The Quiet Tenderness of Mary Jean Chan

I have been struggling for some time to summarise my thoughts on Mary Jean Chan’s “Flèche”. The first time I read it I was impressed by the effortless experimentation with form, but – dare I confess? – found the underlying narratives of (a) coming out and (b) Chinese-person-encountering –Western-society a little too wellworn to give a real whiff of originality.

The second time I read it I realised I had been unfair (which just shows how poetry merits being read several times before one judges). The underlying narratives may have been treated before, but not often combined. And they have the common thread – not, as in some gay writers, a quest for a beloved or indeed the celebration of gay culture or difference – of the poet’s isolation.

Take the Chinese aspect first. Chan’s mother is presented as an ex-bourgeois, whose parents were victims of Mao’s cultural revolution and sentenced to hard labour. Chan herself was born and raised in Hong Kong. However, scarred by the experience of deprivation and hunger she experienced as a girl, the mother expects her daughter to follow a conventional path of marriage and child-bearing. The daughter is the sole focus of the mother’s attention – there is no mention of the father or of siblings. As such, the daughter is faced with a terrible inner conflict as she discovers her sexual orientation: how to be herself while at the same time retaining her mother’s love. Some of the most (there are many) moving poems in “Flèche” are those in which the mother meets her daughter’s Western female partner, and struggles to rise to the occasion.

Western civilisation is seen from the start as a refuge for the poet – “My desires dressed themselves in a hurry of English to avoid my mother’s gaze” and “Surreptitiously reading Shakespeare (the scene where Cesario woos Olivia”).  Indeed, refuges become a leitmotif of the collection – in a scattered sequence headed “Safe Space” a rectangle of centred text describes a place to which the speaker is able to escape, where she feels safe.

The Western lover is, variously, a source of wonder and surprise as well as of gentle conflict (“How have I hurt you? Such asking becomes routine”; “Why didn’t you warn me about cultural differences?”) and later reconciliations (“we laughed and left the sachets unopened”).

These themes of conflict and self-discovery come together in the fencing poems. The book is divided into three sections: Parry, Riposte and Corps-à-corps, which all refer to fencing moves, as does the book’s title. The punning “Flèche” is an aggressive extension in fencing, so brings together the ideas of self-assertion and underlying sensuality.  I personally found the division into sections somewhat artificial, though not bothersome.

I am conscious that I have given all this background without giving a feel of Chan’s use of language. It is deceptively simple. Unlike those poets who embark on dramatic images, Chan remains consistently gentle: “I learnt to withhold my body/the way a dog lifts its sore paw/in mid-air/touching nothing” and in the same poem “for too long I have had to do these things/as when a great wind/pushed a small boat out to sea/before it is ready”. There is a self-effacing modesty about her poetry, which contrasts remarkably with the importance of the themes and makes her treatment of them all the stronger.

Finally, a word about form. As one would expect from a lecturer in creative writing, there is considerable experimentation, from prose poems through couplets and quatrains to semi-concrete poems with justified text. Some of the more successful, for me, were the poems that appear like centred pillars of text with short unrhyming lines – not qite syllabic poetry but with abrupt line-ends characteristic of syllabic verse: “I cannot stand the/faces of beautiful/ women I feel a deep/need to protect…”.

My first reading left me slightly unmoved. It is a pleasure to confess my sin and repent. This is beautiful stuff.  

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