Unearthings   by Wendy Chen   Tavern Books , 104 pages, March 12, 2018   


by Wendy Chen

Tavern Books, 104 pages, March 12, 2018




In “All Their Awful Particles,” the opening poem to Wendy Chen’s Unearthings, the speaker says, “I’m 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.” A few lines later, Chen writes, “Surely it has congealed within me—/ all their awful particles.” While the opening lines may sound resentful, the family exploration at the heart of Unearthings is far more complicated. The tone shifts throughout the book, and while some of the poems illuminate private moments and flashes of anger, there are moments of tenderness, especially between parents and a daughter. Chen’s collection is one in which the dead speak through the memories that the speaker calls forth, and their imprint, both the good and bad, mark her.

If anything, Chen shows how complex family dynamics can be and how no parent is one-dimensional or perfect. This is especially true in the poem “Strawberries,” which focuses on one single memory, strawberry picking, but shows both the love and imperfections of a family. The poem begins,


Cretan coastline: a shimmering

blue siren. The cornstalk light.

Dog’s tooth white.


Father, Mother,

It was good day,

passing like a strip of film.


The first stanza, focused on natural beauty, makes the scene seem picturesque. The end-stopped lines and caesuras add to this effect, causing the reader to pause after each natural image. Yet, by the third line of the second stanza, there is an indication that this moment is only temporary, since the good day is compared to a strip of film, something that must conclude.

The speaker spills some of the strawberries in the middle of the poem, which is enough to “summon his anger kept/ at bay for an hour, two days.” The poem makes one more turn, focusing on the mother and the effect of the father’s anger on her. Chen writes, “Years later, Mother you were still / picking up strawberries from the ground. / They clotted your nails. Your hands, your mouth / were red / Your eyes.”

These personal family moments are one of the main undercurrents in Unearthings. There is a frequent tension between pleasant memories, such as the strawberry picking, and eruptions of anger that can come at any time.

In “Ordinary Clamor,” a sequence of short narrative poems, the father’s sour moods are explored more deeply through a series of memories. The first poem begins with the image of the mother half-hidden under blankets on her bed, the father downstairs in the basement, and the sister outside, trying to talk to a cop on the porch. The second stanza compares the home to a doll’s house, a “bisected / anatomical model: the kitchen / cut straight down, the granite split / in two. Even the water that drips / from the faucet is only half a drop.” By doing this, the speaker shatters any notion that this family is perfect or that the American dream is perfect. There are problems that exist beneath the surface, no matter how serene things may look from the outside.

In another vignette, the speaker admits that the father’s bad moods come and go, but his happiness is light “moving across / the milk on the table / in an old painting.” Again, there is an image of the domestic breakfast table. The father’s happiness, meanwhile, is temporary. The light will eventually dim, and the painting, like the film strip image in “Strawberries,” is something artificial.

“Ordinary Clamor” is structured and ordered especially well because the rather ugly scene that opens the poem is followed by a pleasant memory. In the next vignette, Chen writes,


Mother says I remember only

what should be forgotten.


But I remember too—

the way he’d clean my bike…


O muddy wheel turning in air, o soft

blue rags.


“Ordinary Clamor” is preceded by “Animal Whiteness,” a poem in which the speaker recalls walking with her father between birch trees, and by the end of the poem, the father carries his young daughter over a flooded bridge, her arms around his neck. The sequencing of the poems is especially well-done and keeps the family members, especially the father, from becoming bland stock characters. The memories presented show all sides.

The collection also addresses gender, specifically through a series of poems about Madame Butterfly, based on the character from Puccini’s opera. The poems compare women to a butterfly, something pinned down and inspected. The first poem, “They Call Me Madame Butterfly,” takes up traditional gender roles and female passivity, especially in Asian culture. Madame Butterfly’s skin is compared to rice paper and her red lips are compared to a temple door. She says “I am not like other women. / I won’t walk, / won’t talk / without you.”

The poem then shifts to something internal, especially after setting up expectations that the “you” referred to is a man. It reads,


You were the one

wearing my voice,

making incisions

inside me.


How blank the interior!

How perfectly smooth.

Pale as the lining of a clam.


But you grow tired

of inhabiting me: retreat,


retreat from my blank

lacquered shell.


In one of the later poems about Madame Butterfly, “A Collector’s Guide to the Preservation of Lepidoptera,” Madame Butterfly remains in the house, awaiting her husband, who has been gone for three years while she refuses to remarry. Her narrative and her husband’s absence are juxtaposed with italicized lines of dissected butterflies, which ultimately become specimens “mounted and covered with glass lids.” One of the lines mentions that the interior of the caterpillar is removed by carefully pressing it out. The concluding lines follow, “She is not his, but she is his…/ Puccini, give her the knife.” 

From the opening pages, Chen’s Unearthings questions if it is possible to separate ourselves from our family. The speaker in “All Their Awful Particles” admits, “Their lives pour into me through a silver faucet/ I cannot turn off. Their deaths, too—suicide, suicide:/ the familiar sickness.” Unearthings acknowledges these moments of deep sorrow and rage alongside moments of love, especially between the father and daughter figures. Through these simultaneous aims, Chen questions the idea of the American dream and the notion of an ideal house and family, and Unearthings becomes a collection that interrogates the violence beneath the surface of family structures. 


Brian Fanelli’s most recent book is Waiting for the Dead to Speak (NYQ Books), winner of the Devil’s Kitchen Poetry Prize. His writing has appeared in The Los Angeles TimesWorld Literature TodayThe Paterson Literary Review, and elsewhere. Currently, he teaches at Lackawanna College and blogs at www.brianfanelli.com.