Unearthings by Wendy Chen
Tavern Books, 2018; 88 pp
Reviewed by Michael Levan


As much as Wendy Chen’s Unearthings exhumes her family’s history and the secrets that come with it, the collection does more to pave the way for a new generation to move beyond the mistakes of the past, allowing these speakers’ voices to celebrate the future’s possibility.

It’s in this spirit of unburdening, of release, of freedom that the book builds. The book opens with these lines from “All Their Awful Particles”:

I am calling up the dead—the dead of my family.
I pull them out of the earth by their hair, by the fistful.
I scrutinize their bodies, green as acid, for traces of mine.

How can I stop looking at them?
At their faces?

Their lives pour into me through a silver faucet
I cannot turn off.

The speaker moves from incantation to violence, curiosity to resignation, until finally settling on how much she suffers the pain of her ancestors: “I am a piece of slate stained, / scarred with footprints of the dead.” While she has committed no sin, she has been walked over, impressed with the weight of history.

The challenge then is to find a way to lighten that load or at least to make peace with it. Chen winds her speakers through this process, writing mini-sequences within the book’s larger narrative. The five “Fastened” poems, the pieces that reference Madame Butterfly poems, and the series that speaks to Song Dynasty poet Li Qingzhao adopt a sonnet-esque quality over the course of the book. The early parts lay out the complication, the middle sections act as the volta, and then by each sequence’s conclusion, the speakers find their resolution.

These different threads weave together and offer hard-fought clarity to Chen’s collection, as evidenced by the final poem, “Li Qingzhao on Elegies” which opens, “I do not want to be remembered.” The tone here isn’t mournful, though. No, the poem is steadfast in its belief that there is more work to do and there is more to look forward to: “Outside, on jet-black soil, / I stand where I have planted rows. / In a week, their unintelligible leaves all pitch into the air.” Elegies are of little consequence because to over-remember the past paralyzes us; we must live and speak in the present if we are to succeed in creating a better tomorrow. Even as our words are “pitch[ed] into the air,” their power is not in what they did but in what they will do wherever they may land.