reviewed by Maya Phillips
A Portrait of the Self as Nation: New and Selected Poems reflects a literary career—and collection—of fiercely anti-colonialist, anti-xenophobic, feminist poems, from 1987’s Dwarf Bamboo through 2009’s Revenge of the Mooncake Vixen and new poems. The selected poems show a consistent focus across Marilyn Chin’s books—each pairing the political and cultural histories of China alongside fixtures of American identity, accounting instances of othering, orientalism, and violent culture clashes: “We shall all be vestigial organs, the gift of democracy. / The pale faces, the wan conformity.” Chin’s vision of history is living, recognizable, with unique personality; countries are personified, performing their historical relationships with one another, as in “Composed Near the Bay Bridge,” and in her title poem: “I was poor, starving, war torn, / an empty coffin to be filled, / You were a young, ambitious Lieutenant.” Throughout, Chin delivers a wealth of riches: jokes and puns; poems as blues songs, mythic allegories, or letters; poems in translation and poems influenced by received forms (such as her “Chinese American quatrains” and “Sonnetnese” poem). Even on the lexical level, Chin indulges in a broad and varied understanding of what it means to speak toward and against various cultural traditions. Her poems rely on diction pulled from different languages, idioms, and expletives, becoming a verbal hodgepodge that defies any singular way of thinking or speaking. Of her poem “Rhapsody in Plain Yellow,” Chin cheekily writes: “I am a Chinese-American poet inspired by a Jewish-American composer who borrows from an African-American blues tradition but writes in a high European symphonic tradition,” and her craft is as refreshingly miscellaneous, as are her sources of inspiration. Chin presents poetry with an electric balance that is “fierce, yet tender, / fierce and tender.”
This review originally appeared in American Poets, Fall-Winter 2018.