Crazy Melon and Chinese Apple - reviewed by Thaddeus Rutkowski

"Crazy Melon and Chinese Apple"by Frances Chung Wesleyan University Press/University Press of New England 23 South Main Street, Hanover, NH 03755-2055 182 pages; cloth, $30.00; paper, $15.95


Review by Thaddeus Rutkowski

Collected for the first time in book form, the poems of Frances Chung (1950-90) create a clear, high-contrast picture of recent life in New York's Chinatown. With intimacy and immediacy, these flashes of free verse and brief prose bring us into a vital, insular, other world. Here, jerry-built Buddhist altars sit in tenement apartments, glazed ducks hang in restaurant windows, sweatshops hum, a Chinese bum looks like a poet, and some of the young people fancy themselves part of a powerful tradition.

The young people's whimsy comes partly from local culture and partly from the movie theater, which shows films about emperors, concubines, warriors and swordswomen. It's possible to get lost in such roles, the poems suggest, by studying the "flow of chi" and the codes of the I Ching, all in a search for the ability to move mountains with the palm of one's hand. But the poems also pose a question: Are these young Asian-Americans appropriating useful philosophy or just blowing their minds?

Off-celluloid, Chinatown's reality can be gritty. In a clothing factory, a mother works while her daughters visit for lunch; part of her job is attaching labels she can't read. A co-worker says she takes the Number 11 bus to work, meaning her legs. Chinese Muzak plays in the background while the women gossip about their helpful/stupid husbands.

Unexcited about coupledom, the speaker in one poem cannot talk about the subject of marriage with her mother, because the topic leads to anger.

Elsewhere in the hood, smoking Mah-Jong players slap their markers "under the halo of a hanging lamp" a dentist holding a screwdriver approaches a terrified woman, and flies hovering over garbage cans provide sport for fast-fingered children.

Outsiders see little of the actual life behind the stoops. Tourists notice slanted eyes, a phone booth in the shape of a pagoda, an arhat in a shop window that looks like a 90-year-old man. Visitors come to "eat chinks" Under such scrutiny, the narrator of one poem (presumably a young woman), says she is "of some use ... some inspiration to the two men across the lunchcounter." She is chinky enough for them.

Chinkiness, vis a vis the larger world, is not an asset. English-speaking men call Chinese women "Susie Wong," though few, if any, of the women are named Susie. Puerto Rican men call them "chinita." The objectification arouses wariness, discomfort and the desire to travel. A number of Chung's poems are set far from Chinatown--in San Francisco, Hong Kong, Taiwan, Mexico and Guatemala. One of the poems consists solely of a short list of common words, such as "forest," "flower" and "moon," in three languages: English, Spanish and Chinese pictogram.

Back home, cockroaches infest the speaker's mind. In a dream, the insects scatter when she drums a beat on their tabletop home. The thought of settling down "with the nice young man from Brooklyn with the car and the college degree" is interrupted by a cockroach running across her brain. One poem reads in its entirety, "Where is the cockroach who left/its footprint on my bowl?" Like a koan, the pest question has no answer, but it may inspire valuable contemplation.

Chung's Chinatown is not all drab hallways and vermin (and children, called "little mosquitoes," that resemble vermin). Colors and bright spots abound.

Crazy Melon and Chinese Apple , the titles of the two separate manuscripts that make up this collection, single out fruit to elevate it. In one poem, the speaker is "fruit crazy." She states that a pomegranate, or Chinese apple, contains "hundreds of jewels." Its insides are "an incredibly beautiful red." In another poem, the speaker says that , if we are what we eat, then she is "many souls, many flavors and essences. Ginger root, mushrooms of immortality ... winter melon, Western melon." Still another poem lists ways to eat oranges: quartered, sliced, stripped of rind, whole, picked from the trash.

In addition to juicy imagery, the book offers a range of textures. One six-line poem, "Wedding," mentions "red silk," "brocade silk," and "kiss of silk," followed by three iterations of "flower," each of which has a different connotation.

Walter K. Lew, who compiled this collection and wrote the afterword, has convincingly reconstructed the sequences Chung had in mind when she assembled her manuscripts. An intricate appendix lists the contents of three separate versions of Crazy Melon . The focus on minutiae, however, results in at least one odd elision: A blank page of the book is labeled "Missing poem." Still, the inclusion of detailed addenda (one section lists the books the poet had in her possession when she died) will be helpful to scholars.

This timely tribute to Frances Chung (who grew up in New York's Lower East Side, returned to the area after college and received state and corporate grants to produce her poetry) is a welcome addition to the small but growing Nuyo-Asian canon.