haunt by Jody Chan (Damaged Goods Press, 2018)
Reviewed by Leonora Simonovis
“for all my mothers, by blood & by blessings”
This dedication unravels Jody Chan’s beautifully crafted collection of poems where longing, grief, memory and its ghosts weave themselves on each page, allowing the reader to partake in the redemptive quality of poetry, as well as in its ability to make sense of a world that is not always welcoming. Chan’s poems acutely render the disorienting emotions that stem from the rigid imposition of gender against which the speaker rebels once and again: “I can’t tell you when I knew I was queer/but last night I left my baby teeth/in your neck like a bouquet/of tombstones.” The mother is a prominent figure in many of the poems, an interlocutor the speaker addresses directly or indirectly with their truth which, in turn, deviates from a set of expectations regarding their gender. The use of lower case, both in the title of the book and in each of the poems’ titles further accentuates the non-gender conformity of the speaker. At the same time, the way the poems are organized and structured –thematically and experientially– imply a sort of becoming, in which the speaker rises against all odds: “it is possible to chart our destiny/by the proper arrangement of furniture.” The poems are furniture and each stanza a room in which life can be re-worked/re-made, in which the speaker –and the reader– can unravel and transform.
But this process is not devoid of pain. In “telling my mother I’m not her daughter,” the speaker uses Chinese characters at different points throughout the poem, emphasizing the miscommunication happening between mother and daughter, not just at the most basic level of language, but also within the deep confines of their relationship and social/cultural expectations:
“how can I explain this/to you/we share no words/for what I am/girl/bird/boy/tangled thing/so name me/what you want.”
In this last iteration, the speaker seems to surrender to the mother’s will, but as we move into the poem, the speaker challenges heteronormative and binary constructs and formulates the physicality of gender as felt in her own body: “today I excavate/ a question/ from my skin/ & call it/ gender.” The poem poses questions that dismantle constructs by offering a different order: “have you ever wanted/ to be the bayonet/ & not the bird?” or “have you ever wanted/ to be the cancer/ & not the soft feast or organs?” In the end, these questions do not lead to specific answer, but rather to an affirmation of what the speaker is via the denial of what they are not: “I do not want to be a woman/ because I am not/ a woman/ finally/ my body dismantles/ its invisible yoke.” The opposing images which the speaker chooses to represent the male-female dichotomy are also disassembled by the idea that one does not necessarily exclude the other and that sometimes the same person can be both “battering ram” and “pillow.” The poem proposes its own definition of queerness which, in the end, is also an interrogation.
Chan artfully plays with different forms throughout the book, as well as with the blank space, weaving form and content in a seamless manner that counteracts the state of mind of the speaker. The first poem in the collection is a ghazal titled “ghost” which is about the mother both as a family figure but also as language (“mother tongue”). In addition, the speaker is named after her mother, which brings forth an inherited history of women in the family and of their roles in society. “ghost” serves as context for what the rest of the collection will explore, the burden and longing of tradition, the gaps in the mother language, the meaning of the name Rita “to practice or commit to memory” which seals the fate of the speaker to never forget where they came from and what is valued by their culture of origin. The poems that follow speak about other family members and about the erasure that implies becoming a citizen in another land, far away from the speaker’s origins. The poem “erasure” takes the form of a legal document based on Canada’s Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s apology for the Chinese head tax, which was created in the 19th century to deter Chinese immigrants from coming to Canada. The poem uses the line spacing and breaks to create the impression of emptiness this apology represents:
No country is perfect Canada its
deceased No country is perfect Canada its
past we are good and just
a product of a different time
the repetition of “our past,” the use of Chinese characters, and the fact that the poem scatters words that should be meaningful in this context such as “legally authorized,” “hardship,” and “sorrow,” all contribute to the feeling of vacuity documents like this usually imply. They become less about the affected people and center in creating the false impression of a united nation against injustice, without any true reparations.
Whaunt is also an ode to the challenges of living with mental illness and the aftermath of sexual abuse, to how bodies adjust and adapt and what it means to desire something/someone without the need to consume it and possess it. The speaker leads the reader through the rabbit holes of depression and of borderline personality disorder and we faithfully follow the meanderings of a body learning to accept itself by re-asserting its presence in the world:“I was born homesick in my own body.”We see a mind that can sometimes become unreliable –“which parts of you did you kill so you could be loved?” The title of the collection, “haunt,” refers not only to the literal ghosts that shadow the speaker throughout the book and the memories they represent –the mother, the first girl they fell in love with, the girl they kissed– but also to the body as a haunted space where the coexisting of identities take place and where violence is performed, both by others and by the speaker themselves. In the end though haunt is, as the last poem reiterates, “an offering” of queerness as a possible future, of re-naming things “not for what they are but what we believe/they could be.” It is a collection of poems about remembrance and survival and, as the speaker says in the very last poem, “a love story.”