Review of "Rhapsody in Plain Yellow"
by Marilyn Chin
review by Mary Wise
Now, more than ever we feel our changing world and look to poetry to give us voice, to console and to guide. Marilyn Chin's new book of poems, Rhapsody in Plain Yellow, does precisely that. Through it, she reminds us to look within ourselves and to be aware that it is here that conflict begins. She says it best in The True Story of Mortar and Pestle,"…the bad sister pounding the good. Somewhere in / the scintillating powder we grind into light." This light is where we all live, where everything is created and destroyed."Somewhere" between our two warring selves, where friction is greatest, is where we become alive.
She begins our journey into this world with Blues on Yellow, a song about fate and fear creating conflict,"O crack an egg on the griddle, yellow will ooze into white… Run, run, sweet little Puritan, yellow will ooze into white." Tension is created through this presentation of an inevitable mixing of two worlds that, for purity's sake, is unwanted.
In That Half is Almost Gone we see a shift emerge, which further clarifies our tension," You are a Chinese! / My mother was adamant. / You are a Chinese? / My mother less convinced. / Are you not Chinese? / My mother now accepting." The conflict, although still somewhat felt by the mother, has now shifted into the daughter. This is no longer two outer forces grinding against one another, this is now a self grinding against a self,"You are a Chinese - said my mother / who once walked the fields of her dead - / Today, on the 36th anniversary of my birth, / I have problems now / even with the salutation." Regret and a sense of the inevitable are strong.
Take a Left at the Waters of Samsara also emphasizes this world of disappointment and confusion about one's choices in life. She writes of a strong sense of detachment from nature and from her mother, which symbolizes the past she lost through the inevitable changes of life. She writes,"A nation of frogs regale / Swell-throated, bass-toned / One belts and rages, the others follow / They fuck blissfully / Trapped in their cycle / of rebirth, transient love / Unprepared for higher ground… And I, my mother's aging girl / Myopic, goat-footed / Got snagged on an unmarked trail… I still yearn for her womb / And can't detach." In this world she appears lost. As she"sit(s) at her mother's grave for hours" it is clear she is searching for some taste of"the truth." She watches nature, pure and happy, and herself is left asking"What is the void but motherlessness?" Nature then, seems to answer,"The song bellies up / The sun taketh / The rain ceases to bless" and all seems to be the void.
Chin's poems bring this warring reality of the self to life not only through touching personal subject matter but through her poetic form as well. She combines a more traditional narrative style with a postmodern experimentalism to create a stronger push/pull tension within individual poems such as Where We Live Now and Rhapsody in Plain Yellow where she uses space and punctuation to cause the reader to embody the tension. She also emphasizes conflict through her organization of the book. She places poems in such a way that their formal opposition adds to the reflective internal friction, which helps propel the reader further into this grinding world.
Rhapsody in Plain Yellow is a very complex and satisfying work of art that nourishes the soul and provides hope for the self. Marilyn Chin brings us these powerful words at a time when we most need them, when we are most questioning. They provide us not with answers but instead remind us to think about who we are and to become peaceful with that which we cannot control. And although these words come at a visibly needed moment, this is a food that we should all eat often, regardless of the perceived frailty of our times.