Cathy Linh Che charts uneasy territory in her debut collection, Split. Divided into three parts, the collection explores the legacy of trauma through a journey that moves from the personal to the familial to the historical and back again. In this way, Che asks, what is the relation of the self to history, especially one marked by violence?
Che’s poems are not easy reads despite their seeming simplicity. The first poem warns of this with hands washed with gasoline, “an archipelago of bruises,” a cousin’s “hostile need.” It’s a dream language that suggests violence rather than speaking of it directly. It is also very much unlike the rest of the collection, which is largely characterized by concise and raw language, sparing readers no detail: “He pulled your pajama pants off in the dark,” the speaker writes (“Profile”). And later in “In what way does the room map out violence”:
He lifted his waistband and inserted my hand—
his trembling fingers,
his tentative tongue
My body a punctured casing…
Lucid and visceral—and brutal—Che’s language is brave as it recalls the speaker’s sexual molestation that is to become her obsession. At the same time, the voice is eerily dejected, creating a gulf between the speaker as narrator and speaker as victim, for as the speaker observes, “you’re not supposed to look into/a gun you dismantle” (“The Future Therapist Asks About Rape”). Indeed, in several poems like “Home Video,” “Camera” and “Self Portrait in Summer I,” the speaker positions herself outside of her body to become a metaphorical camera, documenting her life from afar:
He ate French bread with butter and sugar.
He ate soft boiled eggs.
He kissed me and took off my pants.
He apologized and kissed me again.
Che’s project, however, is not simply personal. It spans beyond Che’s personal world and into Vietnam’s recent history and the story of Vietnamese American immigration, both of which are heavy with violence, literal and metaphorical: “In the late fourteenth century, the word rape meant to abduct or take by force,” the speaker observes in an untitled prose poem, “My mother says bị hại. Literally to be injured. When she was three, while playing on the floor, her mother snatched her up, The French are coming!”
In “First Day,” the speaker recalls her mother working at a garment factory and watching her as she transforms into a human machine at a menial job: “she grips the metal hum/between her teeth” as “the needle lifts/and digs in.” In another poem, the speaker’s father mistakes “the Macy’s star/for the Viet Cong flag” (“[My father does his own dental work]”).
Through these poems, the speaker comes to realize that she is a link in a chain of violence and trauma: “I am his daughter, a mirror/or a window,” she says, “I reflect red,/which means: stop, blood, or danger” (“Daughter”).
For Che’s speaker, history and the self are often parallel or else closely linked reiterations of one another. History and the self are one. In “Bloodlines” the speaker rubs a coin on her mother’s back—a Vietnamese home remedy—to find literal and symbolic bloodlines. She writes:
my older sister dead,
buried in the motherland—
somewhere in Vietnam.
What Che suggests, then, is a “caucus of past, present, and future convening.” To be Vietnamese, to be Vietnamese American, and to be a (Vietnamese American) woman, means to come from a history imbued with pain. Che’s speaker carries the burden of her life and her ancestors and proclaims, “If memory/were a suitcase, mine/is overstuffed” (“Object Permanence: Memory”).
Yet Che’s speaker is far from a victim. The debut is less about victimhood and more about survival. It is through the chronicling a history of brutality that the speaker can empower herself. By the last poem, the speaker asks, “How must I attend to my life?” She later concludes: “I too can change…I can crown myself/with my own life” (“Gardenia”).
Che’s brave, rich, and poignant poems link the past and present while highlighting the pain of memory. Deceivingly simple, yet swelling with danger, they devastate the heart. With Split, Che marks herself as an important emerging poet.
Buy the book here.
by Cathy Linh Che
Alice James Books
Eric Nguyen has a degree in sociology from the University of Maryland along with a certificate in LGBT Studies. He is currently an MFA candidate at McNeese State University and lives in Louisiana.
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