Mary Jean Chan Recommends Her Favourite Poetry Collections
This year's Costa Poetry Prize was awarded to the highly deserving Fleche, by Mary Jean Chan. A kaleidoscope of interlacing themes that include motherhood, identity and belonging, Fleche reaches back into China's troubled past to illuminate very modern conceptions of place and isolation in a powerful, emotionally resonant collection. Here, Chan highlights the poetry that has spoken to her and inspired her to craft her own deft, nuanced work.
Adrienne Rich showed me that it was possible to fuse the personal and the political, and her poetry and prose acted as a powerful antidote to the queer shame I grappled with during my early to mid-twenties. One of my favourite lines from her stunning “Twenty-One Love Poems” in The Dream of a Common Language asks: “What kind of beast would turn its life into words? / What atonement is this all about?”
Claudia Rankine’s fifth poetry collection has been aptly celebrated since it was first published in 2014 as an urgent and timely book that sustains the United States' conversation on race and racial injustice on a level of national grief, even as Rankine brings it to the level of personal intimacy by asking, “How do you make a body accountable for its language, its positioning?”
I love all of Kei Miller’s books, but The Cartographer was the one I kept returning to and wrote about for my PhD, in conjunction with the ideas of Édouard Glissant, a Martinican poet, novelist and theorist best known for his seminal Poetics of Relation. Through their dramatic monologues, the personae in Miller’s book enact a “poetics of Relation”, in which, in the words of Glissant, “Every Other is a citizen and no longer a barbarian.”
I kept returning to Stranger, Baby when I was putting together my own debut collection, because there was something in how Berry explores the mother-daughter relationship, grief and language in her second collection that really moved me. I wrote my poem “beauty” after (re-)reading Berry’s poem “Picnic”, and I’ve kept returning to her poem “Canopy” for solace.
I love the playful seriousness of Chen’s poetry – When I Grow Up is the kind of book that makes me laugh and cry all at once. In his poem “Poplar Street”, Chen writes: “Sometimes, parents & children / become the most common strangers. Eventually, / a street appears where they can meet again.” Chen’s poems offer a radical hope that I draw on in my darkest moments.
The City in Which I Love You by Li-Young Lee
Growing up in Hong Kong, I had not encountered many poets who were Chinese but wrote in English; Li-Young Lee was the first Chinese poet whose thematic concerns and lyricism spoke deeply to me. This particular collection (sadly currently unavailable) was also published in 1990 – the year I was born – so I’ve always cherished it. In one of my favourite poems in the book, Lee writes: “You must sing to be found; when found, you must sing.”
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