Ching-In Chen’s debut, The Heart’s Traffic, is an ideal beginning. The 117-page collection encompasses an amazing breadth of styles, including several distinct forms (e.g., sestina, villanelle, haibun, pantoum) as well as the poet’s own innovative arrangements. But beyond her technical prowess, this work resonates with me in its explorations of community and self, of the process of discovering where we do or do not belong through our simultaneous attempts to blend and resist multiple worlds and identities. Whether intentionally or unintentionally, we all seek to reconcile our personal present with the collective past.
This novel-in-poems tells the tale of Xiaomei — her father’s then family’s move to America as well as her own process of exploration and discovery during and immediately after these transitions. Chen beautifully captures the conflicted relationship of immigrants with the land of their ancestors, with their loved ones, and with themselves. The narrative is nonlinear but linked, with images and lines weaving through multiple pieces. Together, the collection serves as a series of snapshots that only reveal glimmers of Xiaomei’s life. Chen skillfully arranges the collection to build toward a larger understanding of both Xiaomei’s experiences and what it means to be a young immigrant in America. I appreciated re-visiting certain poems and seeing multiple layers emerge as I moved through the overarching story.
Some pieces are written as riddles or letters, unfolding partially into questions or answers. These, like many of the pieces, represent a constant pull in multiple directions. There is the recurrent image of absence, epitomized by images of a father who leaves home for America, who returns Americanized, who uproots his family. Thus begins a conflicted relationship with America itself, which at first is unfamiliar and then becomes home. In one precise poem, Xiaomei tries to reconcile her dreams with the expectations of her mother. Xiaomei’s other relationships are equally intense, equally complex. Without being didactic, Chen is able to incorporate the space around sexual and gender identities.
Chen understands the struggles between distance and closeness, the blurred boundaries, the inability to separate one identity or place from another. This excerpt from “The TrueTale of Xiaomei” may serve as a microcosm for a recurrent motif, capturing not only this disconnect but the need to find peace:
To love your own violent histories,
the remembered soup of your failings,
and to forgive those who have failed before you,
generation upon generation,
of the most mad,
the most terrible,
the deadliest secrets crossing the ocean.
We do not bury our dead, but hack them into shanks we lay on our backs,
bearing them forever into each new world.
Ching-In Chen powerfully uses a range of forms and arrangements, strengthened through the persona of Xiaomei. This collection will resonate with anyone who has struggled with expectations of self and others, tried to reconcile her past with her present, wondered how our roots inform who we are, and, ultimately, sought to go beyond that and grow into herself.