One can detect from the opening pages of The Family China that its author, Ann Shin, has a sense of craft that diverges from poetic conventions. The five long poems that comprise the book are crowded with drama, as well as with the silent scenes often omitted from the frame. That Shin is also a filmmaker is evident in the book’s cinematic quality. Shin’s eye pans over the decades, zooming in on details such as her mother’s breath in her ear or the wind in the grass outside their old family farm. Certain sections are difficult to follow, perhaps because the poems overly rely on juxtapositions. Yet overall, Shin’s poems fearlessly confront personal and family taboos.
Each of the five long poems that comprise the book has a different scope. Yet each is sewn together by the spirit of disclosure that runs through The Family China like a surgeon’s needle. Shin doesn’t go in for a spill-your-guts confessional mode. Rather, even as she is detailing her family’s lives, there’s a sense of “missing pages,” of breaths held, and of her kids “sensing / something wrong, the way they do, their / eyes larger their souls, silent cavities.” By attending to “a hush on the phone, a dropped moment,” the poems breathe with the mysteries of domesticity and love.
The poems accumulate like the knowledge of a family member or a friend over the course of a long relationship. Shin uses a number of different devices to gather together the seams of the book, such as the annotations that appear in the margins. Words greyed out in the poems are given further explications below, but these “explications” don’t provide any single definition. These paratextual elements emphasize the bits and pieces that populate the outskirts and perimeters of our minds—memories, scenes, hints, fragments, and remarks.
Shin’s particular sense of diction, too, threads through the poems. Here and there, words are coined, but their meanings can always be derived, as in “the hours / have unlimbed themselves” or, “in a word it’s twocanny.” Shin emphasizes how the familiar can be spliced together in unforeseen ways. She also unites abstract nouns with sensory details, resulting in thick, memorable phrases such as “the many-fingered avalanche of desire” or the “windfall of consciousness.” These techniques are not novel in themselves, but, combined together in these narrative poems, their effect is sharp, creating unexpected but effective transitions.
At the same time, Shin is also content to let the disparate elements of the book remain unsutured. The reader sifts through these poems like fragments of broken china, trying to find patterns. Shin, too, is turning over
the intricate bric-a-brac
that shaped my world, disassembled—
whatever key they took with them
locked up the meaning of things.
The speaker attempts to piece together the lessons of childhood and parenthood. She hopelessly holds up the broken shards of that farm life and its secrets, as if she might find her way home at last. For the reader, it can be a disorienting experience to make sense of the college-like poems, with a bit of the pattern here, a familiar image there. Still, there’s a strange, frantic unity in Shin’s vision: “the years settle like formed-to-fit pieces, / culled and reshaped for my body.” From this book’s bright slivers, we too can choose some treasure to fit into ourselves.
Phoebe Wang is a graduate of University of Toronto’s MA in Creative Writing program, and her chapbook, Occasional Emergencies, appeared this fall with Odourless Press. More of her work can be found at www.alittleprint.com.