Marilyn Chin has said that, in addition to issues of family and feminism, her thematic interests include those of “bicultural identity, . . . assimilation, . . . political and global questions.” Chin has been quick to add that the poet’s “most formidable challenge is that presented by the art itself. . . . A poet may spend days contemplating on the next sentence, or the next image.” Characteristically, Chin’s imagery is brilliant, and her turns of thought and feeling are complexly personal and sociopolitical, often taking an ironic or dialectical twist. Her allusiveness is immensely adroit and plays richly with classic Chinese poets such as Li Bo, Tao Qian, or Bo Juyi, as well as Western moderns such as Robert Frost, William Carlos Williams, Charles Baudelaire, and Constantine P. Cavafy.
Her books of poetry show Chin to be a magisterial weaver of words and crafter of images. Witty, earthy, and wise, she expertly and sensitively works with Asian and Western traditions of expression, personalizing intensely complex issues of immigration and assimilation as they affect family relations, female identity, and political consciousness.
Chin’s preoccupation with the poetic craft is abundantly evident in Dwarf Bamboo, which is much more than a capable first book. The whole is the product of a subtle, gifted intelligence, a redoubtable maker of images; it forms an intensely persuasive portrayal of a woman’s sensibility grappling with the perplexity and the experience of being American, Asian, and female.
One of the most striking qualities of Chin’s poetry is her use of imagery—tinglingly sensuous, precise, yet often expansively allusive within both Western and Asian cultural contexts. One poem, for instance, begins: “Red peonies in a slender vase/ blood of a hundred strangers/ Wateroat, cut wateroat/ tubes in my nose and throat.” The first line is precisely visual, suggestive of a painting, be it a French Impressionist still life or a scroll painting of the Ming or Qing dynasties. The clipped second line is allusively resonant of Chinese poetry, beginning with its lack of article and continuing with the “hundred” strangers, a typical Chinese locution (whereas, perhaps, the Western equivalent might be “dozens” of strangers). The literal object, the reader realizes with a pleasurable aftershock of recognition, is a blood transfusion being given to a hospital patient. Phrasings such as this point out the qualities of Chin’s image-making at its best—subtle, original, sharp, and producing resonances both Asian and Western in an American context.
Chin’s images are often borne on a sweeping cadence that lends grandeur to a familiar subject. Writing of the Chinese poet Ai Qing, a victim of the Cultural Revolution, Chin says: “wherever you are, don’t forget me, please—/ on heaven’s station[e]ry, with earth’s chalk/ write, do write.” The two-part cadence of the second line reinforces its images that defamiliarize and elevate a personal letter to cosmic proportions and prepare for the briefer but even more insistent two-part cadence of the last line, which must physically take the reader’s breath away.
The structuring theme of Chin’s book itself is Asian and American, organic and cross-cultural. The book’s title posits the organic plant image and metaphor that derives from the Tang Dynasty populist poet Bo Juyi. Elaborating the metaphor, the book’s first part is titled “The Parent Node” and consists of poems set in the Asian motherlands of China and Japan. These poems also evoke ancestors, familial ones such as grandfather and uncle and literary ones such as Matsuo Bash, and there are poems that provide poignant, emotionally charged snapshots of life during several phases of modern Chinese history.
The second section, “American Soil,” shifts its scenes to the North American continent; there is a road trip from Boston to Long Beach, California, a glimpse of the Chinese American ghost town of Locke in the Sacramento Valley, and a vignette from the bigoted and eccentric Louisiana countryside. The title of one poem announces “We Are Americans Now, We Live in the Tundra,” and it provides an ironic critique of America as the promised land of immigrant dreams, which is turning out to be an antispiritual and hugely industrial wasteland, a “tundra/ Of the logical, a sea of cities, a wood of cars.” (The poem does not spare the immigrants’ blighted country of origin either: “China, a giant begonia—// Pink, fragrant, bitten/ By verdigris and insects.”) Another poem pictures the dilapidation of “Where We Live Now” in America: “A white house, a wheelless car/ In the backyard rusted// Mother drags a pail of diapers to the line.” In many of these poems, one senses a young person’s point of view.
“Late Spring,” the book’s third section, presents a more mature persona as its speaker. The poems crisscross national boundaries, resting momentarily in Hong Kong, Nagasaki, Oregon, and Oakland; they explore love, sensuality, relationships, and art; they ponder feminine and Asian American identity: “This wetsuit protects me/ Wherever I go.”
“American Rain” is the ironic title of the fourth and final section of the book, which concludes with a mood of skepticism, if not pessimism. The long poem “American Rain” is a surrealistic and nightmarish indictment of the Vietnam War, a vortex of imagery whirling between beautiful blooms and the marl of the dead, between Ben Hai in Vietnam and Seaside in Oregon, between life-giving rain and death-dealing bombs. Ultimately, the book closes on a pessimistic phrase (“another thwarted Spring”) in a poem dominated by inkwash-like bleakness (“a black tree on a white canvas/ and a black, black crow”), for though the speaker may strive “towards the Golden Crane Pavilion,” she is also aware of “the shape of Mara,” the Buddhist symbol of death and destruction.
(The entire section is 2466 words.)