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Half-Lit Houses Paperback – April 1, 2004
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Chang accentuates lyric attention on the loss of a young girl’s father in her poem titled “Blueprint.” Here, a first person speaker “sleepwalk[s] in a dress the color of bone” (line 1) and immediately conveys an image of death. In the next couplet, she explains “There is the danger of slipping”/ “into grains of evening” (lines 2-4) where the evening becomes like the desert, and in the desert, there is a sense of desolation and foreboding. In the speaker’s home, “The dried bees are still clinging to the screen” (line 14) as they too are dry like the desert. The pervasive emptiness descends, spilling onto the following couplet, where the speaker emphasizes a separation among her and her family: “Her mother is in the bedroom” and her brother “is in the garden again” (lines 16-18). The distance between family members in this poem is exaggerated by Chang’s use of metrical lines that are composed in an open structure consisting of unrhymed couplets.Read more ›
In my review of Brigit Kelly's The Orchard, I talked about lighter reading, and I didn't necessarily mean that in a bad way; some poetry is brilliant, but light reading (and no, cod help us, I'm not talking about light verse); Li-Young Lee's stuff comes to mind. It's got all sorts of depth to it, but you can read it for the surface and still get something out of it. Those who wish to pursue deeper meanings may do so. Everyone's happy. The vast majority of poetry falls into either this category or that of Kelly, where you're basically forced into deeper meanings.
Tina Chang seems to fall somewhere in the middle, which is exceptionally rare. There are pieces here that force the reader into needing to look deeper, but they are few. There are pieces that can be read for surface beauty alone and have the option to go deeper, but they, too, are few. The rest of the pieces here sit in a place in between those two things, and it's a place I'm not quite sure I know how to describe. Wherever it is, it's delicate and beautiful, and Tina Chang deserves a far, far wider audience than she presently has.
This is poetry of family, stretching back from before Chang's birth (at least, if the one passing reference she makes to the age of a narrator is to be taken as her own) to the present day, presenting the stories one hears about families with a rich history, doing so in a lush, precise language. There's not a single poem in this collection that misses the mark. It's easily one of the two or three best collections I've come across this year, and is well worth your time.
"...My father thinks you are delicate
as he steals the eggs from the purse
of your bely, white interior exposed and steaming.
I think of you breathing before the slipping out."
The narrator of these works speaks often of the absence of the father. Her recollections of girlhood, which often take on a visionary tone -- like ecstacies, of a sort -- are colored by this loss. Even so, the melancholy tone of the poems is tempered by an equally powerful, often divine sense of exploration, an opening. Throughout these poems, things both sacred and profane are exposed, examined, forced into the light:
"I must admit I opened each egg to see
a tragedy inside that fueled song. Everything I owned
was held hostage in my beak."
The natural world forms a kind of mad tapestry in which the poet wraps herself. Plantations, backyards, rivers, crickets, chickens; things burned, bleeding, growing, blooming; everywhere in these poems life and death are intertwined, and exquisitely rendered. Highly recommended.