A Review of Jennifer Chang's The History of Anonymity
A Review of Jennifer Chang’s A History of Anonymity
If there is one word to describe Jennifer Chang’s A History of Anonymity, it is “atmospheric.” A collection steeped in allegories, children’s fairy tales, the coastal sublime, and religious imagery, it doesn’t quite fall into an easy framework for one who might try to approach the work through an ethnic studies vantage point. This is to say that the work is more experimental and conceptual on a certain level, but it is not simply abstracted. Indeed, the work is highly imagistic, even if it is disorienting. One always gets the sense of moving through a darkened landscape where the next turn is not quite clear. Animals, nightfall, and children loom large in this collection as if one is traveling through a landscape somewhere in between dreams and nightmare. The beginning is reminiscent of the coastal scenes that might appear in a Virginia Woolf novel had she decided to shift her work into poetic form. One excerpt reads
I traveled to a shore
where I knew tide pools would form.
I loved the sea anemones, loose flowers
or creatures of all mouth, moving more as water
than as live things. Their mouths on my ankles,
on my fingers, I wanted to be devoured (4).
It is difficult to correctly format the excerpt, but there is a clear sense that the way the lyrics are arranged on the page is central to the meaning and the flow of the collection as a whole. The reader is immediately disoriented because of the random portions that are left unscripted. A line will appear suggesting that a word has been censured and then one begins to confront this “history of anonymity” that is at play. The reader will move from various natural landscapes, turning away from the coast and the shore and moving inward into a dark forest location: “The forest, vocal/ even in its somber tread, rages. / A slope ends in a pit of foxes/ drunk on rotten brambles of berries/ and the raccoons ransack/ a rabbit’s unmasked hole/ What do they find but a winter’s heap/ of droppings? A stolen nest, the cracked shell/ of another creature’s child” (27). The key word here is “rages,” a sense that the forest is not merely some location from which to find a pastoral beauty or fertile growth. Instead, it is full of creatures that have are engaged in the conquest of other organisms whether it be berry plants or rabbit holes. In this respect, the first half of the book continually evokes such scenarios of unfamiliarity and menace.
The second section, entitled “A Move to Unction,” clearly riffs off the Christian sacrament for the benefit of a sickly individual in which words and script often take a central part in the healing of the soul and body. The first poem from this portion provides a useful template for many of the lyric conflicts which will follow. I reprint, “The sign reads:” here:
a sanctuary for the solitudes.
Yes, I am one
too. A solitude gone
blank, the husk of my life
into a blade. I have no
neighbors here and my neighbors
have none too. I will pour
last night’s storm
over my skin,
catch it all
in every pore.
The rain is grief-thick.
I used to wake in my childhood home
and want my family to burn, with me
as the flame’s blue dart.
They are embers now.
or could have been.
Sister pooling on the kitchen tile,
her formless anger
forming my current burden. Don’t I lie
each time I promise
I did not leave her behind? (55).
The poems that follow will literally give shape to a town called Unction, an interesting way to literalize a kind of space of ailment that the lyric speaker seems to exist in, a kind of guilt over this Sister figure, who will appear again and again. The figure of the Mother is also a clear antagonist to this sisterly bond as she presents herself as a despotic authoritarian. The following poems thus figure the various conflicts that arise both between the sisters as they attempt to maintain their bonds against their Mother. This concluding section is filled with images of water and drowning, dissolving and the ocean. The Mother clearly invokes Freud’s theories of melancholia as she possesses a kind of wound and attachment to that wounding that cannot be healed over. The Father is caught up in it and so is the lyric speaker’s Sister. The last poem seems to intimate that the speaker is so caught up in the guilt of having left her Sister within the grasp of that melancholia that she commits suicide. In this strange space, the collection ends with the lyric speaker jumping off a cliff, hoping to find some sort of absolution, to be healed perhaps from her own psychic wounds, but who is to perform the sacrament? Her death seems to resonate against the opening where we are reminded of the “history of anonymity.” Who are these figures and are they allegories? Without answers, the collection leaves us adrift, in mid-air, in suspension.