Wednesday, July 26, 2017



The Heart’s Traffic by Ching-In Chen 
(Arktoi Books / Red Hen Press, Granada Hills, CA, 2009)

WHY I READ CHING-IN CHEN’S The Heart’s Traffic
That’s none of your business, really, but I’ve wanted to read it for years and was too cheap to buy it until I saw that Galatea Resurrects had a reviewer copy.  I have a plausible lie, though:  the winter publication of Chen’s probably-magnificent book Recombinant merited a/an (re)examination of her earlier work (but I haven’t read the new one yet).  So I’m a poetry reviewer again.  Also, I needed a book to read at my partner on the phone.  She owns a copy, too – one I bought for her.

I thought I was getting the book on amazon with the cool cover art.  Not so.  “Reviewer copy” in this case means “Advance Uncorrected Proofs.”  The cover art is not cool like the book on amazon.  I’m not in the publishing industry, so I feel weird owning books like these, like someone made an irresponsible and possibly illegal blunder in allowing me access to them.  One time, years ago, I tried buying a hardcover of Percival Everett’s masterpiece Erasure online and ended up with uncorrected proofs from a U.K. publisher.  These things seem valuable and rare, like they should be on eBay with outrageous offers for them from collectors.  I want these cool books, but owning uncorrected proofs seems like a special job for someone who cares more for the author’s work than I ever could.

Uncorrected proofs, in my limited experience, tend to be spectacularly ugly books with different cover art than the published versions.  The copy of The Heart’s Traffic has two distinctive visual features or effects.  The foreground consists of a brick-red rectangle informing the reader of such essentials as the author, title, ISBN, publisher, and the fact that these are uncorrected proofs.  The background consists of what looks like wallpaper, a grey-on-white design repeated in diagonal rows.  When I looked closely, I realized that the grey figures were silhouettes of fowl, possibly chickens.

Before I get to what I noticed in The Heart’s Traffic, take a look at a chunk of the Arktoi Book blurb that tells me how I’m supposed to read it:  “This novel-in-poems chronicles the life of Xiaomei, an immigrant girl haunted by the death of her best friend.  Told through a kaleidoscopic braid of stories, letters, and riddles, this stunning debut collection follows Xiaomei’s life as she grows into her sexuality and searches for a way to deal with her complicated histories.”  Keep that in mind.  

Reading The Heart’s Traffic aloud occasioned several illuminating conversations between my partner and me.  Things we probably wouldn’t have put much thought into if we were reading silently became issues we had to resolve.  For instance, how does one pronounce “Xiaomei”?  Google led me to Quora, where “a native Chinese Mandarin speaker” notes that “Xiao Mei is ‘小妹,Chinese equivalent for little girl. Chinese people often call their female lovers as Xiao Mei. In most cases, Xiao Mei means some relationships between the caller and the called. But it's also acceptable to call close friend Xiao Mei. So as for the meaning of the words, one must learn more from pretext.”  I think this native Chinese Mandarin speaker means “context” at the end there, but I’m not sure.  Other speakers interpreted Xiao Mei with various nuances that I won’t go into here.  One website had pronunciations.  I’ll spare you the IPA rendering; it’s kind of like:  ZI-O-may.  

Also:  how does one read a double sestina aloud?  “Knots” (25-27) presents a single poem in two columns.  Am I meant to read one column in its entirety and then backtrack to start reading the second column?  I think that’s what we were supposed to do.  That’s not what we did.  We frequently started our nightly reading with something like, “Okay, how do you think we’re supposed to read this?” and then talked through our best guess at how translate the book’s treatment of space and typography into the frustratingly temporal problem of reading aloud.  The book facilitated fun conversations about poetry.

My partner read the published version of the text while I read the uncorrected proofs.  Like all read-alouds, our rendering was subject to misreading (exacerbated by the fact that we read The Heart’s Traffic over many weeks, late at night when we were both exhausted—and I’m just absolutely shit at reading aloud).  The misreadings made me reflect on the malleability of the text.  When my partner “misread,” I wondered if the book she was reading actually had the word _____ instead of ________, which was in mine.  I wondered if I was making a load of mistakes that she just took in her stride.  Perhaps I didn’t make mistakes but she thought I did because our versions were different.  How close are these proofs to the final text?  Does it matter?

Some of what’s interesting about The Heart’s Traffic is the incorporation of so many forms and genres.  The blurb above calls it a “novel-in-poems” and a “collection” made up of stories, letters, riddles.  Before this book, I didn’t know that “novel-in-poems” was a thing.  There are famous verse novels (Autobiography of Red, for instance) and epics that are novel-like in their big-ness and foregrounding of narrative, but . . . what the hell does a “novel-in-poems” read like?  Other blurbs that came on an insert with the book (I think they’re all on the back of the official published version) call it a “sequence” and note that Chen uses the sestina, villanelle, epistle, haibun, pantoum, and zuihitsu.  These last few genres make sense at the level of individual poems, the parts that make up the novel.  And they’re mostly apt descriptions; we get titles like “Two River Girls:  A Pantoum” and “Cowrie:  A Riddle.”  The thing is, even if discrete parts of the novel correspond to easily-recognizable poetic (or prose) genres, the whole is tough to classify or read according to codes we usually use.  For example, those approaching this book as a novel in the way that Pride & Prejudice is a novel or even Naked Lunch is a novel—may be confused.  Those approaching The Heart’s Traffic as a “collection” or “sequence” might be confused, too; the interplay between discrete elements is too pronounced for these descriptors.  On the one hand, this is the essence of what novels do—cannibalize other literary genres and wind them into a unified narrative-thing.  On the other hand, narrative isn’t the foremost concern here, and reading The Heart’s Traffic over several weeks, a few poems per day, pushed the through-narrative into the background at times for me.  The narrative is about Xiaomei’s journey of self-discovery, her experience as an immigrant, and several other characters’ experiences of transformation.  

But you’re wondering about the language.  Where to start?  Here’s a fun one, “Ku Li,” kinda like if Harryette Mullen got stuck on the letter “C” in “Blah-Blah” or “Jinglejangle”:

cool Li?
Cooled ghee
Chew me
Gruel, tea
Cold feet

Chen takes the word “coolie,” strips away the semantic stuff, leaves the material sound and appearance, and then works backwards to connect the nodes to close associations both sonic and otherwise.  Many of the associations unsurprisingly evoke suffering.

For my money, the most brilliant poem in the novel is “Letters Found in a Wastebasket.”  At the level of content, it’s about someone trying to communicate to a childhood girlfriend that the writer “intend[s] to begin living full-time as a man”—even though he (the writer) grew up a girl.  (Side-note:  I love the “full-time” in this line that insists that the writer has been living as a man part-time previously.)  Most of the poem is situated between two “banks” of names.  The left bank is “Jani” and the right bank is “Jaden.”  

A sample line:  Jani Jani Jani Jani Jani Jani I understand boys Jaden Jaden Jaden Jaden Jaden Jaden Jad”

So the poem isn’t just about transitioning; it embeds this transition into every line at the level of form by existing between feminine and masculine names.  The banks disappear at the end of the poem, suggesting that the transition is completed and over, but the title of the poem implies that the writer wasn’t able to communicate about the transition.

The whole book is kind of like this.  It tries a bunch of forms to address the in-between-ness of identities, the flux and dynamism of identities and worldviews.  It tries forms relatively local to the Western tradition (letters, riddles) and forms that are decidedly not Western (ghazal, zuihitsu).  Like the identities it represents, The Heart’s Traffic shifts direction and contorts away from the familiar and expected.  I loved it.  Now go buy Recombinant.


Kyle T. Henrichs is a doctoral student in English at the University of Wisconsin - Milwaukee.  He goes to conferences regularly to discuss contemporary American fiction, ecocriticism, and narratology with academics like himself.  He does not specialize in the narrative poetry of any period or place (yet).

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