How to Build an American Home

Review of Jennifer S. Cheng’s House A (USA: Omnidawn, 2016)
by Tse Hao Guang

 

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Jennifer S. Cheng’s debut collection of poems House A draws power from repetition, like waves or the stacking of bricks. It’s torn between wanting to build on dry land and honouring the ambiguity of seafaring. At its best moments, it gets to the heart of the immigrant experience, tapping into the suspicion that perhaps the whole earth is no natural home, that everyone builds their home one way or another. This is what many want to forget, especially as the world grapples with immigrant and refugee issues. At weaker moments of the book, its repetition feels unnecessary. A child of immigrants too, I’m left wishing Cheng would delve deeper into the land/sea paradox, instead of stalling on the brink.

I love the first section Letters to Mao best. Lyrical, epistolary, prose poetic, dreamlike, it uses the figure of Mao as a stand-in for China, of course, but deeper than that, as a stand-in for that part of the persona bearing up the weight of History. The Letters are most striking once I realise they are also letters to this self. Consider the end of the first Letter:

It is important for you to understand that never once did I long for a different life, which is not to say I never longed for home [ . . . . ] for although as a child I was often homesick—at school, at the neighbor’s house, anywhere unfamiliar or foreign—I also at times felt an inexplicable longing while inside my own house.

Although the book has just begun, the confession feels hard won, a plausible insight gleaned from years of longing and more years trying to understand it. Later, the persona makes a telling gesture towards secrecy and disclosure:

My mother always told me that I need not divulge everything to a man, so these are things I shall divulge to you: [ . . . ]

The partialness of these divulgences is what make their utterance so powerful—as a way for a woman to protect herself against potentially hostile men, but also as poetry that evokes through the unsaid. In this way, Letters is positioned as a feminine response to the impersonal, mysterious, militaristic forces of history, represented, through Mao, as male.

By now the reader understands that this response, if it is to be honest about its motives, cannot be alternative history, which is still history. Instead, it has to be something far more subjective, ambivalent:

[ . . . ] as I wandered into the kitchen where Shanghainese opera frolicked through the static of our old radio, I often heard rather than saw my mother walking around barefoot, mixing sticky ground meat with scallions and cooking wine. This can be a kind of narrative: scents of backyard plants, the acoustics of kitchen linoleum, cold lu dou tang to follow up our lunches. What if I were to name my children after heroic figures of ancient Greece? Theseus, Achilles, Hector.

The persona’s “kind of” narrative is sensuous and intimate, composed of sound, taste, texture, in contrast to the myths, both Chinese and Greek, she experiences as violence, “a story of the evils of man.” That she entertains, even if facetiously, the possibility of leaving a legacy of Greek heroes shows an awareness that “We all long for narrative,” after all, and the half-remembered murmurs of childhood seem scarcely powerful enough to become one. The seductions of the kind of stories represented by Mao are strong; the persona isn’t impervious to them. Yet House A continues to insist on the need for a singular, incomplete understanding of personal history.

As I have suggested, despite the persona’s own aversion to History, there are moments where she approaches it, moments which gesture towards a compelling complexity that are not further explored. Describing Hong Kong, where “the hills outside my eastern hemisphere window” are found, she proclaims: “The island wasn’t even yours,” wasn’t Mao’s. In five lines a history is set up and abandoned. There is tremendous pain the persona cannot or will not articulate here; words fail her for some time—the next page is a square black-and-white photograph of the sea, the next seven or so pages letters to Mao unfinished or barely begun, followed by another square of ocean. At the end of her one-way correspondence, the persona finds a moment, an incomplete memory, a point where history and narrative collide:

When I was a child and living across the sea, my family traveled northward one summer to an unnamed place and stood staring at a portrait of a man. I cannot recall the expression on the faces of my parents, and I do not remember how long we lingered.

The power of these letters rests partly on the subjectivity of memory and personal recount, and partly on the implacable silence of History, represented by the unnamed portrait of Mao and its unwillingness to respond to the persona.

It is with these breathtaking last lines that I enter House A; Geometry B, the second part of the text, and come away slightly let down. Where Letters to Mao is sensuous and specific, even if haunted by imperfect recollections, House A; Geometry B is abstract, theoretical, academic, its metaphors all seeming to repeat the concerns of the earlier section but less effectively. A series of short paragraphs broken into 26 sections named after each letter of the English alphabet, it promises at first glance to explore the relationship between the English language and home. Indeed, section A lists two definitions of the word ‘house’:

house: a building for human habitation; a household.

house: any of the numbered divisions of the celestial sphere.

However, it quickly becomes clear that the section is much more interested in planes, angles, shapes, images, and theory; the academic expressions “higher dimensional structures,” “a physical manifestation of an interior state,” and “a diagram of the functions of inhabiting” all appear in its first three pages. A mathematical and jargon-filled language is used to explore ideas of belonging and culture. Although that’s a fascinating approach, I am ultimately unconvinced, unsure it leads me towards greater insight.

The final section (or should I say wing?) of House A is a better experience, although it does not reach the heights of Letters. Here is a series of poetic descriptions, captions, annotations of various images taken from public domain, each named How to Build an American Home. Instantly I think back to the Letters, where the persona refers to the “vast stamp collection and various paraphernalia on the top shelf of my father’s cabinet in Texas”; there, she says:

We could call this How to Build an American Home, or History Lessons, or even Dislocated Objects (misplaced nostalgia, broken cotton slippers, a shelf of souvenir dolls in slow wave sleep)
[Ed: “How to Build an American Home,” “History Lessons” and “Dislocated Objects” are italicized in the original.]

The project of making a new or hybrid life in America is represented by a collection of seemingly unrelated objects and images, a cabinet of curiosities, fragments which are artificially joined by words into some kind of tenable selfhood, narrative, artwork, or poetry book:

The father collected documents, ledgers, photographs. Newspaper clippings,
cutout and creased, of either alphabet letters or intimate print.

XXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXOn his first day in a new country,
he walked from water to water, as if to test the boundaries. As if the daylight
could be enough to gather oneself against such paper-thin sky.

Unsurprisingly then, this section is concerned with both the necessity of and inability to fully make meaning out of the detritus of both history and narrative. At the same time, there seems to be a fear of the past, a sense of the trauma of leaving that hasn’t yet been resolved:

XXXXFor there was a night where I slept
deeply, and had heavy nightmares:

 

XXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXa dark house that I must lock
XXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXfrom the back,
XXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXa house I must leave
XXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXbefore forgotten shapes return.

Perhaps appropriately in light of this complex and ambivalent relationship with the past, images from earlier sections are repeated here: the tension between land and sea, mother in the kitchen, father making furniture, ‘dictionary’ definitions, academic language, the very names of every poem. I understand the repetitions make a point about scavenging for meaning—some of us are given limited amounts of stuff to work with, after all. Yet, I wonder if the repetitions render the project unnecessarily long or if they belabor the point. The word “immigrant” recurs nine times in the book, informing us what immigrant dreams are like or how “children of immigrants take their house wherever they go,” when the point has been made elsewhere more strongly without turning the persona into a representative for all immigrants, for every immigrant’s experience. It sometimes feels as if the intended audience of House A is the non-immigrant who needs an introduction to the immigrant mindscape.

I should end with some repetition of my own. House A is a wonder to behold when it convinces me that the immigrant’s struggle is everyone’s struggle, when it suggests that no-one can claim to be beyond the tension of history and narrative, ‘land’ and ‘sea’. It shows deep cracks, however, each time it tries to describe the immigrant or the child of immigrants as a special category of persons. Certain emotions, such as grief or anger, are achingly understated, while others, such as longing, lose their power from being broadcast at every opportunity (the word “longing” appears at least ten times in the book). When conceptual strength meets lyrical intensity, the poems sing; at times, though, the conceptualism seeps into the language and fossilizes feeling. Ultimately, what shines through House A is the very human and beautiful desire to know and be known, to make sense of the world in order to make sense of oneself.

 

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Photo credit: Jennifer Anne Champion

Assembled with parts from Hong Kong and Malaysia, Tse Hao Guang 謝皓光 is the author of hyperlinkage (2013) and Deeds of Light (2015), both from Math Paper Press, the latter shortlisted for the 2016 Singapore Literature Prize. He co-edits the cross-genre, collaborative e-journal OF ZOOS, and UnFree Verse (2017), the anthology of Singapore poetry in received and nonce forms. He serves as essays editor of online educational/critical resource poetry.sg, and is a 2016 fellow of the International Writing Program.

About Jee Leong Koh

My book of poems Steep Tea (Carcanet) was named a Best Book of 2015 by UK's Financial Times, and a Finalist by Lambda Literary. I also wrote three other books of poems and a book of zuihitsu. My work has been shortlisted for the Singapore Literature Prize, and translated into Japanese, Chinese, Vietnamese, Russian and Latvian. Originally from Singapore, I live in New York City, where I edit the arts blog Singapore Poetry, and run the Second Saturdays Reading Series and the Singapore Literature Festival in NYC.

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