Monday, 6 April 2020

Flèche by Mary Jean Chan

Reviewer: Catriona Troth

What We Thought:

Mary Jean Chan’s poetry collection, Flèche, was the Winner of the 2019 Costa Poetry Award and is now longlisted for the 2020 Jhalak Prize.

As a youngster in Hong Kong, Mary Jean Chan was a member of a fencing team and in fencing, flèche is an attacking move. But Chan plays too with its original meaning in French – arrow – as well as its homophone, flesh.

In ‘Practice’ she describes how the androgynous nature of the fencing uniform gave her ‘the closest thing I knew to desire,’ allowing the girls to become ‘princes in a fairytale with a twist, since there were no princesses to be taken, wed.’ Other poems deal with awkwardness of falling in love and the everyday joys Chan shares with her partner.

Chan’s mother grew up in China during the Great Famine and the Cultural Revolution and the sequence, ‘My Mother’s Fables’ deals with the brutalities and deprivations she experienced, the hunger that never entirely left her.

Many of the poems deal with her mother’s struggle to accept Chan’s sexuality and the strain that creates between them. In ‘Conversation with Fantasy Mother’ for example, she imagines a mother who took her coming out “as calmly as a pond accept a stone flung into its depth / You sieved my tears, added an egg, then baked a beautiful cake.” But ‘The Window’ reveals the truth, when she tells herself ‘you will refuse your mother’s rage, her spit, her tongue heavy like the heaviest of stones.’ And with the sequence ‘Twenty-four Filial Exemplars,’ based on a classic Chinese text on filial piety, you feel the weight of expectation that a child should be ready to sacrifice themselves for their parent.

Each poem is a vignette, pared down to its bare essentials, each syllable feeling as if it has been carefully chosen and placed. As she writes in ‘Calligraphy,’ a poem on the instructions for creating perfect Chinese characters,

Seeds of in unfurl suddenly from
Your wrist, blooming into time.


You’ll Enjoy This If You Loved: Do Not Say We Have Nothing by Madeleine Thien, Under the Udala Trees by Chinelo Okparanta,

Avoid If You Dislike: Reading about difficult mother-daughter relationships

Perfect Accompaniment: salted egg and pickled carrot

Genre: Poetry, LGBTQIA+

Buy This Book Here

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