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Occasionally, we get the opportunity to share our thoughts on the outside work of our past contributors, as well as other projects that we think would interest readers of A cappella Zoo. To send something for possible review, especially new work relevant to magic realism and slipstream, email us at editorATacappellazoo.com.




WE GROW OLD


Poems by Yu-Han Chao. The Backwaters Press, 2008.



We Grow Old is a collection of “Fifty-Three Chinese Love Poems,” or perhaps one long poem in fifty-three sections, as C.S. Giscombe suggests in his back-cover blurb. In this collection, A cappella Zoo contributor Yu-Han Chao (Issue #1, “Not For Long”) cultivates a disarmingly straightforward style throughout. Her poems are straightforward in the sense that they are both clearly written and emotionally honest. For the most part she eschews figurative language in favor of the direct, working with an “I” and “you” system of address in which the “you” stands in for an unnamed beloved. In a rocky marriage of form and content, Chao favors the prose poem form. This is a bold choice. As a reader of contemporary poetry, where the prose poem is flourishing, I have to question whether Chao’s observations and anecdotes are really suited for such a subversive, mysterious form; to read its contents as prosaic rather than in prose would do a great disservice to a promising first collection.

Prominent though it may be, love is not the only thematic concern in We Grow Old. Culture, be it American, Taiwanese, or traditional Chinese, plays a huge role. The passage of time, as the title suggests, is another concern. These intersect in strange and unexpected ways, as in the poem “I’ve Seen”:

I’ve seen pictures of my grandfather holding me as an infant, my father holding me as a baby. I had very little hair and a triangular mouth. I sometimes torment you with the image of you as a nineteen years old haughty, Columbia student of Jewish descent, suddenly faced, in a vision, by a prophet holding a little Chinese baby in a red blanket. “You will hump this some day,” the prophet says, and you mutter some obscenity, laughing in disbelief.

Although I can imagine the word “hump” eliciting some cringes from the audience, I found this to be a unique take on the May-December romance. Additionally, reader reaction to the punch line quality of the final sentence will likely determine whether Chao’s work is to taste or not.

The absurdity of “I’ve Seen” suggests that age and cultural disparity pose problems for the speaker and her mate. I am not an expert on Chao’s biography (nor would it would be appropriate to hastily conflate “speaker” and “poet”), but there seems to be a narrative arc in place that details the end of a relationship. Whether the beloved is expressing his preference for cigarettes over sex (“Better Than Sex”), prohibiting certain foods in his house (“Kimchi”), or chiding the speaker for her belief in ghosts (“A Raised Threshold”), the relationship is far from idyllic. Of the final two poems, “A Sign” makes this most explicit when Chao writes, “I took the loss of the watch as a sign that we should break up.” At the end of the last poem, “Which Line Is You,” she is “branching out, undisturbed by messy, ominous Xs.” The accumulation of details, culminating in those passages, is where We Grow Old really succeeds.
 
— Zach Buscher, poetry reader, A CAPPELLA ZOO