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Rhapsody in Plain Yellow (Marilyn Chin)

February 9, 2010

This collection was hauntingly beautiful. That sounds pretty cheesy, but it really was. The “beautiful” part comes with her language and the form of her poetry (which I found varied and unusual). The “haunting” part really applies to the tone and content of the poems. When I finished the collection, I felt lonely and small. Chin’s poems circle around some very serious issues — spousal abuse, rape, and discrimination — in a manner that doesn’t spare the reader.

Her formal techniques are (as I mentioned earlier) “interesting.” That is to say, she’s doing some different things with form. She incorporates a lot of Western musical genres and elements — sonatas, rhapsodies, themes and variations, chords, Blues, arias, etc. — into her titles which bleed into the form of the poems. At the same time, she fragments them. Her poems are visually scattered across the page, with lots of white space and many asymmetrical gaps and breaks. Also, to complicate matters, she includes a lot of Eastern elements — Samsara, Chinese quatrains, the lunar calendar, Chinese characters, historical figures, etc. — in the content of her poems, alluding to a more diverse cultural heritage. Because both cultures inform her poems (and to such a great extent), Chin sets up a tension between East and West…which plays nicely into the theme of assimilation and difference that runs throughout the collection.

Another moment where Chin creates tension is in her portrayal of men and women. The men in this collection are nothing short of dastardly, entering the stage as rapists, abusers, controllers, drunks, and bullies. They have little to no regard for the women in their lives, and often mistreat them. Some of the worst men in the collection are actually white men. At the same time, Chin really raises women up onto a pedestal — the women here are often dying or dead, but they are also strong. Many of the women are mothers and wives, and they are looked up to and respected in the poems.

Chin’s poems are complex, and they’re not easy to access. While I feel confident with some of the poems, there are other poems that I read and reread but still know I’m not quite “getting.” The notes at the end of the collection helped, but as usual with notes I found that things I wanted to be in there were not. In other words, I’m lacking some knowledge that would help me better understand the poems, and I think Chin does this intentionally. She gives you some handouts via the notes, but for the most part there’s a lot of stuff the reader is just not going to know unless they share the wealth of cultural knowledge that she has. I think this is meant to alienate the reader, to an extent — to put them in the position the characters in her poems are so often placed in: that of the outsider.

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