S.J. Chen on Yu-Han Chao’s We Grow Old


 

We Grow Old: Fifty-Three Chinese Love Poems, Yu-Han Chao, Backwaters Press

 

While the subtitles for Yu-Han Chao’s debut poetry collection, We Grow Old, introduce its contents as “Fifty-Three Chinese Love Poems,” these poems are not all especially Chinese or specifically limited to the subject of love. Chao presents poignant and funny moments with her family members, descriptions of her homeland Taiwan, and festivals and customs from her culture.  She reflects on the lantern festival, ghosts, Chinese sayings, and fascinating superstitions, such as never giving someone a clock:

The Chinese do not give one another clocks as a gift, because to song zhong, give clock, means to see someone to their grave, to be present at their deathbed, their last rites.  Even if you hated someone you would not give them an object that so explicitly expressed your desire to see them dead.” (Song Zhong)

Her poetic language comes across as plainspoken prose that is easy to read, yet it possesses a special cadence and musicality as each poem lacks line breaks as the sentences simply run down the page in neat rectangular paragraphs.

 

Some of these prose poems address a “you,” presumably a lover, but instead of writing about roses or violets Chao talks about cat toys, swimming pools, old jackets, and kimchi as a simple, underwritten way of expressing deeper sentiments. Chao has a talent for picking meaningful details from a larger scene to focus on as in Rawness of the Egg:

My father tells me that when he was young, his family had a hen.  My father and his brothers were growing boys and always looking for something to eat.  When the hen clucked, my father would reach eagerly but gently beneath the bird, and retrieve a perfect, brown-shelled egg.  He would knock it against the cement wall lightly until there was a crack, and from that crack he would suck the sweet egg juices, still warm from the hen’s body.  That’s a beautiful image, once you get past the rawness of the egg. 

A great deal is packed in this brief poem: the simplicity of country life in Taiwan, love for one’s father, the image of “a perfect, brown-shelled egg,” and the surprise of one sucking raw juices from it. Moments like this are what make Chao’s poetry linger long after the book is closed. This graceful, universal collection of “Chinese love poems” paints a delicate portrait of a young poet’s emotional and cultural landscape. Readers can learn a great deal about Chinese culture, fortunetelling, and superstitions while enjoying the musicality of her language again and again.

 

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S. J. Chen reads and writes in both English and Mandarin. He currently lives in Southern California with his family.

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