The Phoenix Gone, The Terrace Empty
by Marilyn Chin
Born in Hong Kong, raised in Portland Oregon, schooled in Iowa and Massachusetts, and currently "exiled" in San Diego, where she instructs M.F.A. students at San Diego University, Chinese-American Marilyn Chin writes with poetic homage to history and homeland as she pushes an activist agenda for hybridity. In Marilyn Chin's poetry, double descriptions of consciousness, place, and race and time are portrayed without pitting the traditional East directly against the (post)modern West. Grounded in concrete observations on her everyday life experiences, these poems demonstrate what philosophy and postcolonial studies merely theorize.
Although the categories of what is Chinese or American are clearly evident in her writing, the way in which she mixes, borrows, and samples and appropriates from each culture- describing one in terms of the other- does not seem strange, unnatural or worse- forced. Chin's poems obscure the obvious with lucidity. Past does more than inform the present: history and memory are gracefully evident in her perceptions of the contemporary, even when the images are violent. The descriptions "Mongolians on horseback", "soldiers named Tu Fu," and her roommate in the bathroom, "fucking my boyfriend" seem like a logical combination in "All I Have is Tu Fu."
"Song of the Sad Guitar" reads like a folk tale and describes modern America through references to Chinese traditions, customs, and myths: "In the bitter year of 1988 I was banished to San Diego California, to become a wife there. It was summer. I was buying groceries under the yin yan sign of Safeway."
Race and culture are the most prominent themes in her poems, but categories and classifications of gender, citizenship and sanity/mental health are also problematized. The poems in "The Phoenix." are subdivided into six sections. One of these, Homage to Diana Toy" is a series of poems inspired by a patient from Crestwood Psychiatric Hospital. Using the patients at the psychiatric hospital as a metaphor for oppressed and misunderstood minorities, the politics of legitimacy and labeling are especially poignant for the psychiatric patients because their freedom literally depends on how they are diagnosed by hospital administrators and others in positions of power.
Boundaries are neither blurred nor annihilated in her conflicted descriptions of assimilation. Rather, Chin provides a thoughtful portrayal of bicultural experience with wit, pain and humor by melting the pointed and the peaceful. Poems like "How I Got That Name," "Barbarian Suite," and "Tienanmen, the Aftermath" mourns losses and celebrates whatever remains without being emotionally manipulative or self-pitying.
The breadth of Marilyn Chin's global scope is matched by her immense skill. Chin's writing is compelling without being content driven. The poems in "The Phoenix." articulate the experiences and impressions of first-generation immigrants with a level of technical caliber that should serve as a challenge to the rest of Asian American literature.