Review | The History of Anonymity, by Jennifer Chang
| The University of Georgia Press, 2008
When an artist commits to a horizon line she defines perspective, privileging the viewer by acknowledging your eye-level: You are here. Simultaneously she defines the “vanishing point,” that point on the line at which parallel bodies seem to intersect. Though you know intellectually they are two, they appear as one, and you realize: You are . . . not there. For as long as you travel, you will never arrive there.
On the cover of The History of Anonymity, the title sits on the horizon line as if to warn that “anonymity” is not a territory to be charted. This book is not about a persona waiting to be unmasked, or an author decoding biography. Anonymity becomes, in mathematical terms, an asymptotic function—though you may get closer and closer to understanding the speakers at hand, you’ll never fully know them, you’ll never reach the vanishing point in which your consciousness fuses with theirs. That’s a mystery I can live with. It’s a mystery I wish contemporary poets asked us to engage more often.
This collection—the first from Jennifer Chang—opens with the title poem, which won the Campbell Corner Poetry Prize in 2004. “The History of Anonymity” is a magnificent sprawl, an orchestration of lines staggering across the page in a manner reminiscent of Charles Wright, who taught Chang at the University of Virginia. Choppy syntax yields to elegant promises such as “I am two parts water / to one part salt, I am / conciliatory / as a chair.” The “I” vacillates between such sensual specificities as seeking out tide-pool sea anemones (“Their mouths on my ankle, / on my fingers, I wanted to be devoured.”) and the ephemeral, philosophical italics of a submerged body:
every night I saw an entrance, and saw
the tides, at their highest, stand still. Waves are waves
and wind their counterpoint. And what am I?
By citing an “actual” History of Anonymity, complete with pseudo page numbers, Chang invokes our consideration of the official and the parenthetical, the on-the-record and the in-the-margins. She also invites flattering comparisons to another UVA influence, Gregory Orr, and his 2005 work Concerning the Book that is the Body of the Beloved. “My voice / is always becoming another voice,” Chang’s poem declares, and we’re unsure whether the speaker shares Walt Whitman’s celebration of this realization, or Hart Crane’s surrender to its bottomless fathoms.
If you are looking for journalistic orientation—a who, a what, a where and when and why—this is not the book for you. But it is a book to be enjoyed, in part because the purposeful disorientations of the opening are not overlabored. They segue smoothly to the second section, a cluster of stand-alone poems committed to the charms of rich, dense, consonant language and images drawn from the natural world, as in “Conversation with Owl and Clouds”:
Build me up into the fog, into brevity
made beautiful, the wet-dressed disaster
that’s rain, that’s the storm-threat of forest fire.
I want to be ornate and ornery.
The previous section interrogated the psychic split between the one and the whole. This section examines the dichotomy between a voice exacting in technical knowledge and naïve in its delights. Consider “Pastoral”:
and chant. Something in the
field. Coreopsis. I did not mean
to say that. Yellow petal, has it
wither-gift? Has it gorgeous
The manipulation of lines, often breaking one word short of a completing phrase, reinforces the sensation of a speaker playing alternately coy and wise. This technique lends itself to the dark realms of fairy tale, where children prove more mature than their parents. “Hunger Essay” sketches out a Hansel-and-Gretel bond turned libidinous, and child abuse (a recurring theme) is chillingly encapsulated in “Innocence Essay” in a father’s declaration, “I only bite your hem.” Though many of these relationships are formulaic, they are rescued from banality by Chang’s urgent, unexpectedly exquisite phrasings. In “Obedience, or The Lying Tale,” a girl (perhaps red-hooded, fleeing the wolf) swears, “behind me is the forest. Before me / the field, a loose run of grass. I stay / in the river, Mother, I study escape,” while in “Slept” a Sleeping Beauty–like speaker recounts that “Mother says the heart is a wheel // and it will turn as I turn.”
But before this section can be completely pigeonholed in myth, we find a reference to “Steller’s dream” (presumably Georg Wilhelm Steller, the explorer/zoologist who identified the otter, the cormorant, and the never-proven “sea ape”). Suddenly Chang relocates us to the pedestrian realities of the “Estuary,” “poverty grass // flowering in the dunes.” Entering stage left in “This Corner of the Western World,” is a man who “loves low voices, diffidence / on the invented trail, // the stones you fuck him on.” In other words, here comes life—messy, defiant of constructed aesthetics. Here comes sex on the rocks.
It’s these moments of rebellion and self-contradiction that hook my interest. So much of what is published invites us to embrace the author by name: quirks, tragedies, jokes, geographies, and family secrets. This book is populated with those defined not by name, but by archetype and intent. In the final section, “A Move to Unction,” these roles—Mother, Sister—are summoned for a dramatic enactment of mourning reminiscent of Claudia Emerson’s Pinion: An Elegy.
The meaning of “unction” originates in the sacred, meaning a religious anointment or salve; last rites constitute “extreme unction.” In the modern vernacular, the word’s meaning has edged toward the fulsome, suggesting an exaggerated use of language that denotes earnestness. The initial poem in this sequence establishes “Unction” as a (meta)physical town, “a sanction for the solitudes,” in which the speaker is “a solitude gone / blank, the husk of my life / narrowing // into a blade.” Why this abnegation of community, this determination to be singular? Because the speaker’s sister has died—and in continuing to live, the speaker has abandoned her.
The death of a sibling invites both liberation and utter grief, as captured with the raw power of these lines from “I float in. I float out.”:
Today I am writing postcards:
Unction is like no place at all!
My tomatoes appear like lightbulbs!
The milk is white honey! I forgive you!
I go to the backyard and one by one toss them off the cliff.
The speaker is not just a sister but the older sister, grappling with her failure as a protector; these poems are immensely moving in their frank, unsentimental regret. In “I remember her, a bowl of water.” she acknowledges a legacy of petty resentments and hand-me-downs, realizing that in life her younger sister had become “a bowl of water // I spun my loose / buttons in—a sort of // tiddlywinks—until / she spilled out and broke // the bowl.” In hindsight the speaker can admit admiration, but this story has no happy ending. The speaker’s love is fused with understanding that even combining forces, two sisters cannot satisfy a mother figure who sacrificed (or believes she sacrificed) all, as in “If there is no memory, it did not happen.”:
Mother made wonderful
salads and after Father left, we each
had a dozen kernels of corn at dinner.
. . .
I did not want
her temperament, but I think
she had a lovely face, a wedge of moonglow
and a catalpa leaf. So I looked
carefully. I squinted because those days,
Mother was in love with our poverty
and had the celerity
of a blender.
The exact narrative surrounding Sister’s drowning remains unclear (“Were we then / a family of swindlers?” one poem asks, “Or a swindled family?”) which might frustrate some readers. But such enigmas are integral to Chang’s work. What do we make of a world in which the epic becomes minimal, and the formal becomes casual? How does our guide survive the question, “Am I vapor in a vapor town // and is Sister’s memory a dew bead / forgotten on a grass blade?” Will it be enough to construct walls “an arm’s length from truth,” as the speaker chooses to do? Surely the fortress of these almost-truths, with their “eggshell gleam,” will someday seem like one more prison.
In a section devoted to blessing what is irrevocably spoiled, the two meanings of "unction"—the holy, the profane—are reconciled by yearning for sincere touch. We’re left with the image of a speaker reaching, reaching, reaching. Given the seductive powers of The History of Anonymity, we are inspired to reach out in return. Perhaps the next manuscript will hold poems of contact: fleshy, full-bodied, and answering the questions that echo in the wake of these pages.