“Flèche”, poetry by Mary Jean Chan

Mary Jean Chan Mary Jean Chan

Interrogating the complexities of love, history and the power of naming through refreshing experimentation in language and form, Flèche—winner of  2019 Costa Book Award for Poetry—is a significant and original contribution to Hong Kong poetry as well as to the current scene of British Asian diasporic voices.

Raised in Hong Kong and now living in the UK, Chan explores, with precision and originality, the different layers of female identity and sexuality, one’s instincts for survival and resistance against oppression, and the need for love and acceptance.

Chan draws the reader’s attention to the dialogue between the poems and the narrative framework. The Preface consists of two quotes: “We are defined against something, by what we are not and will never be” and “This is a book of love poems”, suggesting the constant tension between the inner self and the external world. The title of the collection as well as the different sections are named after specific techniques in fencing—a sport the poet is trained in—alluding to the attacks, parries and counter-attacks that characterize this at one time entirely male activity.

 

Flèche, Mary Jean Chan (Faber & Faber, March 2020)
Flèche, Mary Jean Chan (Faber & Faber, March 2020)

At the heart of Flèche is an intelligent and profound redefinition of gender experience and sexuality, where the personal is also political. Alluding to the mass shooting in a popular gay nightclub in Orlando in 2016, “At the Castro” uses a twin-column form to heighten the sense of parallel narratives. The poet shifts from an intense moment of love between dancing couples, to a reimagined moment of terror:

 

what if you had been               stopped
by the bullet               into whose arms
would you have                 surrendered

 

By situating her own lived experience within the collective racial and political consciousness, Chan is politicizing the narrative of the personal:

 

the way skin         is never an apology
but always                      an act of faith

 

The “wounds” and trauma that permeate the collection include her own coming out as a queer person, and her mother’s traumatic experience in the Cultural Revolution in China. “Flesh” opens with the mother preparing a meal, and what seems to be a poem against meat-eating (“Some days I watched shrimp and prawns / suffer: their deaths brutal, yet profoundly ordinary”) has by the end of the poem transformed into a comparison of her own vegetarianism with the mother’s involuntarily vegetarian meals during the Cultural Revolution:

 

her rice bowl emptying so quickly I would never forget the three years
she became vegetarian: the famine leaving all
the trees bereft of their bark, the villagers so
grateful for something, anything, to chew on.

 

 

One of the remarkable strengths of this collection is the poet’s success in crystallizing the complexity and paradoxical nature of the mother-daughter relationship. The daughter is reluctant to accept the mother’s story, but she feels compelled to understand it. In the section entitled 母親的故事 (meaning ‘mother’s story’), “what my mother (a poet) might say (1)”, the poet has crossed out those lines that reflect on her mother’s traumatic experiences as well as the lines in which she denies her longings and thoughts:

 

that she had scurvy as a child
that I don’t understand hunger until I can describe
what a drop of oil tastes like

 

that Mao wrote beautiful Chinese calligraphy 

 

that she finds democracy to be the opiate of the masses
that I am a descendant of the Yellow Emperor

 

that Mao wrote beautiful Chinese calligraphy

 

Chan’s poetry demands that the reader read between the lines. Some of the poems in the collection capture one’s conflicted feelings in reconciling nationhood and identity. For example, “Written in a Historically White Space (I)” is a powerful and strikingly original multilingual representation of postcolonial space, and a way of “talking back” to the white interlocutors:

 

The reader stares at my 皮膚 and asks: why don’t you write in 中文? I reply: 殖民主義 meant that I was brought up in your image. Let us be honest. Had I not learnt 英文 and come to your shores, you wouldn’t be reading this poem at all.

 

Words related to her identity and political consciousness are transcribed into Chinese characters (皮膚 [skin],中文 [Chinese],殖民主義 [postcolonialism]). In this way, the speaker—through maintaining the control as a translator—asserts her own linguistic space as a poet of colour, as a way of “talking back”, while representing the paradox of a bilingual, postcolonial upbringing.

 

In Chan’s poems, form becomes part of the language to encapsulate marginality and intersectionality. A prose poem divided into sections of different mental states, “The Five Stages” explores moments of intimacy as well as one’s sexual awakenings and disillusionments. In this poem, double slashes are used to punctuate the poem instead of line breaks or punctuation marks, blending the narrative with interior monologues:

 

// there is a knock // at the door // my heart is a stampede // she slips out of my arms & calls // to our flatmates: hey, // what’s up? we were just // watching a film //

 

Fluent in Cantonese, Mandarin and English, Chan explores the gaps in meaning between these languages, and the power one has in wielding them. In the poem “speaking in tongues”, the mother’s Cantonese expressions rhyme with the English words that the daughter muses on. The deliberate misunderstanding or reluctance to understand each other is later referred to in the poem as

 

I’ve discovered a secret
that half of my words
have been kept like a key
under a plant.

 

 

One is conscious of the divide between speech and silence, between the visible and the unseen. For example, “The Heart of the Matter” conjures a surreal meeting with the headmistress as an “awakening to a room without walls, by which I mean a room without eyes.” In a riddle-like, ironic speech, the headmistress confronts the speaker:

 

There is something you
want to tell the world
she’d say, sipping a sencha tea

 

On one hand, the  headmistress’s question about “that ache” alludes to the speaker’s compelling urge to “come out”, on the other, it also suggests a fantasy escape from an oppressive society where thoughts and desires cannot be freely expressed.

Bold yet tender, so honest and beautifully-crafted, Chan’s collection redefines sexuality and identity on so many levels. Playful in her adaptations of poetic forms and multilingual, multi-layered storytelling, the poet captures the inner life of a queer person and one’s struggles to feel accepted. Oscillating between the points of view of the mother and daughter, Chan delves into the complexity of family relationships and her conflicted identity growing up in Hong Kong, while at the same time capturing love as a language for survival.


Jennifer Wong is a Hong Kong poet now residing in London. Her books include Goldfish (Chameleon Press), Diary of a Miu Miu Salesgirl (Bitter Melon Poetry) and 回家 Letters Home (Nine Arches Press).