Split by Cathy Linh Che
Alice James Books, 2014; 87 pp
Reviewed by Wesley Rothman
In a measured dirge, “Burial,” closing the second section of three in Split, Cathy Linh Che’s speaker, addressing her newly buried grandmother, gently observes,
You learned that nothing stays in this life,
not your daughter, not your uncle,
not even the dignity of leaving this world
with your pants on.
This elegy reminds its readers of something revealed earlier in the collection, that this speaker met her grandmother only once, when she was already an adult, and did not see her again until the burial. This echo, this closing of distance in order to bury, is characteristic of Split.
The book is a dazzling planetary system, planets named Loss, named Rape, named Womanhood, named Silence, named Survival, orbit the collection’s primary speaker: a woman, we learn, who as a child was made to have sex with her cousin, who knows the totality of rape. In a ranging lyric sequence, “In what way does the room map out violence?” the speaker travels the topography, the expansive effects of rape:
My body a punctured casing—
men like galaxies
and I like shredded lace—
I swore to breaking patterns—
Yet, they continued
to echo through
the dark chamber—
When he kissed me, the edges
of our magnetic fields touched.
Inside, my heart compressed
into a black hole.
The complexities of physical arousal, forced sexual exploration, the impact of pressing and pressure, of physical and emotional and practical violation echo throughout Split—rape is never an isolated occasion, it lasts, it recurs sometimes physically and certainly in the mind, it shapes the survivor in unavoidable ways. This poem and the whole first section of Split introduces us to these nuances of surviving, while the second section effectively splits the book, invoking the speaker’s intricate experience with womanhood, with an expectation of discretion, and with a personal, family history marred, raped by the United States’s occupation of Vietnam. The final section crisscrosses the U.S., stitching together memories and the physical remnants of a life in California with a life in Brooklyn.
Che begins the collection, her speaker addressing her therapist, Doc; and with the penultimate poem, Che’s speaker continues to address the sharp echoes of her past with “Letters to Doc,” signaling that although a great distance has been traveled, there can be no true erasure of rape’s lasting trauma, only continued survival. Split is itself a dirge, a standing over the gravesite for a truly splitting past, a rifting shhh; it fills the silence with song and buries the memories that refuse to pass:
We lit the joss sticks and planted them.
We kept the encroaching grass at bay.