Issues of identity take center stage in Mary Jean Chan’s new poetry collection Bright Fear. Chan’s poems deal with a variety of uncomfortable personal experiences: growing up queer in a Chinese household, dealing with racism and racial prejudice when moving to the United Kingdom, and grappling with learning—and then eventually writing in and making a career out of—the “colonial language”, as Chan puts it, of English.
“Take up the White Man’s burden— / Send forth the best ye breed— / Go bind your sons to exile / To serve your captives’ need,” starts Rudyard Kipling’s notorious poem of American expansionism in the Philippines, “The White Man’s Burden”. Those lines will ring familiar to many, particularly those who have received an education in the United States—so widely has the poem become emblematic of American imperialism and the “civilizing mission” during the 19th and 20th centuries.
Kit Fan’s latest poetry collection, The Ink Cloud Reader, hinges on anticipation of change. In “Cumulonimbus,” which opens the main section of the book, Fan compares the current state of his writing career to the moments before a thunderstorm breaks.
There once was a tradition of storytelling that enthralled kings and beggars, mixing simple language and lofty poetry, while deploying ingenious tricks to retain the audience’s attention. Usually there were three or four stories embedded one within another, like a Russian doll. Just when you thought you were coming to a denouement, a new story began—more amazing and amusing than the last, and so you listened, fought off sleep or wine, and tried not to miss a word of the storyteller’s tale. The home of many of these fabulous tales is India, which gave the world the Panchatantra, and later inspired Rudyard Kipling’s Just So and the Jungle Book.
A Bad Girl’s Book of Animals was first published by Harcourt, Brace & World in 1969, when there were very few Asians with a poetry collection out in the US—and has now been put out again by Singaporean publisher Ethos with an excellent foreword by poet Tse Hao Guang.
The poet Ghalib took a broad view about spirituality and ritual. He told a British friend he was half a Muslim, because while he wouldn’t eat pork, he enjoyed as hurrah peg of whiskey. Did Ghalib retain a medieval belief in cultic efficiency, or did he have a modern’s skepticism about revealed religions in general? That question comes to mind when reading his 108-verse long praise poem to the city of Vanarasi—so holy to the Hindus.
One of the first poems in Wang Yin’s recent collection, A Summer Day in the Company of Ghosts, finds the Chinese poet in an unexpected place: Vermont. “The Task of the Poet, Written in Vermont After Robert Bly” opens with a pastoral scene on a front lawn, where the poet peacefully observes—and records—the sights and sensations of a slow suburban morning.