Mary Jean Chan
A question opens Mary Jean Chan’s debut poetry collection, Flèche. ‘Who will read this slim volume of mine, and with what preconceptions?’
Coming to this deeply personal, complex book with knowledge of Chan’s upbringing – a queer woman born in Hong Kong, raised in the aftermath of ‘those / Red-Guarded days / and nightmares’ – inevitably ushers in autobiography. This is no bad thing: Chan’s poetry is most powerful when it confronts the reader with themselves. ‘Written in a historically White Space (1)’ incorporates hànzì in a way that confronts the reader with their own privileged language: ‘Let us be honest. Had I not learnt 英文 and come to your shores, you wouldn’t be reading this poem at all.’ (This word, I found out upon consulting Google Translate, means ‘English’. The familiar made foreign.)
It would be lazy just to say that Chan queers language; her poetry disrupts assumed relationships. The result is a beguiling exploration of the chasm between reconciling worlds and letting them be separate. This happens through intertwining, looping themes: the speaker’s relationship with her mother, culture, sexuality.
In ‘the five stages’, she muses on ‘how I wanted to be close and yet closer’ to another girl – only to find out she ‘couldn’t stomach // the joy of it’.
That could stand for this book as a whole. There are many forms of deep love and tenderness here; revealed just as skillfully is the accompanying despair.
Words: Alice Wickenden