Poem after poem in this wonderful debut collection wakes me to a very particular life, a way of experiencing the world that is like a fingerprint. Rosen Chang’s subject is what she loves well, mother, husband, children, and that which she finds irreplaceable, nature and art. Her method is to hold what she loves close and allow the mind to wander across a compendium of observations and associations, choosing carefully among them—small creatures, birds, the action of waves, works of art—to create unique correspondences, the lyric moment in which one thing is so like another as to be nearly identical with it, and in that moment, unexpectedly, gratuitously, made anew.
The Curator’s Notes is confident, unapologetic in its display of intimacy, emotional directness and imagistic lucidity. The protruding spinous processes of a dying mother’s bowed back become “the chamber of a nautilus,” one that “spirals inward / toward oblivion.” Rosen Chang’s choices are succinctly rendered, precise, convincing. But more than that, they are also capacious, enough to include the figure of Eve among them—relieved of much painfully weighted cultural baggage. Here, Eve is allowed to think for herself, to complain, get dirty, eat and drink with pleasure, but also to function as a medium, a malleable force triangulating with the speaker and her distant, “turbulent” and perishing mother.
Poems addressing the poet’s mother form the core out of which the rest of the collection expands, often in an ongoing meditation on a life-affirming marriage. But time is short, the collection insists, and caution dismissed in a gesture fueled by an urgent need, not to get closer to the mother, but something more complex and vastly more interesting. Rosen Chang wishes to find a way of representing the mother accurately, her troubling life, emotional distance and final dementia without foreclosing on her beauty, her mystery, or the stubborn reality of a daughter’s tenderness. Using a variety of approaches: statement, dialogue, lyric address, imagistic description (as in “Lore,” “Brisket” and “At the Beach”), the speaker grieves, laughs and reflects on the undying wish for the mother’s passage to have been different.
But there are other mediums, other than Eve, that provide both subject and frame to these formally controlled, articulate lyrics. There are fantastic birds, works of art, the moon and finally the sea. “Riptide,” one of the most impressive poems, features the mother “swimming” inexorably to her death. It employs a short, sturdy line (one of the collection’s strengths), as well as a pattern of accretive description that builds towards image. Its tone, like many in the collection, is quiet, absent any rancor or righteousness that might be expected from the narrative details provided. It also attends to itself as a visual object, highlighting the poem’s sophisticated relationship to the white space of the page, the canvas, hearkening back to the collection’s title.
Each line in “Riptide” moves an indented step away from its preceding line, enacting the rhythm of the mother’s swimming stroke, its forward momentum, the sea’s backward pull, emotional longing and reluctant release. The detachment of the speaker on the beach, who is watching this drama unfold as if from a great distance (of both time and, perhaps, maturity), elevates the scene to enduring image. This is how it must be; this is the nature of life; mother cannot be, will not be, rescued; she is “going calmly, / of her own volition.”
“She’s a white spot in the water—
she’s taking herself away—”
Sadness without nostalgia; depth without self-dramatization.
A very different kind of poem, “Great Green Macaw,” poses the collection’s fundamental question. In it, the speaker directly addresses a fantastical bird, “garnish of the world,” asking, “Tell me how you survive / this perishing world.” I love this bird, love the way in which it is honored, conjured, bringing to ear Wallace Stevens’ mystical “gold-feathered bird” from “Of Mere Being,” part concept, part archetype, rising in the “bronze décor,” its “fire-fangled feathers dangling down.” But more important to Rosen Chang’s work is that this question of questions comes at the end of the poem, one which first celebrates the fertile imagination and the vibrancy of life.
“Tell me how you survive / this perishing world.” How often is the rhetorical question answered by Eve herself. In “Bleeding into the Garden” Eve does what we expect of her, but with presumptuous abandon: “she ate it whole,” and in doing so colors the world red as vermilion apples, roja wine, pomegranates, rendering creation accessible, familiar, sticky and sweet as “overripe plums in the grass.” This force, not just the overwhelming urge, but the right to bite the apple, fuels Rosen Chang’s whole-hearted grasp of specific detail: colorful fruit, small sea creatures, a lover’s body, Medieval city, Chagall, the movement of the moon, all touched and tasted as if by Eve, with Eve’s enthusiasm, her excitement. Throughout the collection we are shown that we survive by living.
A turn to the body, to the senses, is this author’s project. And not just the senses but sensuousness itself, revealed equally in the construction of image as the deft use of syntax. “Futility,” a poem made of twelve couplets with masterfully curtailed lines illustrates Rosen Chang’s interest in lyric form, how much can be done with the smallest units of language, and how artfully in the service of a nearly inarticulate pain.
In “Futility” the relation of the sentence to the line, opening with: “I’m here / I say to her,” and including the speaker’s echoing inner voice calling to the mother, “I’m here,” “I’m here,” each utterance an entire line, viscerally invokes the stuttering, pleading desire to coax a response from an inert figure, if only to reassure that comfort is being given and received. In the end, the poem acknowledges how little we are able to give the dying. Yet it leaves us with the sensual world, these gifts: a “cold / metal bar,” the mother’s “rutted back,” a body
that appears to “burrow / inside itself,” concrete nouns, vivid adjectives, active verbs. Whether delivered in short, lyric, fragmentary lines, or in prose blocks, this collection explores how the life of the senses reflects the life of the heart.
See “Aubade to My Husband,” in which a wife describes her husband’s sleeping form using compressed, heavily stressed lines, assonance and texture:
the top, two cusped peaks,
a channel chiseled in the middle,
the bottom curled,
like a tulip petal”
Yet in addition to the formal presentation of what is seen, there is development. Seeing turns to listening, the lovely wishing, and finally, even closer.
your heavy breaths—
you awake, quietly
apart your lips.”
Notice as well the ending in “Exploratory Surgery,” a poem that exults in the specificity of pregnancy, childbirth, the wandering uterus and female anxiety. Its last line, just three words, are suspended, as if the speaker is truly being anesthetized, “–I count backwards—”. Rosen Chang does not foreclose or dictate as she ends. Here, as elsewhere, she lands softly, leaving us with a degree of uncertainty and silence, yet strangely, also ease.
For me the most lasting impression from this collection is the delicacy with which the mother is handled, attention to her enacted through tone and point of view. “Day of Gravestone Unveiling” begins in the second person with foreshortened observations of the surrounding scene moving on seemingly arbitrary verbal commands: “Speak,” “Measure,” “Ride,” “Sit,” as if churning emotion does not let this viewer settle. Then suddenly a child appears and the speaker wakes in the first person, diving straight into the emotional center of the scene, “Mom. / See me, I’m here / jumping in the surf.”
And finally, “We peered into the shadow,” in which the speaker finds a nest of baby pigeons in a desiccated plant. Her mind fills with contrasts, between it, “how un-picturesque,” and a Picasso; art and life, one “untroubled,” bright, whimsical, the other sad: “the young moving on, the mother living / a few more years before she dies.” The poem moves back and forth, unable to easily reconcile disparate experiences, yet it moves naturally, the way a conversation with a good friend might. Then this fleeting line: “My mother, a recollection.” A reminder of this speaker’s preoccupation and source of the collection’s tension, there and gone. Never labored or overdone, an awareness deepened, not resolved. Moments such as these are supremely pleasurable.