Anne-Elizabeth Green: On Marilyn Chin's Poetry

The pains of cultural assimilation infuse her two collection of poems: Dwarf Bamboo (1987), and Phoenix Gone, the Terrace Empty (1994). In these collections, Chin struggles passionately and eloquently in the pull between the country left behind and America--the troubled landscape that is now home.

Chin has been praised for the intensity and clarity of her voice, as well as for an often bold and unshrinking articulation of her view from the boundaries of two cultures. She does not shy away from expressing anger. In "How I Got That Name (an essay on assimilation)" from her second collection, Chin takes on the American myth of the Asian "model minority:" "Oh, how trustworthy our daughters, / how thrifty our sons! / How we've managed to fool the experts / in education, statistics and demography--."

Earlier in the same poem, Chin speaks of how she was renamed "Marilyn" by her father: "obsessed with a bombshell blonde / transliterated 'Mei Ling' to 'Marilyn'." Chin, returning to that past moment, witnessed herself as the "wayward pink baby, / named after some tragic white woman / swollen with gin and Nembutal." Her name itself represents both the sudden shock and long-term process of assimilation—a name is violently transformed, and yet retains its connections to the prior name by that transliteration. In the new name lies always the echo of the old.

One of Chin's most distinctive marks as a poet is her skilled play with language. She is not afraid of mixing tones and styles within the same poem, evoking radically variant moods and creating strange juxtapositions with differing literary voices. These juxtapositions may be playful, or may shock in the sudden aggressiveness of her shift in tone. In "I Confess" (Dwarf Bamboo), Chin writes an imagined letter to her literary mentors in a tone both serious and deliberately absurd: "Dear mentors: / one day I am filial / monkey, practicing reading / and writing. Next day / I wear ink eyeliner, open up / Mandarin frock for the boys."

Chin does indeed carry a doubled consciousness. She is able in her poetry to articulate skillfully that interplay of, and tension between, cultures which constitutes her experience of the world. A critical part of this process of articulation includes establishing links and continuities between an ancestral past and cultural history, and an American present.

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Title Anne-Elizabeth Green: On Marilyn Chin's Poetry Type of Content General Poet Criticism
Criticism Author Anne-Elizabeth Green Criticism Target Marilyn Chin
Criticism Type Poet Originally Posted 28 Jun 2021
Publication Status Excerpted Criticism Publication Contemporary Women Poets
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