“if my left hand is dying will my right hand cut it off?” Irony and Assimilation in the poetry of Marilyn Chin

Dorothy Wang maintains that while metaphor can be deployed consciously or unconsciously, irony denotes ‘authorial intent’. (Thinking its Presence, 116) While I’m not really sold on this as a general argument (can’t someone be accidentally ironic? Can irony sometimes be subjective?), Marilyn Chin’s self-aware, often tongue-in-cheek multivocality displays alternatively delightfully playful and starkly political uses of irony in her poems.

Chin occupies a particular and precarious position in poetic tradition. As a Chinese-American woman, she stands in opposition to two patriarchal literary traditions: the purist Confucian/Chinese tradition and the experimental/avant garde, which is implicitly coded as white and Western. (117) Although Chin self-identifies as an experimental poet, her conscious and intentional engagement with the historical/traditional forms of Chinese poetry, not to mention her marginalized identities as a woman of color, have kept the proverbial ‘gatekeepers’ of the Anglo-avant garde (the “real poets.” ew.) (118) Chin’s “explicit desire to blend Chinese and English poetic traditions” have led her to establish a “fusionist aesthetic” (118) that reflects a deeply ambivalent but inescapable rootedness in each. A razor-sharp sense of irony underpins the effectiveness of her multi-vocal/multi-traditional poems, operating as an intellectual tool to excavate internalized and externalized feelings of oppression/colonization/misogyny while providing space for the voice of the poet to be implicated as well. By stating the culturally salient/readily apparent falsehood, Chin illuminates the unstated truth, making space for the speaker’s complicitness as well as difficult work of disentangling the emotional bind of internalization.(116)  Assimilation, and the inherent violence and trauma therein, plays a central role in her work, examining the ways in which “demands for proof of cultural and linguistic authenticity weigh as heavily of notions of race and blood.” (119)

In her poem, “The Barbarian Suite,” Chin documents the continuous and often-unmourned losses of assimilation to US America’s dominant (read: white) culture. “[A] dialect here, a memory there–,” Chin employs an un-nostalgic, even blase voice to express her mourning. This emotional rather than literary, kind of sentimentally allusive irony conveys the depth of her sense of loss by its nonchalant effort at glossing over it. The name of the Chinese restaurant, “Double Happiness,” seems to operate as a kind of pipe-dream of the recent immigrant to the US–that one may simultaneously celebrate and preserve their original cultural heritage and tradition while incorporating and taking new ownership of those aspects of Western culture that advertise prosperity. In this poem, the speaker, somewhat jaded now, has realized that while the two notions of “Double Happiness” may not be mutually exclusive, they do exist in opposition and can never be fully reconciled within a single body. The poem maps the increasing degrees of separation from origin: China. “China is an ocean away,” and soon “we can no longer toil in her restaurant.” It seems that assimilation is a young person’s game, and the paradigmatic “grandmother” is too far gone for any such “improv[ement].” The use of the word “improve” to describe the process of linguistic assimilation is another nod toward irony. Does Chin really think that to pass more easily in white US American society is an improvement? Maybe not–but it is certainly a deeply complicated question manifesting in profound ambivalence, internalized-colonization, and existential conflict. In “Barbarian Suite,” Chin also flexes her affinity for using multiple, legibly different voices. The apparently more hip and clued-in voice of the third section seems to patronize and admonish their addressee (the grandmother) for her apparently naive expectations of their Chinese-American immigrant experience. “What did ya think?” the speaker demands–unequivocally (and passive aggressively) implying that she was categorically wrong in her original assumptions. No “Double Happiness” here. “What did ya think? Life’s that hunky-dory?”

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One Response to “if my left hand is dying will my right hand cut it off?” Irony and Assimilation in the poetry of Marilyn Chin

  1. Erica Mena says:

    Great reading! Especially “In this poem, the speaker, somewhat jaded now, has realized that while the two notions of “Double Happiness” may not be mutually exclusive, they do exist in opposition and can never be fully reconciled within a single body.” – though I wonder too about opening a space not for reconciliation but for the construction of a new meaning through irony, where the opposition doesn’t resolve or negate but becomes constitutive of a third possibility? Binary and possibility seem really important to this poem especially….

    Like

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