Marilyn Chin,
The Phoenix Gone,
The Terrace Empty

(Milkweed Editions, 1994)

When my friend Cat was graduating from the University of California at San Diego with a master's degree in poetry, she asked me to come along to her thesis reading. I got all gussied up and wound my way through the intellectuals and non-conformists-by-design and waited for Cat to get up and read so I could get a glass of wine and go home.

Cat's professor and mentor got up first to read, intending to prime the audience somehow with her professor-ly works and introductions to the candidates for graduation. It was this small Asian woman with red lips and horn-rimmed glasses who seemed a little scattered and lost, tripping over words, but pronouncing the ones she was able to speak with an undeniable clarity and emphasis. It was almost as if the woman was enjoying the taste of the words instead of just the meaning of them.

The woman was Marilyn Chin, and after her readings, she was promptly forgotten in the rush of hoopla surrounding Cat and her two contemporaries.

A few weeks later I was on the way to Wal-mart for some stupid thing I couldn't get elsewhere, listening to NPR as I drove. Just as I was about to switch off the car, Terri Gross announced an interview with Chin, and played a portion of her poem "Song of the Sad Guitar."

I never made it to Wal-mart, though I sat in the parking lot for fifteen minutes, transfixed by the radio and the images. Instead, I flew to Borders as fast as I could go and snatched up the last copy of this, Chin's most recent collection of poetry, and sat for the rest of the day on a bench at Mission Bay while the sun sank down, invited into a world where words are pictures and Chin is a masterful artist.

Chin draws upon a rich history of a dual culture -- both her Chinese ancestry and her American rearing. She talks about issues of a Chinese-American hybrid upbringing, from changing her name to the differences in cooking. She incorporates such a vast intelligence into words that smear mental paint on a blank canvas, leaving you feeling like you know where she's coming from, even if you don't have the same background. It's like she has a sort of inner wisdom and compassion, but also an artist's eye.

There is an undercurrent of anger in some of this work that runs parallel to the pastoral scenes she paints. At times, when you become aware of it, it almost seems sinister somehow, just out of vision and never in a form you can see. "All suffering forestalled freedom. / The gilded cage opened, her final escape -- / now, you and I must descend."

Take a long day, pick up this book and read it slowly. Let the words dissolve on the air as you read it aloud to the sun or the wind.

Just as the small woman I heard read in May is nowhere as ordinary as she first appeared, nothing in this book is as ordinary as it seems.

[ by Elizabeth Badurina ]

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