Poetry Sunday:
“Bamboo, the Dance,” by Marilyn Chin

Guest Commentary by Susan Cohen

“Bamboo, the Dance” appears in A Portrait of the Self as Nation, Marilyn Chin’s recent book of new and selected work, and hasn’t released its grip on my throat since I first read it a few months ago. Although this is unlike any other poem of Chin’s in form, it is quintessentially hers in the way it boldly tangles its roots. She adopts the structure of a poem written in German by Paul Celan and gracefully grafts a Chinese image in order to mark the Holocaust and address the killing of women.

Chin, who was born in Hong Kong and raised in Portland, Oregon, has spent a 30-year career fusing cultures, exploring how her ancestry meets her personal, political, and poetic life. As she describes herself in the introduction to the book, which compiles her “best hits” from as far back as her first collection published in 1987, she has “sought to be an activist-subversive-radical-immigrant-feminist-transnational-Buddhist-neoclassical-nerd poet.” It’s worth noting that Chin needs all nine distinct adjectives to pin herself down. But more on that later.

First, what gives “Bamboo, the Dance” its haunting power, even without the note about why and how it was written?

In large part, its relationship to music, signaled by “dance” in the title, just as Celan named his famous poem “Todesfugue.” Fugue refers to a musical composition that begins with a theme, then returns to it several times with variations. Here, the theme is death—specifically, the murder of a woman. It begins, though, with an image of growth. Bamboo is a plant almost impossible to eradicate, one that forces its way through almost anything.

Using syntax and rhyme, Chin sets up an expectation of repetition. The poem seems almost soothing at the start. We’re lulled by the rhythm of the first line—its iambic pattern of unstressed and stressed syllables—and parallels to an English nursery rhyme in the second. But each variation upends our expectations, and violently alters our understanding. The “bamboo grows and grows,” soon returns as “Dead doe, dead doe, dead doe,” then as “My mother, my sister, my soul,” and ultimately as “echoes, echoes, echoes.” This moves us from the thriving plant to the death of a female deer to a woman whose slaughter reverberates across cultures and through centuries. The thriving bamboo, we gradually realize, is growing through her dead body.

Chin uses the device of apostrophe, a direct address to something absent, in a similar way. The four phrases beginning with “O” and related, too, by end rhyme, connect the world of all living things to that of humans: “O phloem and pistil, nodes and ovules” returns as “O delicate hooves and fascicles.” “O choir, O psalm, O soaring fearsome tabernacle” resolves as “O sweet soul, O sweet, sweet soul.”

Fugue also has a meaning in psychology, referring to a state of disorientation apt for this poem. Chin chooses fragmented sentences and limited punctuation. Her discordant pairings foreshadow violence (“Shoots and morasses,” “shreds and beds”), her images verge into surreal (“hissing marrow,” “a brocade sash, hanging on a distant oracle”), and she repeatedly interrupts the rhythms she sets up. All this disturbs us, as if we’re watching a dancer who begins gracefully stagger and fall. And, as with music, we process this poem less through the analytical brain than through the feeling heart.

I chose “Bamboo, the Dance” from a section of new work in A Portrait of the Self as Nation because of the poem’s skillful lyricism and shattering impact. In its formalism, it offers very little idea of what Chin’s poetry has been like over her six published volumes. No one poem in the book can, and that fact alone might be the best summary of Chin as poet. Remember when I pointed out how many distinct adjectives she uses in her self-description? Chin prides herself on exploration, which makes her work both interesting and brave.

For example, the last and newest sections include translations of poems by Ai Qing, Gozo Yoshimasu, and Ho Xuan Huang; a very funny prose poem sequence involving a girl who chooses “poetry camp” over the family restaurant; a surrealistic poem that calls to my mind the Serbian poet Vasko Popa; a new myth; a poem occasioned by Trump’s inauguration; and a piece titled “Postscript; Brown Girl Manifesto, One of Many.” Just to name a few.

Her identity as an immigrant, an Asian, and a woman remain common elements, along with her refusal to become locked into any particular way of writing. She’s sometimes angry, often witty, sometimes prose-y, often lyrical. If I had to choose one word for Chin’s poetic style, it would be attitude. But there is no better way to describe her than she does herself when introducing A Portrait of the Self as Nation. There, Chin writes: “—this wild-girl poet is engaged in perpetual renewal—”



Guest Editor Susan Cohen’s most recent book of poems, A Different Wakeful Animal, won the 2015 David Martinson–Meadowhawk Prize from Red Dragonfly Press and can be ordered at Red Dragonfly Press, Amazon, or Small Press Distribution. She was a newspaper reporter, a contributing writer to the Washington Post Magazine, and a professor at the University of California Graduate School of Journalism before earning an MFA from Pacific University. Her poems appear widely in journals and anthologies, including the Bloomsbury Anthology of Contemporary Jewish American Poetry, and have received numerous honors, including the Rita Dove Poetry Award and the Milton Kessler Poetry Prize. Here is her website.

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