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Poem of the week: Ars Poetica, XI by Mary Jean Chan
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Poem of the week: Ars Poetica, XI by Mary Jean Chan

Ars Poetica, XI

This is the myth of love’s tenderness:
that it only heals and cannot wound.
After thirty years of spinning around
in space, you hear echoes, wilderness
among stars devoid of human tempers.
Linger there — it is quiet — your breath
audible as the staccato burn on a hearth.
Dear reader, how often are you tempted
to infidelity with words: those curious
shapes that simply demand you listen?
Offer a translation your life can bear.
Revisit poems that spark mysterious
doorways in the mind and glistening
eyes. Let ink seep into what you hear.

From Bright Fear by Mary Jean Chan (Faber) © Mary Jean Chan, 2023

The 16-poem sequence forming the middle section of Mary Jean Chan’s three-part collection Bright Fear is a very personal and engaging Ars Poetica (art of poetry). The poems take a variety of shapes and structures but there’s no lecturing on specific techniques. One of my favourites is a variant of the Petrarchan sonnet. Not only for its subtle and fresh treatment of the form – the heightened way, for example, its fluent and effortless enjambment contrasts with the crisply end-stopped lines. But also because Mary Jean Chan writes in the glow of lived experience, personal and poetic, and, above all, talks to the reader as an equal.

Poem XI begins by addressing the traditional sonnet’s most familiar trope: love can wound us. The “myth” of love’s “tenderness” and healing power is questioned from the perspective of a queer poetics. Those “thirty years of spinning around / in space” seem located in Chan’s family story: resistance and escape initially become the entry into a cold wilderness of “stars devoid of human tempers”. But the cold is not as it seems: “Linger there  — it is quiet — your breath / audible as the staccato burn on a hearth.” These are wonderful lines, with their slant rhyme (“breath”/“hearth”) and the entirely original transformation of Petrarchan fire to the stingingly palpable, and audible, “staccato burn”. It marks, I think, the moment for Chan when the poem itself is redefined as “home”.

The Roman lyric poet, Horace, wrote his famous Ars Poetica (circa 10-8BC) as an “epistle” to a particular family. Chan’s tone is differently conversational. A lover may be the implied reader, but the rest of us are allowed into the lovers’ listening-space. In line eight, instead of a pause marking the completed second quatrain, a potent question is introduced: “Dear reader, how often are you tempted / to infidelity with words?” It’s an amazingly mind-expanding question. It may of course include the poet’s own self-questioning.

A wide knowledge of languages might be construed as “infidelity with words”: elsewhere, Chan refers to Cantonese, English, Mandarin and French as “all/ my loves”. The fact that rhyme and other structural devices can push a poet into finding words they might not have originally intended may be another interpretation. Words are also estranged, miraculously freed from signification and sensuousness, when they’re defined for the eye and ear as “those curious / shapes that simply demand you listen”. Line 11, compassionate, gently didactic, advises “offer a translation your life can bear”. It opens the sonnet to readers, writers, anyone who seeks to make sense of their life-to-date.

Chan’s Ars Poetica is about listening to others’ words as well as your own. Many quotations are interwoven. The poem that precedes the sonnet quotes from the closing lines of Robert Hayden’s Those Winter Sundays: “What did I know, what did I know / of love’s austere and lonely offices?” Chan writes, “I am reminded of another poet’s experience / of love, with its austere and lonely offices, and a solemn // father who seldom speaks. I am reading another’s words / to ask what I cannot ask: have I been there for my father?” The power of love to wound with which the sonnet begins glances back, I think, to the previous piece.

The sonnet’s last three lines are in themselves a miniature description of the art of the poet-as-reader. There’s a requirement to “revisit” poems that are intellectually and emotionally stimulating, but not only that. The image of the ink “seep[ing] into what you hear” is a reminder that, in Poem X, the speaker recalls being asked only one explicit question by their father: why they’ve “stopped practising / Chinese calligraphy”. The directive, “Let ink seep into what you hear,” obliquely addresses the father’s question, especially in the light of the earlier depiction of words as “shapes”. It reveals how the words of one poem can fertilise the thoughts of another – and also, perhaps, that the physical components of writing, symbolised by the traditional “ink”, are essential to the process.

AS Kline’s translation of Horace’s Ars Poetica is particularly accessible and can be read here.

Source: theguardian.com