House A by Jennifer S. Cheng
Omnidawn, 2016; 128 pp
Reviewed by Michael Levan
Writing a microreview of Jennifer S. Cheng’s House A, winner of the 2015 Omnidawn 1st/2nd Book Prize, is an exercise in futility. The single-mindedness and collective scope of these poems, their tendency to ebb and flow from the personal to the objective, how they long for home at one instant before resting in the easy calm of feeling/being displaced defy brief interpretation. The collection’s three sections—made up of epistolary poems to Mao Zedong that navigate History and fiction, real life and daydream; an alphabetized glossary of “dream-geometry” poems, and image-text hybrids that instruct readers “How To Build an American Home”—are difficult enough to explain in a short space like this one; clarifying how they cohere—and they do, though not at first and certainly not in a “traditional” way—over the course of the book is even more challenging. So what I’ll say is this: fall in love with the small moments first: “For there was a night I slept / deeply, and had heavy nightmares.” And, “the way i wrapped her sound around my / hand: a soft eave i could keep like folded / cloth.” And once more:
When all I wanted was to stitch my languages together, even if with an
ever escaping thread. For the tethering and untethering of boats has more
to do with the night sky than the width of the strings we use.
Coming to this book prioritizing familiar structures of meaning-making will leave a reader frustrated. Read it slightly distracted or, better yet, read House A as that “pale, languorous liquid” of sleep is about to take hold. Slowly, surely, these moments will accumulate and, rather than “make sense,” they’ll feel right. They will take up more and more space in your head and the associative-focused parts of your brain will find not their order or narrative arc, but their place, their home.