“Admit it, aloud.” - Review of A Hurry of English by Mary Jean Chan, Oxford: ignitionpress, 2018
Last weekend I watched my three-year old nephew eat a strawberry Cornetto in the blazing sun. He ate it with meticulous leisure, savouring each melting drop in a devastating, joyful effort to capture something in the moment it slipped away. For me, this is part of what poetry is all about. In poems that hit the reader between the eyes, A Hurry of English, the debut pamphlet by Mary Jean Chan, conjures that precise combination of presence and absence, firmness and loss.
A poet, editor and academic from Hong Kong, Chan is a rising star of the poetry scene: she co-edits Oxford Poetry, was shortlisted for the Forward Prize for Best Single Poem in 2017, and has a book coming out with Faber next year. A Hurry of English is a profound exploration of queerness, desire, postcolonialism, race, and religion.
The first poem, ‘Always’, is the kind of work I instantly want to memorize. Or rather that instantly seems already memorized, its firm rhythms lodged in the mind, its lines coming back at odd moments. Alongside introducing one of the collection’s leading refrains – the queer poet’s struggle against her mother’s expectations – the poem indicates quite how tightly Chan will grip the link between form and content. See, for example, the mirroring of rhythm and thought in the poem’s closing lines:
Always the lips wishing
they could kiss those mouths
you would approve of.
Chan makes the poem falter, using the hanging preposition to summon the pain-filled gap between the poet and her mother’s preconceptions. At moments like this, when the formal intensity slackens, Chan creates a ringing silence that gives me the jolted, tumbling feeling I hope for in a poem.
The third poem in the collection, ‘How It Must Be Said’, offers an assured four-square manifesto, laying down the gauntlet with impressive force:
What isn’t obvious isn’t obvious because I intend to
obfuscate. O chews its own tail like a rabid dog.
What does it say about me, this obsession written in
a language I never chose?
With their proliferation of ‘o’ sounds, these lines introduce a sonic repetition that threads throughout the collection as a whole. It’s ubiquitous, from the “homoeroticism” and “Google” later in this poem, to the “oblivion” in ‘Rise and Shine’, to the recurrent use of “Mao” and “holy”, the “soothing English, asking me to choose” of ‘Notes Towards an Understanding’, and the frequent repetition of the phrase “over and over” (with echoes of Dickinson’s “Over and over, like a Tune”, perhaps). To my ear, this undercurrent of open sounds is one of the subtlest and most charged elements of the collection, reappearing like a note sung under a choir.
For one thing, it’s brilliantly conjuror-like to conceal these ‘o’s within the square textual block of ‘How It Must Be Said’, which doesn’t seem, on first reading, to have room for such broad and open sounds (as in ‘Always’, space opens up despite the formal strictures of the text). For another, the sound is a thrilling, evocative device to articulate the book’s exploration of desire growing under the repression of parents and community. It can be heard, for example, in the “blooms of ache” in ‘Practice’, when the poet remembers “the closest thing / I knew to desire” during fencing lessons at school – “Often, / I left a bruise”. It appears again as the circle of a dream pond in ‘Dress’, with the poet “eyeing so / much depth it would be years before you dared”. It also underlies the exploration in ‘Rise and Shine’ of too much openness, when all this depth threatens to “flood the world into oblivion” – “You have had enough / of water” (cf. Hamlet on Ophelia: “Too much of water hast thou”…).
In other words, just as the whole book is structured as a sort of Künstlerroman – from the repressed desire of an adolescence in Hong Kong to a lover brought home to meet the parents – the poems grow with the rhythm of a desire that is also their subject. This dynamic comes to a culmination as well as a close in the deeply erotic ‘At the Castro’, which both celebrates the “first time you stepped / into a gay bar” and commemorates Orlando, its split columns reflecting the coming together of bodies and the strobe-light flash of a club.
As the collection goes on, however, there is a slight shift away from this open rhythm and towards a less spacious aesthetic. In some ways, this is a suggestive reflection of the fulfilment of desire, but it also left me wishing that the poet would loosen her hold on the material. The repetition and solid poise of the couplets in the final poem, ‘Tea Ceremony’, for example, stands in contrast to the cracked/whole dynamic of the earlier pieces –
mother, your hands are beautiful.
Look, mother, our tea is ready.
In contrast to the earlier ringing silence, this formal triumph may confine the space in which the word “beautiful” here echoes with its appearance in the second, and dazzlingly strong poem, “what my mother (a poet) might say”. Or, to return to my nephew’s Cornetto, it may prevent the ice cream from being lost.
Having read this collection “over and over”, I keep digging up new riches: a fusing of propaganda and the weight of the past with images of memory loss, as in the melancholic ‘Wet Nurse (Shanghai, 1953)’; or a satisfyingly physical use of the language of food and taste to explore ideas of home (see the mother swallowing “both past and future in one gulp” in the final poem). But what particularly shines out is Chan’s exploration of religious freedom and repression.
Take ‘At the Castro’, for example, where the dominant ‘o’ reappears in prayer and a kiss is described as a “cathedral / of mouths”. Reiterating the previous poem’s image of a “curvature of tongue” as a blessing, maenadic ecstasy mirrors the Christian eucharist:
limbs loosening into whiplash
toes into tambourines your tongue
whispering oh my god
By interweaving this eroticised religious imagery with memories of the repressiveness of a Christian upbringing (such as “the Lord who would never / grant me permission to love you”, in ‘The Horse and the Monkey’), Chan reclaims the language of religion. She blasts apart the dichotomy of sacred and profane, in keeping with the powerful, understated insistence of the collection as a whole. This, she proclaims, “is how heretics / become holy”.