speaker tells how she
ached to be laundered
so the next occupant
could begin with fresh sheets.
And in the touching last poem, “How We Make Love,” sex becomes a paper crane, folded at first with much enthusiasm and little expertise (“Look! I made something! / I’m not quite sure what it is, but look!”), later with great dexterity but waning enthusiasm, and finally stuffed into an attic, where it is rediscovered after lying for years under the dust.
And we think, “Wow, I used to make things,”
but then, that was a long time ago.
The most striking of the sex and love poems is “The Fire Came From the Year Before But We Are Only Just Gathering the Ashes,” which compares a doomed love affair is to arson, defined as
1. the malicious
3. of the dwelling
4. of another
The lovers set off flares down each other’s spines, reducing everything to ash. But the poem’s closing zinger takes aim not at the ex-lover, but at later partners who cannot measure up.
And now, every boy
wonders why, when they empty
themselves into my mouth, I shrug
and say that I already know the taste
of tepid water.
The expired things in We Were Always Eating Expired Things come in a variety of flavors, from the tepid water, to “the sandy after-touch” of stolen papadum in “Papadum.” But Lee’s poems are always honest about how they taste, and clear about the layout of the kitchen where they are prepared. The father in “Conversations with my Daughter” might reassure his daughter that the French toast is “very good”, but the poem admits that it is “a little underdone.” The wise reader will walk slowly through this book, taking time to sample the flavors from a variety of kitchens, before leaving the magic corridors and shutting the back cover.
R.A. Briggs is a professor of philosophy at Stanford University who writes poetry for fun. They have published two poetry collections–Free Logic (University of Queensland Press) and Common Sexual Fantasies, Ruined (Cordite Press)–as well as an illustrated zine–Modern American Gods (in collaboration with Anna Zusman). Their poems have also appeared in such venues as Rattle, Arc, Cordite, and The Weekend Australian. When not writing philosophy or poetry, they are usually cuddling their dog Blossom.