Hard Love Province by Marilyn Chin
Norton 2014; 80 pp
Reviewed by Annie Won
The title jacket of Hard Love Province suggests that the book is a collection of “erotic elegies,” but perhaps the work is better considered as a fresh, bold take on love and loss through the eyes of the modern Asian-American female. Consider “erotic” as a healthy statement of Asian-American female power and beauty (“sinonymous,” even) amidst today’s larger American societal landscape.
There is a nod to the old Chinese stories, of tradition subverted yet no less true; “During the tenth month of the first year of the reign of / Emperor Jing, a little girl from the southernmost province of / Guangdong grew horns” – and later, “Centuries of chaos and pogroms followed” (in “Horns: A Coda”). Horns of the strong assertive, powerful female – of horny women – are encompassed, insinuated, and transcended in the larger telling of this work. The woman is fierce, wild; Chin writes, “your fresh lovers / O how you wear them like nipple rings” in “Kalifornia (A portrait of the poet wearing a girdle of severed heads).” Perhaps the larger question beyond the question of eroticism is whether the reader is ready – the grown woman speaker voice, what she will say, this is a love story, this is her home.
“Home is a home away from home,” she writes in “Alba: Moon Camellia Lover,” which is dedicated to her late partner – and deftly moves to a universal sense of elegy – for Charles, for Adrienne Rich, for Gwendolyn Brooks, even unnamed. The reader imagines the presence of the other through the quotidian (“Your toothbrush is silent grease mums your comb,”), the somatic (“arms cheeks cock femur eyelids nada”), and the universal (“You have lived six decades and you have lived none”) in the small space of “Formosan Elegy,” which inevitably ends with the gravity of “White body bag white white body bag.” Poems of lyrical pause are interspersed between poems such as “Twenty Five Haiku,” which reimagine a traditional Asian lyric and are very much in 21st century American exclamation. “I plucked out three white pubic hairs and they turned into / flying monkeys.”
Open this book; Chin will teach you. Listen to her speak. “Don’t touch him, bitch we’re engaged; and besides, he’s / wearing my nipple ring” (“Twenty Five Haiku”).