Ching-In Chen constructs a re-naming, a caterwaul call to arms to attend to an archipelago of hybrid identity: political, sexual and always love-persuaded. Here the father is temporary, the mother is dead-alive and girls are writing tiger-legends through sestina, haibun, and the lost letters that must be reinvented if we can understand this new American body
Ching-In Chen, The Heart's Traffic, Red Hen Press, 2009.
This novel-in-poems chronicles the life of Xiaomei, an immigrant girl haunted by the death of her best friend. Told through a kaleidoscopic braid of stories, letters, and riddles, this stunning debut collection follows Xiaomei's life as she grows into her sexuality and searches for a way to deal with her complicated histories. At times, meditation, celebration, investigation, and elegy, this is a book about personal transformation within the context of a family forced to make do—a Makeshift Family—and how one might create new language to name the New World.
Ching-In Chen's first book, The Heart's Traffic, constructs a re-naming, a caterwaul call to arms to attend to an archipelago of hybrid identity: political, sexual and always love-persuaded. Here the father is temporary, the mother is dead-alive and girls are writing tiger-legends through sestina, haibun, and the lost letters that must be reinvented if we can understand this new American body. The author necessarily offers up her riddles without answers, her ultimatum of banishment and homecoming with good food and sweet intention. She assures us, "I am kissing a new body into flesh."—Sarah Gambito
Ching-In Chen composes a book-length sequence that inventively incorporates such Western and Eastern forms as the sestina, villanelle, epistle, haibun, pantoum, and zuihitsu. 'A girlbirth in the flanks of the zodiac, / a gift of fossilizing heat,' she writes in this mythic, cross-cultural collection. —Arthur Sze
At the overwhelming crossroads, where the body, sexuality, and culture collide, you will find The Heart's Traffic fibrillating with emotion and pumping forth the strained language that shudders off the tongue, 'end of the intimate and divine source.' No wonder, then, that these poems warrant such innovation of shape, direction and structure, such defiance of pleasantries and political correctness—they thrive 'objecting to the world around them.' Ching-In Chen has come out to unsettle the poetry stage with a debut collection that shimmers with fierceness and 'sunslickstarfight.' —Rigoberto Gonzalez
Ching-In destroys idioms, genres, 'crafts' and the various literary borders and orders of East/West canons. Then she re-stories (not "restores") an anti-poem made of anti-novels and anti-heroes and sheroes. I am captivated by her labyrinth voices, by Xiaomei's wicked tender wand, by Ching-In's anti- I-Chings of parable, wisdom jokes, love letters, word-tables, false self-immolations, anti-ethnographies and brutal investigations of double-heavens and double underworlds. This is brilliant super-nova bursting-bursting love and loss and mind and body and greedy-mouth-demon-sparrow spirit. A magic language sorceress power-kit. A border-breaking, time-bending, space-burning, herstory-making work. Number one, if there were numbers. —Juan Felipe Herrera
One knows from the amazing number of modes and styles in The Heart's Traffic that Ching-In Chen is no ordinary poet. She is in fact many poets at once: a poet of wide ranging forms, a poet of resonant voices, and most significantly, a poet anchored by intensity. Shapely and wild, personal and cultural, tough and vulnerable, this is a poet and a poetry of steadfast innovation and depth. - Terrance Hayes
Ching-In Chen’s debut, The Heart’s Traffic, is an ideal beginning. The 117-page collection encompasses an amazing breadth of styles, including several distinct forms (e.g., sestina, villanelle, haibun, pantoum) as well as the poet’s own innovative arrangements. But beyond her technical prowess, this work resonates with me in its explorations of community and self, of the process of discovering where we do or do not belong through our simultaneous attempts to blend and resist multiple worlds and identities. Whether intentionally or unintentionally, we all seek to reconcile our personal present with the collective past.
This novel-in-poems tells the tale of Xiaomei — her father’s then family’s move to America as well as her own process of exploration and discovery during and immediately after these transitions. Chen beautifully captures the conflicted relationship of immigrants with the land of their ancestors, with their loved ones, and with themselves. The narrative is nonlinear but linked, with images and lines weaving through multiple pieces. Together, the collection serves as a series of snapshots that only reveal glimmers of Xiaomei’s life. Chen skillfully arranges the collection to build toward a larger understanding of both Xiaomei’s experiences and what it means to be a young immigrant in America. I appreciated re-visiting certain poems and seeing multiple layers emerge as I moved through the overarching story.
Some pieces are written as riddles or letters, unfolding partially into questions or answers. These, like many of the pieces, represent a constant pull in multiple directions. There is the recurrent image of absence, epitomized by images of a father who leaves home for America, who returns Americanized, who uproots his family. Thus begins a conflicted relationship with America itself, which at first is unfamiliar and then becomes home. In one precise poem, Xiaomei tries to reconcile her dreams with the expectations of her mother. Xiaomei’s other relationships are equally intense, equally complex. Without being didactic, Chen is able to incorporate the space around sexual and gender identities.
Chen understands the struggles between distance and closeness, the blurred boundaries, the inability to separate one identity or place from another. This excerpt from “The TrueTale of Xiaomei” may serve as a microcosm for a recurrent motif, capturing not only this disconnect but the need to find peace:
To love your own violent histories,Ching-In Chen powerfully uses a range of forms and arrangements, strengthened through the persona of Xiaomei. This collection will resonate with anyone who has struggled with expectations of self and others, tried to reconcile her past with her present, wondered how our roots inform who we are, and, ultimately, sought to go beyond that and grow into herself. - Supriya
the remembered soup of your failings,
and to forgive those who have failed before you,
generation upon generation,of the most mad,the most terrible,the deadliest secrets crossing the ocean.We do not bury our dead, but hack them into shanks we lay on our backs,
bearing them forever into each new world.
In The Heart’s Traffic, Ching-In Chen writes, “I wish this to be easy, at the same time, I wish this to be difficult.”Â The plot of her novel in verse is fairly simple. The poems tells the story of Xiaomei, an emigrant girl, who is haunted by the ghost of her childhood friend. But like all matters of the heart, the poems are complicated. Chen’s work is literary cubism, with a multitude of voices speaking at the same time. Her book is the Quantum Physics of poetry. Because of the limitation of WordPress formatting, I’m unable to give many examples of Chen’s gorgeous use of space. In an attempt to shadow Chen’s ability to create conversations out of found texts, I’ve invited the Quantum Physics expert Robert Anton Wilson to interrupt / inform / complicate my findings in The Hearts Traffic.
In many ways, Xiamomei’s story follows the classic coming of age narrative. But Chin’s poetry complicates this journey by suggesting that there are several layers to a person. With poems that run in columns down the page, Xiamomei’s voice blends into the voice of her best friend Sparrow. This sense of “soul blending”Â only intensifies when Sparrow drowns. In the poem “Some Say”Â Xiamomei cries,
Some say the lake digests all her daughters and births fireflies.Xiamomei’s intense longing does “carve a door”Â for the ghost of Sparrow to live in her heart. The “heart’s traffic”Â begins to show itself as a constant stream of voices informing Xiamomei of who she is.
No one say, I will miss her my whole-long life.
I will carve a door in my dream, an entrance that belongs only to her so I can tell her again and again how I wish we never fought over the stars the night she fell out of my life.
Robert Anton Wilson makes a declarative statement about Quantum PhysicsXiamomei’s identity molds itself to several others—and not always because of love. The voice of a missing father, controlling mother, school bully, a choir of Coolies, a lover before / after a sex change, and dozens of poetic forms from all over the word make up the character of Xiamomei. This book is a circuit board of connections with poems written after author interviews with Arthur Golden and poems by Terrance Hayes, Joy Harjo, Sarah Gambito, Eric Gamalinda, Harryette Mullen, Li-Young Lee and many others. This choir of voices investigates several issues including: gender, race, and sexual identity. Anything that might travel through the human heart is incorporated into this book.
No Chinese raised on I Ching has ever found Quantum Mechanics puzzling. It is only puzzling to people raise on Aristotelian logic that thinks only A or not A. The I Ching thinks A and not A at the same time.
Robert Anton Wilson: “Nothing of any importance can be taught. It can only be learned, and with blood and sweat.”ÂChen’s book is constructed smartly, like a perfectly thought-out equation. However, The Hearts Traffics intellectual quality never overpowers the book’s raw emotional pulse. Like the theory of Quantum Physics, Chen’s poetry is a work of endless possibility. -
Aside from my blog (Sunslick Starfish) where I will be posting poems, prose, and news, my work can be found online at the links below.
- Poemelon - 4 poems from Volume III Issue I, Summer 2008
- Tea Party - "Fob," poem from Issue #17
- Asian American Poetry - "After Virginia Tech," poem from September 2007
- In Our Own Words - "War," poem from Volume 4, Fall 2006
- Asian American Movement Ezine - "Solidarity Trip to Another World: Where Other Worlds are Possible and Surviving," article from June 2004
- Asian American Poetry and Writing - "Lending Us Luminous Words," interview with Kawita Kandpal from September 2008
- We Will Not Be Moved!: a Story of Oakland Chinatown - a poem-film
- Inland Empire Literary Podcasts - Ching-In Chen speaks with UC Riverside professor of music Dr. Deborah Wong about music, performance, and culture in Asian American and Southeast Asian communities, October 2008