“If, as Lisa Chen herself advises in “Translator’s Apologia,” you “…Enter these pages with / The lowered expectations of a prison guard,” you may be pleasantly surprised by the pointed coherence that frequently emerges from Chen’s fantastic verbiage….”
Here’s the complete review from POETRY FLASH’s “Mostly Books”, in April of 2010:
A Porch Light at Dawn
a review by Clara Mitchell
MOUTH, by Lisa Chen, Kaya Press, New York City, $13.95 paperback, http://www.kaya.com.
If, as Lisa Chen herself advises in “Translator’s Apologia,” you “. . .Enter these pages with / The lowered expectations of a prison guard,” you may be pleasantly surprised by the pointed coherence that frequently emerges from Chen’s fantastic verbiage. Similes strike, snapping ideas into sudden focus just when the experimental structure or disjointed syntax begins to float a poem away from the comprehensible. For instance, Chen laments in “Songs of Gold Mountain” that: “. . .all your / finery on a moonless night, the joy you hide in your sleeve, flutter / and vanish through his mind like a crumpled theater ticket” and “In the Street”: “. . .a sheer shirt / Slung over the lampshade like the whole room / Got into her blouse. . . .”
In fact, much of the sparkle in Lisa Chen’s work is generated by these crisp comparisons, by her skillful creation of poetic detail in the everyday and her use of such details to open fresh channels of understanding in her very nonlinear poems. My favorite such moment happens in the three-line poem “The Wagon” which closes with: “. . .The look / on his face as I leave is a porch light left burning at dawn.”
Over and over in Mouth we experience Chen’s refusal to elaborate, her clear choice to leave context behind. “The Wagon” demonstrates this strategy at its finest: the spareness of the scene is its power, the demand for interpretation its authority, its pull. At times, however, Chen’s cryptic scenarios ease into vagueness; for example, the questions raised by the series of non sequiturs strung together in “I Didn’t Always Look This Way” detract from its pleasure. By its close, it can become a bit wearying to keep up with Chen’s imaginative leaps without some kind of contextual clue on which to regain one’s footing:
I didn’t always look this way
The grin on that cow that shills for glue
I didn’t always look this way
Stay calm. Stay very, very calm
Mouth is characterized by an overarching tone of assertiveness: these poems are rife with commands, as in the series of authoritative notes-to-self in “Interior Monologue”: “Leave house. Walk five blocks to the bus stop. / Take bus across town. . .” or the rapid-fire delivery of opinions as fact in “Solution”: “The solution is to have sexual intercourse in lieu of awkward / silences. // The solution is. . . .” Throughout this collection, the frequent use of end stopped lines and simple declarative sentences show its authorial self-confidence. Lisa Chen’s conviction in her vision does not waver from start to finish in this book. In the end, it is the reader, perhaps hesitant at first to trust Chen’s method, whose confidence in Chen’s purpose rises steadily with each poem.
Clara Mitchell was Poetry Flash’s summer 2009 editorial intern. She is currently a student at Indiana University in Bloomington, Indiana.
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