As part of the 2022 Dear Poet project, students around the country and the world wrote letters to Marilyn Chin in response to a video of her reading her poem “Shadowless Shadow” aloud. Marilyn Chin wrote letters back to nine of these students; their letters and her replies are included below.
Dear Young Readers:
Thank you so much for your kind letters and for your deep dives into “Shadowless Shadow.” Frankly, I was worried that the poem might be too weird and complex for young readers, but your responses were amazingly smart and engaging! I love hearing from this new generation of brilliant thinkers and poetry lovers.
I was fascinated by all your questions and evocative interpretations. Remember, there are many ways to read a poem! No wrong way; no right way. The poet, herself, is often mystified by her own imagination. All I yearn for, as a practicing poet, is that you are deeply engaged and love the reading process, even if the process makes you scratch your teeming brain.
Basically, for “Shadowless Shadow,” I wanted to express how one’s personal fears can mirror a nation’s collective fears. We all have our shadows and struggles. Sometimes, we need to confront our fears to transcend them and find solutions. A poem rarely offers an objective solution, but sometimes, as we unravel a poem, we discover the truths that are deeply relevant to our lives.
I live in San Diego, which is on the border of California and Mexico. I often see and hear ICE helicopters whirling over my head. Although I am a naturalized citizen, I still feel anxiety each time I hear those blades. I have this persistent and unreasonable fear about being deported. Sometimes, it’s difficult to eliminate childhood trauma.
Many of you shared personal, heart-rending stories about your past struggles and how you were able to transcend them. Life is challenging. Sometimes life isn’t fair. Sometimes we must go through darkness to come to light.
Most of you loved the dog character, who is inspired by my neighbor’s huge scary Rottweiler.” Yes, he was a “real” hellhound and not just an abstraction.
His bark was so fierce that even his owner feared him. He would escape from his chains and come to my back door and lunge at me. He sputtered a mean “sputum!” I was so terrified of him that I suppressed his name and can’t recall it to this day. Suddenly, last year, he disappeared. The family said they gave him away.
To be honest, I miss him. I believe that he was warning us about impending doom. The hills of my city were burning because of climate change; a pandemic was brewing…children were suffering at the border…I believe that animals have a six sense and can predict the future. This poem memorializes him…through his spirit, I was able to open my imagination, delve deeply into personal and universal concerns. I truly miss him and hope that he is in a safe place--that someone has offered a pink leash.
With love and peace,
Chancellor Marilyn Chin
Marilyn Chin reads “Shadowless Shadow” for Dear Poet 2022.
Dear Marilyn Chin,
Hello, my name is Jorge. I am currently a 9th grader from River Hills, Wisconsin. I am writing this letter regarding your poem, “Shadowless Shadow.” I deeply enjoyed this poem, since I myself am an immigrant from Honduras. I can imagine what it’s like to live afraid, constantly worried for your family’s sake for not having any legal documents. The comparison between a dog being afraid of its shadow and Mei Ling being afraid of ICE agents seemed like such a perfect example of what it’s like to live illegally in another country, and it really spoke to me. The words and imagery you used really gave me a better glimpse at how Mei Ling feels in her everyday life, and how many other people are feeling at this moment.
Not many poems really captivate my attention, and I don’t usually go and start reading poems. This one however, I read at least more than five times. While reading the middle section, I couldn’t help but notice the comparison you made between deportation being a choke chain. I had never thought of it like that before. “Let’s not fear him, but love him, offer the pink leash...” For whatever reason people tend to think that immigrants are often coming here to do wrong or violent things, since that’s how most of the countries they come from are like. Immigrants usually settle somewhere else to find a better job, better than what their country has to offer. My experience with this situation made me understand the lines about the leash a bit better.
One question that came to my mind was, who is Mei Ling?At first I thought that was your name, until I realized that it wasn’t. Is she a fiction or non-fictional character? On the eighth line I didn’t quite understand what the “Hashtag, No Collusion” meant, neither did I with the other names. The final question I had was, what was your writing process for this poem? How did your experiences and research lead you to writing this beautiful poem?
Thank you very much for making this poem. It is rare for me to see poems talking about immigration and problems that people face in their daily lives.
Thanks so much for your fine letter. I live in San Diego, which borders Mexico. I often hear helicopters and sirens. It is a very diverse city and I have two Honduran Zumba friends. We love to dance together! I am a naturalized citizen and I still have nightmares about being detained by ICE. We immigrants work hard for this country but sometimes are made to feel unworthy. The dog’s “choke-chain” is a way to make the reader feel the trauma.
I hope that I can answer some of your fine questions.
“Mei Ling” is my Chinese name, but she is also a “shadow” character, fictionalized in my novel. She is also the emblem of my younger self.
Some images and names float up in my memory as I was writing this poem. Look up “Cerberus”—he’s a mean mythical dog. I guess I got carried away with all the dog names!
My writing process is kind of mysterious. Sometimes a word or a sound or an image gets me going. Sometimes an issue—like immigration. Sometimes the neighbor’s mean dog…All these aspects might have propelled the poem into action!
I hope you will continue to read poetry, young poet. And be proud of your Honduran heritage. Have a brilliant future!
Chancellor Marilyn Chin
Dear Chancellor Marylin Chin,
Hi! I am a seventeen-year-old high school student in Minnesota. I choose to write to you because your poem “Shadowless Shadow” instantly caught my eye with the unique contradicting title. And the more I read on and on, the more I had to know: why? Why did you feel inspired to write this story of paradoxes that solve each other? How did life teach you the story to accept one’s “Shadowless Shadow”?
Personally, contradictions in my opinion speak volumes more than words. They express the nuance and a level of clarity similar to reality. They start to reach for what can’t be expressed by words. That’s why I loved this poem for its many forms of contradiction whether juxtaposition, irony, or antithesis. For example, the “dog barks at his own shadow, which is not there, for in / mid-day sun, there is no shadow” (lines 1-2) demonstrates an ironic situation that I can relate to, as the dog metaphorically was barking at “see[ing] his shadowless shadow” (line 4). I think most people do relate to the dog, having an internal struggle that comes to light in which one “barks louder and louder, snapping [their] jaws, swallowing sputum, on [their] haunches, ready to / pounce” (Line 5-6). The beauty behind this simple listing is how it highlights our own demons tormenting us till we are “ready to / pounce” on ourselves to rid the pain and torment. It exposes the reader to how everyone fights their own battle. But I'm curious, out of the many objects, people, and animals to choose from to represent this strife, why a canine? Is it because of their sense of loyalty? Or perhaps their common nature and relatable nature?
I bring up relatability because as the poem goes on, the speaker speaks to Mei Ling about how Ling’s fear is similar to the dog’s being “afraid of what is not there” (line 7), and the ever-present fear that Mei Ling wakes up “gasping for breath, / thinking [they] might die, that ICE agents will come with a choke-chain” (Lines 7-8). Not only does this part speak to me, but the way you spliced this segment so the “gasping for breath” was punctuated with a line break to illustrate that sensation was unique. It was an expressive way to illustrate the actual emotions of fear. What was your inspiration for this real-life connection to ICE? Did you experience or witness similar fears being a Chinese American raised in Oregon?
Furthermore, you continue to expand the metaphor with the dog being a companion and guardian. The dog “want[ed] to protect [the speaker and Mei Ling] from the unseen, the unexpected, the unknowable” (Line 9). I think it is beautiful how you explain while fighting his own fears, the dog was fighting to protect loved ones. For one to protect another from everything in this harsh world, no matter if they couldn’t see it, expect it, or know it. The contrast of being able to protect without vision or knowledge only strengthens the loyalty and love expressed by the dog. But no matter, for the dog, is “the harbinger of doom” (line 10), barking constantly announcing death and destruction. The dog, representing our internal strife, is tolling the death knell. But while I understand that turmoil expressed by the dog wounds and kills as easily internally or externally, in what cases does this internal strife help protect one? When does the dog’s will, the conflict's root purpose, strive to shelter others?
Another thing that I admire heavily in this poem is the way the speaker “speaks” to the reader. The way the reader is forced to think, forced to make a decision. Specifically when the speaker contrasts the solutions to quieting this dog, this fight, this struggle. Would euthanizing him “put him out of his misery?” (line 11) or should society hope to “calm him, caress him, give him shelter?” (line 13). This dynamic makes the reader face their own opinion. And in my opinion, you have to shelter that fear, that battle. You don’t cut out part of who you are to make yourself whole, you accept your shadows and embrace the whole of you. For we can “take away his power. Let’s shout, ‘Hashtag, No Collusion, / Gunboat, Death Star, Apocalypse, Mara, Cerebus, Beelzebub!’” (lines 14-15). This list of modern-day symbols of metaphorical death like the hashtag or pop culture reference to the Death Star is juxtaposed to more ancient forms of death from across the globe of Beelzebub, Cerebus, and Mara. The contrast in my mind is to express how small or large our problems are they all have one thing in common: they are “‘one who understands vacuity.’” (line 16). All these problems don’t have anything over us, they understand everything about nothing. So instead of isolating our fears, our dog, “[l]et’s not fear him, but love him, offer the pink leash, for he is your dog and he is mine” (line 17). I love the way you summed this up. Because society must learn to accept its flaws and see them as normal, must embrace them with love and kindness to truly get rid of our fears.
Finally, I wanted to touch on a point relating to other poems. I have read other poems of yours such as “Autumn Leaves”, “Ode to Anger”, “The End of a Beginning”, and others but some common themes I notice are a lot of contrasting elements and cultural or familial references. This leads me back to the beginning of my letter and begs the question, why? Why do you put such an emphasis on family and contradictions? Is it to get to the deeper meaning behind family and culture? To sweep away the leaves obscuring society’s blind eye? And since you are an English professor, what experiences from teaching poetry and English have taught you? What motivates you to write such splendid poetry? To write what poetry truly is: life.
Thank you for your passionate, thorough, and brilliant reading of “Shadowless Shadow.” And thank you for looking up some of my other poems.
Your analysis and questions illuminate many aspects of this challenging poem. You are right to tease out the irony and “contradictions.” I was born in Hong Kong; our family escaped China after a bloody civil war. We came to America when I was seven. President Kennedy and Martin Luther King were assassinated shortly after my immigration. I believe that the self represents something larger than the self. My muse writes out of conflict…and mirrors the wonders as well as the problems of the world we live in.
Your perceptions: “internal struggle,” “tormenting demons” are great descriptions. My inner conflicts made me want to express myself, to write poetry. Ultimately, when I write out my fear, I discover joy and transcendence in the process.
My teaching life helps me to reach out to younger reader like yourself, who will be the inheritors of our culture, and of our poetry. I feel blessed and gratified to meet such brilliant and committed readers! Keep reading, young writer! Have a great future!
Chancellor Marilyn Chin
Dear, Marilyn Chin,
I have been very fortunate to be able to read your poem, “Shadowless Shadow.” I absolutely loved it! It made me think of all the things that invoke mass fear in the world like the dog aimlessly barking at his shadow. I really enjoyed your poem. It made me think of the ongoing pandemic that provoked fear because of the mass deaths related to it, but it also reminded me of my childhood self.
When I was around five to about nine, I was what most people call a “ worry wart.” I would question everything out of fear. I became so captivated by fear of random things that I began to anger my parents. I would ask them if it was okay to do this or touch that, and I lost my will to step out of my comfort zone or even do anything relatively dangerous and new. At one time, on a spring break trip to California, me and my younger brother were given five dollars in quarters, and every time I asked if something was ok I would get a quarter taken away. By the end of the trip, my brother had all five dollars where I only had around a dollar fifty. My little brain was so mad at myself that I began to cry and was angered by my problem of not facing fear. It prompted me to change. I began doing more bold things, taking risks, stepping out of my comfort zone, and not asking if something was right. I began to “think for myself” as my dad called it. I was the dog and I was comforted and changed just like you proposed. Now I enjoy stepping out of my comfort zone, getting dirty, and being a daredevil within reason. Your poem really reminded me of my past self and once I read it, I couldn’t stop thinking about it. It resonated with me.
There is also another story of mine that coincides with this poem. When I was in middle school, my mother was diagnosed with stage three breast cancer on my birthday. I began to live in fear of her life. Although the fear was sort of justified, it reminded me of the dog in your poem once again. He lived in fear of something that could not hurt him or things he couldn’t control. I couldn’t control my mother's life. I learned through that event that to live your life worrying about a predicament you cannot control is like not living at all. I got attached to my fear and it was something that I couldn’t stop thinking about. I began to tank in school and in my social life. I began to lose friends and became depressed at a young age of twelve. That was when I knew that I had to change. Just like the dog in your poem. That change wasn’t easy, but I slowly accepted my mother's predicament and began to live my life. I hung out with my friends, my family, and my mother. Although I lived in fear, I was able to control it and live my life. I was able to pull myself out of a dark place where many cannot. My mother almost died, but through it all I learned that living in fear of something you cannot control is like expecting to win a million-dollar lottery with one ticket, no use. Life should be lived. Like the flow of water, life changes, and so do we, but that water doesn’t worry about where it is headed, it can’t, so we should make like the water and take life on one current at a time, not the whole ocean all at once. Thank you again for gracing me with this poem.
P.S. Who is Mei Ling?
Thank you for sharing your childhood stories with me. Fear can incapacitate us. I was a migrant child, born out of fear and chaos. At times, I felt stateless and bullied. But somebody always offers compassion and “a pink leash;” and I was able to thrive. So sorry to hear about your mother’s illness and about your anxious feelings when you were younger. I am glad that you have the fortitude to overcome your anxieties and fears; to “pull (yourself) “out of a dark place where many cannot” is a compelling recognition. Many people in the world live under terrible circumstances and can’t transcend them. “Taking life, one current at a time” is a very profound line, indeed! I encourage you to read and write more poetry and be as calm as “the flow of water.”
Chancellor Marilyn Chin
Dear Marilyn Chin,
I once watched an anime with my eldest brother, and the anime was called Demon Slayer: Kimetsu no Yaiba. Your poem, Shadowless Shadow, reminds me of one of the characters, with the name of Kanao Tsuyuri. This character is a girl who has been abused in her childhood, which caused her to stop showing any emotion, and barely even speak. She later was adopted by a few other characters, which gave her a better childhood. As a result, Kanao started to change and show more emotion. I had forgotten this character, until I read your poem, “Shadowless Shadow.” My name is Steven, I go to Sidwell Friends School, and I am in sixth grade. I am writing to you because after reading Shadowless Shadow, it leaves me with so many questions and thoughts, and I would like to ask and tell you about some of them.
The reason why the character Kanao came into my head when I read this poem is because I can connect her to the dog in the poem. This is because in both situations the characters were acting a certain way, but changed after receiving love and care. In Shadowless Shadow, the dog stops barking when given a dumpling, or a chew toy. In Kanao’s situation, she starts to be more independent when having a better childhood.
This leads me to believe that the moral of the story is about how important it is to be supported, and cared for, and this is also proved in the last stanza. But also, another one of my ideas for what the moral of the poem could mean is to accept differences, because it is questioning whether to euthanize the dog, or to love it, due to the fact that it acts differently than humans. The first of my many questions is, what is the actual meaning of the poem? Another possibility is that it could be both of my ideas combined into one, but I am not really sure.
Another question I have is what inspired the poem? What inspired the example of the dog? After doing a little bit of research, I learned that Mei Ling, is you, Marilyn Chin. I am guessing that the inspiration of the poem is a story that someone told you in your childhood. This also makes me wonder, how do you perceive this story, and who told it to you?
My last question I will ask you is what is the last line, “for he is your dog and he is mine” mean? This makes me wonder if the dog is supposed to represent something that is not an actual dog. Maybe like an emotion, because everyone shares emotions. Another possibility could be that the last line is stating that the dog should not be only loved by one person, but included into a loving community.
Something else I noticed with your work is that it is very unexpected, in a good way. There is always a point where your tone, theme, or voice changes. I feel like that is quite different from the poems I write, and also some of the poems I read. And I think that it’s important to sort of be different. I also would like to say thank you, because this one poem has taught me multiple lessons. It’s amazing how I read about the one dog example, and have so many related ideas after. After reading some of your other poems, you also helped me see a new style of writing, and brought me a lot more inspiration to write my own poems, specifically about my culture (I am also Chinese).
Thank you for your kind letter. Ha ha, I shall look up Kanao Tsuyuri and “Demon Slayer.” I learn wonderful things from my young readers. You keep me updated to current fun stuff!
You asked a lot of brain-twisting questions! There are many ways to discuss a poem--not a wrong way or a right way. Your constant questioning show that you are using your imaginative powers and critical thinking. The dog was inspired by a real anxious and mean dog in my neighborhood. I am thankful for that dog for opening my poetic mind and offering so many possibilities for the poem.
By the way, my mother’s last name is 黃. You and I could be related! Be fierce and brilliant, my young poet friend.
Chancellor Marilyn Chin
Dear Marilyn Chin,
Hello! I’m Charlotte. I first heard your poem “Shadowless Shadow” in a Zoom meeting for an online English class. When I first heard it from your voice It felt idealized or romanticized but slowly as modern elements were pulled in it lost that feeling. That feeling was replaced with confusion or fear that I didn't understand the poem right away. That’s why I chose this poem. Not because it immediately clicked or drew me in, but because it didn't. I felt I needed to tackle this “Shadowless Shadow” just as the dog did in the poem.
I dove right in with my highlighters color marking and underlining any clues. After reading it about 4 times something caught my eye. “Beelzebub.” I hadn’t a clue what that meant. I assumed that string of words and ideas were ideas of destruction but brushed over the ideas I didn't fully grasp. Thus I consulted google who said, “Beelzebub is a demon in Abrahamic religions.” This excited me. I’m Jewish and love bringing that part of my identity into whatever I do. After research, I found that Beelzebub was only mentioned in the Torah once, simply as a Philistine god. In Christianity, Beelzebub is akin to Satan. This made me think. “Beelzebub” is also sometimes spelled as “Baalzebub” reminding me of the Torah portion from my Bat Mitzvah, where there was a pagan prophet named “Belaam,” but also sometimes spelled “Balaam.” This man in the Torah was just a pagan prophet. In Christianity, he was considered the evilest man to ever live. I tried applying this system to each one of the “destructive ideas” and found similar results. That each one of them had a flip side. One or more definitions of destruction and a flip side of good and neutral definitions. Each idea was connected to the next, moving further back in time until the biblical era. How could these words contribute to just the meaning of this poem when they contribute to the meaning of history? I saw the ideas unfold, spiraling out of control until I saw something emerge. The shadow of this poem. And this “shadow” was shadowless. These ideas and meanings I had attached to the poem were never really there, rather a shadow of the poem I created. “He is afraid of what is not there. Like you,” like me.
I come from a family of immigrants. My mother immigrated from Ireland to America. I got to see her practicing for the citizenship test for weeks, working hard to live in this country. I got to see her vote for the first time. The joy in those moments is the immigrant experience. My great-grandmother lived in Poland. She was expelled from her house during World War II. She had to walk into her house only to see other people living in it. People wearing her jewelry and using her pots. Telling her she didn’t own them because she was Jewish. She escaped Poland and went to Israel. My great-grandfather went to Israel as well. He left on a ship. As the ship was nearing the shore the British guards sent the ship back to Poland. My Great-Grandfather jumped o that ship and swam to the beach, abandoning any identifiers of who he was. “Calling him by his birth name” would take away his power, would send him back to a land of hatred. He was jailed and stayed there for 6 months, only released by pretending to be crazy. He left his wife and two daughters to go to New York, where he could work as a builder and bring his family once he had the money. My grandmother was born in Israel, living there until she was twelve years old and her father could bring her to America. This is the history of my family, or rather the history I know. Because, unlike the poem, I can’t look up the other definitions, or color-mark to find new meanings. The shadow has to stay shadowless, only my ancestors saw their own shadow. And I must make my own.
Our past has shaped my present and will shape my future. I have grown up in cultures that stayed alive by staying hidden. Like a shadowless shadow. There's always a danger in being out in the open. You bring forward this sense of danger in your poem. Being afraid of something that isn’t there. Something that you’ve seen but not experienced. Generational trauma that you’ve inherited by virtue of being a minority. “Gasping for breath, thinking you might die” Like they did, and like I hopefully never will.
All of this leads to my question. What gives a poem meaning? Is it what the author intends or what the reader receives? Is the poem really shadowless? Or is the shadow there because I put it there. Because I saw it with my own eyes. All that I have written is a shadow of your poem. Something that only you and I (and my English teacher) will know. Anyone who reads your poem will find a different shadow and never mine. Even this letter has a shadow. Every thought and sentence rewrite was a part of this letter only I will know, only I have seen. Just as you do with your poem. I wonder what shadow you will create for my letter, and how much of it I will see.
Thank you for your wonderful, passionate, elaborate discussion of “Shadowless Shadow.” Thank you for sharing your family’s rich immigration story—for enlightening me with your inspired research into Beelzebub. The devil is a fascinating character in both literary and religious history. He inspires both fear and respect! America is a land of immigrants--we help build this magnificent nation. Our ancestors had to hide in the shadows and overcome terrible historical obstacles to give us a good future. I am heartened that you are deeply committed to learning and are well-informed about your heritage. I hope that you will write more about your family. You are the inheritor of your family’s rich and glorious past! The matriarchs in your family sound like strong, fascinating characters! Your great-grandfather’s harrowing journey deserves an entire novel!
Chancellor Marilyn Chin
Dear Ms. Chin,
I would like to start off by introducing myself, my name is Geraldine and I am from Mendez Fundamental. I was drawn to your poem, “Shadowless Shadow” and the story of a misunderstood dog persistently barking at his shadow that does not exist due to unnecessary fear. At first, I was not sure how or why I understood the dog, but once I reread it a few times I realized that it was the fear and worry that I related to. Although it might sound strange, I pictured myself in this dog and resonated with the anxiety-filled panic it was feeling. I noticed many details similar in your poem that I would like to know more about, and hopefully connect with as well.
I admire your work and find the details in “Shadowless Shadow,” incredibly meaningful and sincere. Something that especially caught my attention was the mention of the dog and the constant barking at something that does not exist. “The Great Matriarch says: There is a dog who barks at his own shadow, / which is not there, for in mid-day sun, there is no shadow” (1, 2). You write that it stops barking when it is distracted, but becomes uncontrollable when overcome with the terror of his shadow. Does this mean that the dog symbolizes anxiety since it worries and is fearful of nothing? Is it terrified of the idea of its shadow? You write that it stops barking when it is distracted, but becomes uncontrollable when overcome with the terror of his shadow.
A line that stood out to me was, “Let’s not fear him, but love him, offer the pink leash, for he is your dog and / he is mine”(21, 22). When you write that we should learn to love the dog, what do you mean by this? I feel that a way someone could look at this is that we should learn how to come to terms with our anxiety? I would also like to know what you meant by giving the dog “the pink leash”? Does the leash represent control over the dog, if so, why would it be the color pink?
This poem helped me reflect on myself and my experience with dealing with anxiety. I am a very anxious person and worry about things that in the long run don’t matter. Even though I recognize that the things I stress about are completely insignificant, like the dog’s shadow, I can not help but fear. I understand the feeling of having these irrational fears that are overwhelming and I relate to the dog barking at something that he knows doesn’t exist. Something that stands out to me is that his persistent barking is a way to tell himself that he is brave and isn’t scared. The way I see it is that he is putting up a front, to hide his distress from others and himself. “He is afraid of what is not there. Like you, Mei Ling, when you wake up, / gasping for breath, thinking you might die, that ICE agents will come / with a choke-chain”(8-10). When I read this quote, it reminded me of when I had a panic attack in the middle of the night. I don’t know what I was initially scared of, but I remember that I was sobbing, hyperventilating, and terrified that I wasn’t able to breathe. This line also made me interested to know if the speaker is Mei Ling or if the speaker is talking to her. Also, why is this the first time that she is being mentioned? It is a reassuring and encouraging feeling to know that the dog was comforted, loved, and offered “the pink leash.” I like to imagine that Mei Ling adopted the dog and grew to love him, calming each other down when overwhelmed. I have never connected with a poem before so I appreciate “Shadowless Shadow” and the message that I took from it. Although I do not know if I read your poem from the perspective that you intended it to be read, I would like to let you know that your poem is truly inspiring.
Lastly, I would like to thank you for your time and also note that I enjoy your style of writing and look forward to reading more of it.
Thank you for your kind letter. And for opening up about your personal fears. I live in San Diego, a California city situated right on the border of Mexico, and I hear police helicopters often, which give me deep anxiety. Even though I am now a naturalized citizen, I still feel vulnerable. Yes, you articulated the symptoms clearly. I remember having panic attacks in the night. As you so vividly described…I remember “sobbing” and “hyperventilating.” I am very glad that we both were able to heal from those terrible episodes.
These past years of pandemic chaos have made things difficult for all of us.
I used the image: “pink leash” because I believe that we need to offer the dog and the world a firm but compassionate feminine hand. Perhaps our mothers could offer better solutions for the problems in the world.
Ha, ha. I love your optimistic reading that Mei Ling has adopted the dog in the end. I want a positive ending for the poem. Thank you for highlighting that possibility.
Chancellor Marilyn Chin
Dear Marilyn Chin,
Hello, my name is Anning (安宁). I wanted to talk to you about your poem “Shadowless Shadow.” As a first-generation Chinese-American I related with your depiction of the immigrant experience, I even have a friend named Mei Ling. The didactic tone of the Great Matriarch is reminiscent of the voice in traditional Chinese stories, the ones about losing horses and having hope, or sharpening needles and being persistent. It brings me comfort, especially in the closing lines. For that, I thank you.
While a lot of elements of your poem were very familiar to me, I was still left with some questions. Is “Hashtag, No Collusion, Gunboat, Death Star, Apocalypse, Mara, Cerberus, Beelzebub!” the name of the dog, or the name of what he is afraid of. I think all those names represent destruction, but in the context of the poem, what does that destruction mean? I think the poem says that constantly living in fear invites the things you fear the most. You are telling us to control our fear and to control the panic it induces, panic in the form of a dog who barks at his own shadow. A shadow is something that follows you constantly, that you can never get rid of. Why did you choose the shadow, of all things, to be the harbinger of destruction for this dog? This poem is like a beautiful picture, one whose details I can’t quite make out yet. Could you help me finish it out? And lastly, Shadowless Shadow is obviously inspired by parts of your own life and current events. What specific memories and events inspired this poem? And specifically what in real life does the dog who chases his own shadow represent?
At my grandparent’s village in China, they own a big black dog to scare off intruders. He’s a wild dog, picked off the side of the rural dirt road and leashed to the front of the house with a long metal chain. He’s a dog meant to be used, not loved. The role of gatekeeper and security guard is perfectly suited for him. Unlike the docile, domestic canines of the Western world, this dog has a glint in his eye, is as tall as my waist, and ponces at every stray movement he sees. The dog is too wild to pet, or for children to get within 3 feet of. Sometimes I wonder, what harsh world he must have grown up in, to have become so fearful like this. In your poem, Mei Ling fears the ICE agents, the hardships of immigration have gotten into her head like the shadow haunts the dog. As a result, she can not sleep peacefully. I wonder if everyone has a fear like that, one that is so strong they cannot find peace. I think I do. I think you do. I hope people like us are far and few between.
Thank you for your smart comments. I especially liked your story about the mean village dog in China. I am certain that he is a fierce gatekeeper and keeps your relatives safe.
You must ask your family about those ancient “matriarchal” tales. They are very instructive and vivid. And of course, they’re supposed to guide us toward an upright, moral life.
No worries about “finishing out” your analysis. There are many ways to discuss a poem. Your questions and response show an active imagination at work. Your name 安宁 means “Peaceful.” I know that your name foretells that your generation will usher in a peaceful glorious future for all of us. Keep reading and writing, young friend!
Chancellor Marilyn Chin
Dear Marilyn Chin,
My name is Anita and I am a student at Barstow School in Kansas City Missouri. I’m writing, essentially, in regards to the impact your poem “Shadowless Shadow” had on my view of poetry. In our English class, we were told to choose a poem to analyze in depth and my partner and I chose “Shadowless Shadow” due to its captivating title, not knowing the amount of power that we would find in the words. After concluding this assignment, our teacher has allowed us to write a letter to any poet of our choice and because my mind is still fresh with the imprint of your words I wanted to write to you.
I have to admit, I wasn’t exactly shaking with anticipation when our teacher had given us a poetry analysis assignment. I wasn’t averse to poetry, I just saw it as more work that I had to reluctantly trudge through; however, after breaching the first few lines, I knew that this was the type of art that required thought. That thought-provoking aspect of poetry is arguably one of its most important parts. It’s what inspires change, raises awareness, and guides you toward the fight against human injustices.
A big part of your poetry is about the struggle for identity and as a young person of color I find it easy to relate to. While analyzing “Shadowless Shadow” I noticed your usage of your Chinese name. After looking further into the work you do I saw that you also had a poem called “How I Got That Name.” Your recognition of the power that names hold and how they connect us to our culture was touching and I’m glad that it is reaching children in grade school. When I came to this school in 1st grade (Barstow is K-12) and introduced myself as Anita, I was just an anxious little 6-year-old. For this reason, when people pronounced my name as “Ani-duh” or “Ani-tah” I felt no obligation to correct pronunciation. My name is pronounced Ani-thu, and I am of Indian descent, but as a first grader the importance of my cultural identity, sadly, held no significance to me. I let the mispronunciation go on too long and eventually it felt too late to start correcting people. My name was officially whitewashed.
For a long time I was embarrassed of my first grade self for letting my anxieties have so much control over my identity. I started introducing myself with the white-washed pronunciation to make it “easier” for others. Your poetry reflected a very pertinent part of a realization that I recently came to. It’s my name! I don’t owe others an easier way to pronounce it just because it makes them more comfortable. I don’t want to graduate with an unfamiliar name being called to the stage. I want to graduate with pride in my cultural identity. So, I’ve recently started introducing myself the way I would like my name to be pronounced – a way that reflects my heritage.
The creation of “Shadowless Shadow,” “How I Got That Name,” and many of your other identity pieces were somehow able to reproduce the feeling of taking back your identity. That power is unmatched in the world of literary art. Thank you for taking the time to read this letter. I believe your work, specifically, is extremely important for the youth of America to hear so they can learn how fractured the country is and be inspired to change it.
Hi Anita “Ani-thu”:
Thank you for your kind letter and for “trudging” through my poem. Yes, it is important for us to “take back” our identity and to be proud of our heritage. I remember as a child I was ashamed of being different and wanted to be like everyone else. I even bleached my hair blonde once to look like my best friend. I look back and know that I was wrong-headed.
Yes, it is important to celebrate our heritage! We should not be afraid of being different. Immigrants help build America; we must remember this. Our diversity makes the world strong. As for my name: some friends call me Mei Ling and some call me Marilyn; my mother calls me Ah-Ling, my Granny just calls me “big girl,” meaning that I was firstborn. My grandfather got the girls all mixed up--he didn’t care to know any of our names…And I grew up hearing various anti-Asian slurs! No matter what others call me-- I know my “true” name. We must not be defined by others! I love your feisty voice, girl poet! Keep reading and writing!
Chancellor Marilyn Chin
Dear Marilyn Chin,
My name is Genevieve and I am a sixteen-year-old from Kansas City. When my English teacher announced the “Dear Poet” project to us, I immediately took note of your poem, “Shadowless Shadow” based on the title alone. Upon reading your poem and its discussion of identity in a new world, I was drawn in. I connected with your poem in a way that I had not previously experienced while reading poetry. I am not an immigrant myself, however, these past few years, I have slowly come to the realization that I am nonbinary. Before and after coming out, I have had significant struggles coming to terms with my new identity.
The beginning of your poem especially captivated me with the line: “There is a dog who barks at his own shadow, which is not there, for in mid-day sun, there is no shadow.” I interpreted the mid-day sun to symbolize the midpoint of assimilation, a time where one has disconnected from their previous identity but does not yet feel comfortable with the new identity. Without a shadow, a part of yourself is missing just as without an identity one may not feel fully whole. Was this your intention in including the reference to the mid-day sun?
While reading your poem, I noticed many references to Chinese culture. I am learning Chinese at my school and enjoyed noticing the combination of cultures. The references themselves were striking by making the very first words of the poem “The Great Matriarch” in what I interpreted to be a reference to the revering of ancestors. Similarly, I noticed the numerous references to names and the concept of a “true name.” The line, “Let’s call him by his birth name and take away his power” was especially noticeable to me. Does this line reference the Daoist belief in which the 真名 of demons and spirits may only be seen by supernatural beings and that by speaking it one may gain temporary power over its holder? If it does, is the line intended to illustrate how many Americans demonize immigrants, how the shredded, non-assimilated identity of an immigrant may be seen as a ghost still connected to the new identity, or both interpretations at once?
Previous research into Chinese poets introduced me to the work of 李白. Your poem reminded me of his poem “Drinking Alone by Moonlight” as both poems share many references to shadows. I feel that his poem conveys a sense of solitude or lost friends, a sense akin to the missing of a lost identity depicted in your own poem.
In your poem, you masterfully depicted identity and culture in a way that I was able to both connect with and learn from. From a nonbinary perspective, I felt seen in the struggles of grappling with a new identity but was also able to learn more about the struggles faced by immigrants. Thank you for writing “Shadowless Shadow” and for participating in the “Dear Poet” project so that I could have the opportunity to be introduced to your work.
Thank you for sharing your story with me. Being “non-binary” means to be fluid and open. Our identities are not static; we are forever growing and changing. You seem very self-assured and wise for your age. You are very courageous to bring your identity to light, especially now, as we are witnessing deep political and cultural divisions in our nation…and there is so much bad noise and discrimination blaring in social media!
I am also very impressed that you are learning Chinese. Our knowledge of different cultures will help bring peace and understanding to our complex world. Goodness, let’s prevent another world war! Yes, you are right, I love the Tang Dynasty poet Li Bai and his famous poem “Drinking Alone by Moonlight.” http://afe.easia.columbia.edu/at/libo/lb04.html. Alas, I am allergic to alcohol and can’t drink. This contradicts the stereotype of drunken poets! Ha, ha, perhaps I borrowed the shadow image from Li Bai. Perhaps, like a rapper, I was sampling the old tunes! Be happy and adventurous, young friend!
Chancellor Marilyn Chin