It’s been an exhilarating week for me, reading quickly and deeply, and then finding the words to record the flurry of emotions unleashed by each successive voice. And recording these reflections has been a matter of speaking into an invisible space that has felt reassuringly companionable. If you’re reading this, I want to thank you for being here to listen and, on occasion, answer back.
I want to nod quickly to each of the poets whose work has surprised and inspired me so far this past week: Ross Gay, Traci Brimhall, Jericho Brown, Jacqueline Jones LaMon and Craig Morgan Teicher. I haven’t said so explicitly, so I will now: if you haven’t already, you really must go out and get your hands on these books. And here’s one more to add to your wish-list: Tina Chang’s Of Gods & Strangers, due out from Four Way Books this October.
It’s no secret that Tina is one of my oldest and dearest friends, one of my first and best readers, a long-time companion in the craft. For that reason, a part of me fears that anything I say about her book—any of the superlatives I want to hurl into cyberspace—will be greeted with a dram of skepticism. Years ago, when we were linked in The McSweeney’s Book of Poets Picking Poets, a blogger snarked “Smith and Chang’s mutual admiration also runs to taking each other’s author photos.” Blah blah blah. Caveat lector: if you are going to be bothered by me loving a book written by someone I love in real life, well, let us part ways now while things between us remain sweet.
Of Gods & Strangers is written in cinemascope. It is large-scale, epic, sifting through the embers and emblems of outlived eras, and carrying what it finds back toward the future we are in the process of cementing into place. When I try to think about what this ambitious collection (a whopping 112 pages long) is about, the first word that comes to mind is time. In Chang’s cosmology, time is the vehicle we ride, something built to serve our human habit of going. In “Sex Gospels,” written in seven sections and chronicling the drama of a romantic relationship—the ways that lovers live out a history, igniting and consuming one another—time is a train:
I’ve watched the train move in me. 35 years through
New York, Pittsburgh, Maryland, DC, Taiwan,
India, Tunisia. I’ll arrive home by evening, breathing
through my one good heart. Invisible bandits stand
by the tracks ready to take what we value most.
……………………The train doesn’t remember the stops
it passed. Only minds the wind and that it must exceed it.
History taught them better. No one was coming.
The film crews had their sights on the large hotels,
the embassies. So they set to digging with their hands
and with the shoes of those who were no longer alive.
Perhaps it is Chang’s ability to see the varied nature of time that allows these poems to move so easily from one mode and historical moment to the next. China’s last empress, known as the Empress Dowager, who ruled from 1861-1908, appears alongside an imaginary DJ; the reader is carried from the modern Philippine city of Baguio to the Ogadan Desert in Ethiopia. It is a book in movement, in flux, racing to chronicle the movements and markers of both public and private progress.
In the book’s opening poem, “Unfinished Book of Mortals,” which glides easily between folk tales and modern political crises, Chang seems to point the reader toward this kind of fluidity:
V. I bent the corners of the pages to keep my place in history.
As if a kind of faith were in the saving.
VIII. Then the book was written again.
IX. Then the book was never finished.
XI. No noise.
XII. We call this aftermath.
XIII. We call it end.
XIV. Before beginning.
XV. My hand over your mouth.
XVI. You want to smash me.
XVII. You’re angry.
XVIII. You are writing the book too.
XIX. You are the author now.
I am continually astounded by the authority in these poems, and by the stark, unsettling questions and facts that are constantly arising in these lines. I think it is the kind of conversation many of us are having with one another and ourselves. What are we moving toward as a nation and as a planet? Can any of the damage we have done be reversed? What is there still time to learn from our past?
There is also a whole private realm within the book, a series of rooms and evenings and encounters between the book’s speaker or speakers and a lover. The heat and danger of that private space is both an alternative to and a reflection of the larger, more far-off world the book considers. Marvelously, Chang manages to interrogate these private spaces with the same ferocious vigor she brings to bear upon the public spaces the book races through. In “I Demand That You Know My Flying,” the speaker finds herself at the end of a night that still echoes in her body and mind:
You’re at the earth’s hot core,
lower than that, you’re in bed
sleeping soundly after a night
on the Lower East Side, lower
and you’ve hunted yourself down,
beast locked inside your beast heart,
disco music, old school music,
you’ve gotten past it, the lyric
nonsensical now, la la la went
the thick chords when you ripped
the song out of the earth’s throat
and slept with it and you hummed
and it hummed back.
On one level, perhaps the remembered encounter with the city is a substitute for or an emblem of an encounter with a romantic other, but the poem’s greatest urgency, and even its highest pitch of erotic energy, exists within the lines where the you in question comes face to face with itself.
In “Love,” the speaker reflects more directly upon the nature of a romantic relationship:
...................My mother does not know I am lying
with a man who is darker than me, that we do not
have names for how we truly treat our bodies.
What we do with them. The other possesses me.
Without him the perception of me fails to exist.
But interspersed in the poem is an awareness of what our privacy signals: the nature of occlusion, omission, “[h]ow a republic falls because of its backhanded deals,/stairwell secrets.” By its end, the poem is not only an examination of the self, but the culture to which the self belongs. “Does truth matter,” Chang asks, “when it’s floating face up or face down?”
As usual, there is more—much more—to say about these poems and what they give voice to. I’ll conclude with a few stanzas from “So Much Light We Could See to the Other Side,” which strikes me as part loving catalog of human progress, part elegy to an epoch marked equally by astounding progress and crushing disappointment, part warning and part plea:
The archeologist found our bones and said we were a strong
and healthy race, grew more ingenious than any generation before us,
before we fell away from wit, invention, our own empty embrace.
We ran to our end like leaping into a volcano. Unstoppable fury.
We should have disappeared entirely after the bomb, the floods,
our own desertion. Someone's mouth blows dust off the bones.
The soothsayer predicts that we will come back, the cosmonaut
is willing to bet when the world ended there were more
stars filling the sky than ever before.
If time is something we are living both in and with, this book is a roadmap to what we might be emboldened to seek there, and a set of questions we might begin gathering the courage to ask.