Jeffrey Barbieri on Wendy Chen’s Unearthings.
As an essayist, I am familiar with writing that engages in personal disclosure. Too often, nonfiction work resembles something more like a therapy session—the writer has disclosed raw, personal details without making any self-reflexive attempt to interrogate or connect their story to their identity, or whatever their larger commentary or exploration may be. Do writers shy away from this task because one’s own identity is so difficult to parse, tangled up as it is in the biases of memory, ego, trauma, and society? Or are we simply not curious enough about what undergirds our interpretations of personal experience? In Wendy Chen’s Unearthings, there is no such paucity of curiosity. Chen’s poetry provides instructive to both writers of nonfiction and poetry, simultaneously lamenting, exploring, and basking in the tangled multitudes of an identity formed by centuries of familial and cultural history.
Unearthings makes no qualms about its desire to disclose a family’s history, but it is also clear that the author is at work interrogating these disclosures. The opening poem of the collection expresses complicity in a family history that is often less than savory—“suicide, suicide: / the familial sickness”—and eschews any possibility of detachment from the telling. Chen undoes the concept of tabula rasa, stating “I am a piece of slate stained, / scarred with the footprints of the dead.” Already we know Chen is more than a voyeur on this tour of her family’s history; therefore, we too are allowed to engage in a manner that transcends base curiosity.
Chen’s collection is a weaving of escalations, a slinky undulating in reverse, up the attic steps toward the musty wooden box where the cipher to all the family’s secrets is kept. There is an ever-present drive to carry out many lines of thinking and we are compelled as readers to follow Chen to the intersection of generational history, personal and familial trauma, a reckoning with her human body, and the Asian-American immigrant experience. She is a student of tradition, inviting 11th-century Chinese poet Li Qingzhao to the table as a prominent interlocutor and vowing to follow in her path: “Still, I follow you, doggedly, / like a child in a story. / And each year the snow melts on my face / the same way it did yours.” A short biography of Li Qingzhao notes that her poetry is known for an “emotional intensity” that results from its “focus on relating personal experiences.” After her husband’s death and her exile, her poems took on “a somber, grief-stricken tone.” She is regarded as a master of “wanyue pai,” a Chinese poetic style whose name roughly translates to “the graceful school.” Chen’s work translating Li Qingzhao’s poems and her willingness to integrate Qingzhao’s penchant for grace in disclosure lends to the collection the gravitas of a cultural tradition of poetics.
What of my cultural heritage do I need if America is a suit tailored perfectly for me?
Interlocutors are important; they are fellow thinkers to whom we refer our readers. The essay relies on creating a conversation around one’s subject, even if that conversation is with oneself. Poetry, I think, relies on the same dictum. Is there a way, though, that a conversation with oneself is also a conversation with one’s interlocutors? What are we if not an amalgamation of the thoughts and opinions we gather from others? By reading, by listening and responding, by way of literal conversations with living people or figurative back-and-forth meditations on the texts written by thinkers of different eras, we build our repertoire of interlocutors and therefore build our interiority. In my own essaying, I have engaged interlocutors as various as Virginia Woolf, Alex Trebek, Hunter S. Thompson, a joke chain email from 2002, and my mother. I am always adding to this concoction of interiority, this bubbling inner soup of tendencies, curiosities, delights, nonsense, preferences, biases, and morality. Essaying is diabolical in that it requires that I pour only a little of my mind’s bisque at a time in order to avoid tipping and spilling the entire unwieldy pot onto the page and making an unintelligible mess of whatever I’m working on. Chen’s poetry embraces the painstaking effort required for this “interiority pour.”
She offers us Li Qingzhao, Giacomo Puccini’s Madama Butterfly, and the sculptor Auguste Rodin, but also proves, as I also try to, that not all interlocutors must exist at the forefront of their artistic fields, or must even be artists at all. In Ordinary Clamor, a somber but graceful account of her family’s domestic turmoil caused by her abusive father, she recalls her mother saying “Stay, for love. ” Later, in the final poem of a series about Chen’s own troubled relationship, Fastened V, it is not Qingzhao’s or Puccini’s or Rodin’s voice that calls upon her. Rather, she is left alone with the voice of her mother, “Old kernel of a voice. / It was saying Stay, for love. / It was saying Love, stay.” We often find kernels of truth, “beads of pure life,” as Virginia Woolf writes in The Death of a Moth, in places that we might not readily expect to find them. In this moment, Chen finds her voice through her mother’s words, even as she feels afflicted with Madame Butterfly’s powerless silence.
The interlocution Chen has with Puccini’s opera is perhaps the most striking bit of weaving (“each thread / a ligature”) the collection accomplishes. She deftly melds herself with the character of Madame Butterfly, a Japanese woman who marries a white American man, only to be abandoned and taken advantage of by him. She uses this acquired subject position to more fully realize themes already at play: the silencing she feels, the way white American culture fetishizes and uses Asian women, the way she feels picked apart like an insect. In Which I Am Afflicted with Mme. Butterfly offers a full portrait of the metastasizing condition—a metamorphosis that takes on the qualities of a parasitic disease. There is “No way to cut her out, / pull her out / through my throat.” This allusion to Butterfly’s method of suicide (cutting her own throat) pays off once again in the final poem of the Mme. Butterfly series, which concludes: “Puccini, give her the knife.” We know that in the opera, Butterfly slits her own throat, but, in handing the knife over to her without describing the result, Chen encourages us to consider a rewriting of the scene in which Butterfly ends her powerlessness by using the knife on the faithless American. Give her the knife, indeed.
The scope of Chen’s collection, encompassing a poetic tradition from the 11th century, World War Two-era family history, more recent nuclear family history, and other such cultural interlocutors such as Puccini and Rodin, prompted me to think of analogs in my own life. I am not primarily a poet, rather, I write essays following a tradition I can most directly trace back to Montaigne’s essais. These essays, these “attempts” that I write are not, therefore, the result of a cultural link to my interlocutor, at least not in the way that Chen is kindred with Li Qingzhao.
But do I even have a need to try and identify with my heritage? As a third generation Italian-American, and a white male, I feel thoroughly assimilated into American culture. Italian immigrants have long since been granted their “white card”; racists and xenophobes have long since moved on to pastures of hate much more fertile, with many Italian-Americans, ironically enough, joining in on the Trump-led chorus of pejoratives hurled at today’s “illegals.” Recently, while staying with relatives in New York City, (to which my mom’s parents emigrated from Sicily and where she grew up) I found a Make America Great Again hat, sterling scarlet radiating from the guest room nightstand. I had already known from protracted and often heated rounds of online debate that many of my New York relatives support Trump, but to see it in three dimensions, commodified, it seemed to me proof that they have really bought in. Wasn’t it just a couple of generations ago that we faced the very same type of resistance to our presence in this country? Alas, we are white now, and whatever our struggle as wops used to be, I don’t feel kindred to it at all, especially not when I see how my relatives and others who share my heritage have weaponized that struggle to defend their current bigotry. The flimsy moral soapbox on which Italian-Americans stand to differentiate their emigration from that of today’s immigrants—the idea that they “did it the right way”—is owed completely to the arbitrary nature of United States immigration policy. The only thing separating my grandparents, who fled poor conditions in Sicily, and many who are fleeing from the Middle East and Central America today, is whether Washington decided to leave the door open for immigrants or slam it in their faces that particular year. Is this fact—the withered idea that my grandparents came here without breaking the law because the law favored them when they happened to arrive in New York City—supposed to make me feel some type of pride in my heritage? Or am I supposed to be proud of the bigotry? Jersey Shore? Admittedly, ma’s family recipes are a crucial saving grace.
Before I get too far afield, I must pose the question: what of my cultural heritage do I need if America is a suit tailored perfectly for me? I am part of the amorphous, white, male blob that tends to have things the easiest way. I do not have Wendy Chen’s experiences. I have not faced discrimination and my voice has not been silenced. If I want it to, my voice can boom to fill any room in which I wish to speak. White men like me have long held the power to silence or modulate the voices of cultural others. I am the easiest face for the dominant American culture to accept, and I can wield the privilege that comes with these facts in myriad ways. It is troubling and confusing, after growing up under the pretense that we live in a country where everyone is free and equal, to encounter and understand these conditions, but to acknowledge the pervasive, insidious extent of this power dynamic and begin to rework it might be more difficult still. All this to say that, though I do not often feel the need to look to my heritage, Chen relies on hers as a way of reclaiming that which has othered her and been weaponized against her. She writes in The Encounter:
You know yourself
thrown into relief.
Whole, at last,
You leave her
her dead body a silk curtain
embroidered with smiling cranes.
I own the accusation. This act of speaking truth to power is one that I must not only spotlight when undertaken by others, but also must be a tenet of my own project as a writer of essays. If any of my rhetoric on whiteness seems self-congratulatory, this is not my aim. In my search for my own analogs to Chen’s experiences, I wish to elevate and to admire her efforts to put into context her experience as a minority in America, an experience that I, as a white male, feel a responsibility to help amplify in our cultural discourse.
Perhaps it is also my responsibility to plumb my cultural history, not as a source of interlocutors and inner strength, but as a way of taking precautions against becoming the unthinking, toxic white male that Chen maligns above. If I did make a more concerted effort to engage in my Italian heritage, what would I find? I asked my mother if we had any family secrets I could air as part of my effort to engage with Chen’s poems. The only thing she could think of off the top of her head was that her mother’s sister had a child out of wedlock and was consequently sent to become a nun and forced to give up the baby. “Your uncle Peter would be better at that stuff.” Peter is the oldest child, the keeper of lore, but only because he went back to live in Italy for years and made a concerted effort to meet all branches of the family. Why doesn’t my mom know? I’d be willing to bet it has something to do with being born in America, and being born white. I asked her if she feels like it’s an Italian thing to not talk about sources of familial shame. She said that she thinks so—that Italians are “very proud people.”
The word “proud” here strikes out at me. I am reminded of past quarrels with Italian-Americans, both within my family and without. Knocking doors for a Latino mayoral candidate in Providence, Rhode Island, I encountered plenty of “between-you-and-me” racism from “my people,” many of whom were dead set on voting for our opponent—twice convicted Italian political legend Buddy Cianci. I’ve pissed off family members by dissenting on topics ranging from Trump to the anti-vaccination movement. Suffice to say that many of my family members are loathe to admit the awfulness of their ideas. Stubborn, prideful—these are the Italian stereotypes that apply all to well here. I am too reminded of a time at a family gathering with my grandparents when my late grandfather, who emigrated to America from Sicily and mostly spoke in Sicilian, started singing a song in his mother tongue. Though he was elderly, he still had his wits about him. He was sharp and enigmatic; his tune was not a deranged machination. Later, after someone had deciphered the words, they found that my Nonno had been singing some kind of national anthem of Mussolini’s fascist regime. Though my Nonno was kind, honest, and loving, it must be stated that this is the kind of pride I come from. My cousin, Peter’s daughter, recently told me upon returning from her own pilgrimage to Sicily that she was saddened by how many of our relatives are still deeply racist. The resurgence of far-right politics in the motherland confirms that my extended family is not unique in this regard.
If I took time to dig them up, would all of my family’s unearthings be like this? Do I have a duty to confront every fascistic mark on my family’s past, so that I might steel myself to avoid making the same mistakes in a new era of white supremacy? Perhaps not, perhaps that would be an impossible task, but applying this methodology to reckon with history at-large would be a productive exercise, especially given the complicity of whiteness and white supremacy in today’s deteriorating American polity. Taking a cue from Chen, I must take the bad along with the good of my cultural heritage, for I, too, it seems, “am a piece of slate stained”; stained by the Italian-American adoption of the worst parts of whiteness. Unearthing complicity ought to be a vital directive of the new progressive movement.
I feel an energy of new growth, just as Chen does when she writes: “I stand where I have planted rows. / In a week, their unintelligible leaves all pitch into the air.” Through her planting, Chen discloses and reckons; interrogates and transforms. Hers is a poetry of metamorphoses; as she transforms from a human into Madame Butterfly, her memories, her humiliations and family secrets transform as well. They transform from difficult facets of her interior life that refuse resolution into spaces that are reclaimed by way of interlocution, and therefore, spaces where new sprouts of interiority and understanding can grow. The leaves of these sprouts may be unintelligible at first, but for Chen, the poet-cum-gardener, the pleasure is in the tending. In the tending she has created a flowering plot of family history in which, by pacing down and up the rows, she may begin to formulate a better understanding of herself.
Jeff Barbieri is a writer of nonfiction essays and an MFA candidate at Columbia College Chicago. He is originally from Rhode Island and carries that brusque New England cynicism with him wherever he goes. Hang around him long enough and you’ll be sure to catch one of his trademark diatribes bemoaning feckless Silicon Valley billionaires and their “innovative” technologies, ineffective Democratic politicians, or something of the like. You can currently read his work by hacking his Dropbox account. Stay tuned by following him on Twitter @chefbarbieri.
Unearthings by Wendy Chen • Tavern Books, 2018 • 104 pages