“A Dialogue With My Own Temperament” (Diana Chang, 1984)

Here is my favourite of the poems in Diana Chang’s collection What Matisse is After:

A Dialogue With My Own Temperament

Must you, I sigh again,
must you disturb the peace I also garden?

     Small aspects detach themselves from a field
     the dog’s color matches the wheat
     but in motion and thought
     he parts from the unawakened sheaves

My nature replies, I know you come and go.

(Am I hers
or is she my soul?)

Ah yes, I remember with relief,
glad to see nothing down the road of promise and will.
I can do without me very well, she mockingly reminds me
yet walks alongside like a montage
The lanes oblivion all the way

Stray knowledge laments
in trees likes doves.
We’ve each offered more than our hand:
Striving, grief, patience and love

I’ve nothing to say. I am deaf
and single and dumb.
This peace I need, pure and plain,
is such a joy,

Is dismay.
I am away again—
cast far like a long shadow

Go. Stay gone. Why do I keep returning,
large with new time?

But she unfurls
her breath in my sleep
And I have things to say to myself again.
I’m the very rain she rains and weathers.
Once more

we are

one another.

How can I judge a poem that feels so close to my own experience that I recognise my thoughts in many of the lines? Not at all, so I only share it, and wonder as I read it over again if I might grow large enough to be always the rain.

What Matisse is After (Diana Chang, 1984)

ChangMatissePx2
At the beginning of October I took a vacation, spending some days in a cabin surrounded by redwoods with someone I dearly love. Afterwards came two weeks of catching up with my ordinary life, organising birthday parties and baking for a fundraiser and spending far too many hours daydreaming about being back at that cabin. But here upon this last Monday of October I am starting to find my rhythm again, and so I have more poetry by Diana Chang, whose collection What Matisse is After came from the library while I was gone. It is a beautiful collection, one of those books which is a pleasure to hold; my photo does not do justice to the cover, that boldness of the black and red upon the pale matte grey, nor does the texture come through, the paper not quite smooth to the touch. Inside, with the poems, there are drawings; I have even fewer words for visual art than I do for poetry, but they are simple, black and white and grey, seeming to me about the lines themselves, the size and shape and angles of them, experiments in form, perhaps. Whatever the words for them, I like them.

As always when reading a collection, I find the poems themselves to be a mix; some that do not work for me at all, some which come close but not quite, and some which are very good. Chang’s best poems do not, for me, reach the level of Mark Strand or Jane Hirshfield, but the why of it eludes me; I do not know if they are objectively weaker in some way I might eventually learn to define, or simply less the sort of thing I appreciate. Still, there are some which linger. This is one:

Naming

Because it is white we call it snow
The dark side of things is true to names, too

Geese scribbling across the sky
are having their say indefinitely

The wind of time drops
We will be a lasting quiet

By surprise, deer are fastened to a field
Cameras also try their desperate stilling

Through nerved,
we find, in any case,
what we gave away is called years.

I like some of the language of this one for itself, the geese having their say indefinitely, and also the concept of it, the naming of things, holding things still through naming; it is a poem which unfolds itself a little in my mind with the reading, but only a little, not largely.

I like this one as well, the title poem:

What Matisse is After

The straight in a curve
is what Matisse is after

two lines
one veering in,

an invitation to
the rest of space,
the other

a long gourd
swelling
out of bone

an arm  sings
that its reach

rounds
into a heave
of loving

the line of a thigh
on its departure
toward returning

in the teeth
of our dying

what elegant
flying

He exhales paint we need

to
breathe

Simple in that way that takes much craft, and flowing, and it captures a little of the looking at a painting’s line and form in the way the words move.

My very favourite poem in this collection is quite long, so I am going to save it for tomorrow.

Asian-American Poetry: Diana Chang

I could fill pages with my outrage at a white male poet posing as a Chinese women in order to benefit from attempts to listen to Asian-American voices — as if the entire world did not already listen long and well to white men. But instead of adding another white voice to the outcry, I encourage anyone who has not already done so to read Jia Tolentino’s article above, and then go read Jenny Zhang’s Buzzfeed article.

In the meanwhile, I am going to rectify my own narrow vision, for while I have been reading classical Chinese & Japanese poetry in translation for decades, I am entirely unfamiliar with the work of Asian-American poets. It is a rich body of work to explore, and I have begun by acquiring some older collections of Asian-American writing from the library and investigating the authors whom I meet there. The first of these is Diana Chang; she was born in New York in 1934, but grew up in China, only returning to the United States after World War II. Her 1956 novel, The Frontiers of Love, is believed to be the first novel by an American-born Chinese published in the United States. She went on to publish five more novels, and then began to publish collections of poetry — but so far as I can tell, poetry is where she began; her first publication seems to have been three poems in the November 1946 issue of Poetry Magazine. Here is one:

Knowing What Desires We Have Had

Knowing what desires we have had (some flaring, beautiful ambitions),
And have had to let go,
And knowing what questions we have put off answering,
Slurring over them, always,
Seeing double, gladly,
(Fearful, unbigoted minds grasping at both sides of every question),
It is not surprising, only regrettable that we should have come to this.

And now we are too-far gone:
We have practiced too well a partial living.
From here, there is no recovery.

To the roomful of us, it seems always to have been this way:
You, I, and the other, manifesting conversation,
Watching the gestures of talk.
We hear the silence, uneasily,
Fearing the next pause might give us away.

It is a beautiful poem, very clear, building that tension of regret and despair. It needs no biography to make it live and move, but I cannot read it unaware of Chang’s life; this was published when she had been in the United States for at most a year. Coming to New York to finish high school after living in wartime China seems a very definite double vision. Perhaps not what she meant at all, but it is there in my reading, in part because of this much more recent poem of hers which seems to be included in a number of textbooks and thus, one hopes, frequently taught:

Saying Yes

“Are you Chinese?”
“Yes.”

“American?”
“Yes.”

Really Chinese?”
“No… not quite.”

Really American?”
“Well, actually, you see…”

But I would rather say
yes

Not neither-nor
not maybe,
but both, and not only

The homes I’ve had,
the ways I am

I’d rather say it twice,
yes

The more I read these poems and others by her, the more I consider her work, the more excited I am to have encountered her. I will be reading more of Chang’s poetry, and all of her novels which the library can provide, and will of course write about them here in the months to come.