Book Review: Half Lit Houses by Tina Chang

In the opening of Tina Chang‘s first collection of poems, a speaker whispers “Every memory I have coveted and stolen. / Every minute I have recorded as if the night would erase it from me.” While the onus of being a memory thief certainly isn’t a unique trope in contemporary poetry, Chang earns this urgency by insisting that erasure is a kind of death “in seven dialects.”


Divided into four movements, the book centers on a daughter grappling with the slow death of her father, while meditating both on the history of women in her family as well as her place in the world they’ve left to her. As such, some of her speakers ride the F train, Ipod in hand, while others eat beetles in poverty stricken 1940’s Hunan. Regardless of the setting, however, the experiences of these women are always striking, by turns unexpected as a flash fire or progressive as the death of a language. In one poem, set in Hunan in 1944, a woman imagines herself “in the white stones / at the bottom of the river. / I place them in my pockets today. / Watch me drown.” Later, in a more contemporary setting, a young woman describes moaning into her lover’s ear. “When the angels heard, they came / and beat her with their wings.” For Chang, pain is like a run in the stockings a girl wears to church – “fine as a crack in the world.”


If the poet ocassionally falters in crafting unique voices for her speakers, at times, it’s hard to tell all of these women apart – it can be argued that this confusion mimics the nature of memory. The past doubles back on itself. Details of what happened are concrete as shadows. And yet, as Tina Chang demonstrates, we are so often determined to make sense of it all. As one speaker reminds us, “Yes, that dream was a good one, / the one about the house / that remade itself over and over again. / I walked through it feeling comfort although / I never lived there.”

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