Jennifer S. Cheng’s new hybrid collection Moon: Letters, Maps, Poems is a lyrical exploration of women’s mythology and a reimagining of feminine spaces. It is a re-weaving of ancient stories about Chinese goddesses, an exploration of the body as landscape, and a deep-dive into liminal experience. It tells a big story: a romance between body and space, a map of the undefined spaces women’s bodies inhabit. Told in fragments, Moon uses a hybrid form that combines emotional and physical cartography, narrative storytelling, and lyric poetics. It re-invents these forms just like it re-invents folklore. The central thread of the book centers on the stories of the “Lady in the Moon” and various Chinese sea goddesses, or “Women In The Sea.” These women surge and disappear throughout the book, reappearing and re-telling their stories like the tides. The collection begins:
In the story of the Lady in the Moon, there is only one ending: to live out her nights as a captive, over and over, as if some necessary penance, as if a sorrow to see a woman paper-thin against the lesser light.
While this opening sets the stage for the story that has been told, with a singular and constricting ending, the woman in the moon is released through the re-telling as the book progresses. The phrase “as if” suggests that the woman’s fate may not in fact be a “necessary penance,” and that there are many possibilities to the reality of what happened. The speaker presents these different possibilities by telling us:
The lady in the moon loved her husband, but one day she left him on the earth in order to fly into the midnight, the edges of her dress like a decaying moth’s arms. She wanted to live on the light of the moon. Or: The lady in the moon was banished from the heavens along with her husband.
Present in these poems is a fundamental contradiction, a complicated desire: the simultaneous love for a person whose affection ties you down (the husband) and the love of freedom, exploration, and vast space. Depending on the story, she may not, in fact, be trapped by a “lesser light” but may be inexplicably drawn to the “light of the moon” or to the “midnight,” two contrasting images that may not be so different at all. Or, she may be trapped in penance with her husband, after all. Can seemingly contradictory stories all be true, simultaneously? In these fragmented folktales, Cheng gives the reader options on what to believe.
In their exploration of the liminal, the shadowy spaces in between definitive narratives, these poems chart the unchartable, that which moves, the dynamic bodies we inhabit: corporeal and geographic. One of the poems, titled “Chang ‘E,” asks us: “What is the relationship between a woman’s fragments and her desire/ for wholeness?”And later: “For in a world where boundaries are slowly slipping, we begin with a map of the body in motion.”
In these poems, body and landscape are inseparable. Just as bodies of water move, the human form moves, part of a greater whole. All are part of a narrative that is complex and immense.
Interspersed between these stories are lyric poems in which the speaker incorporates elements of folklore into her own life. While each story is distinct in its own way, a blending occurs, revealing a common experience of watery women. By writing about these stories, the speaker reclaims an identity and a complexity truer to lived experience. She blurs her own myth with the myths of others. Take the poem “Myth-Making (I)” which opens:
Let us say
I fell from the sky
Let us say one night I reached
around my back & could feel
the place where something had been
severed. I would always
try to name it.
And later in the poem:
I do not attempt
to cover it. In the streets
of Mong Kok & Wan Chai, I wear
thin cotton dresses and shirts
with low backs. In the crowds
I blend in. Nobody notices
my round wounds.
Here, the speaker exists on Earth, but with a wound she carries with her through the streets. The wound’s round shape is reminiscent of the moon. She is displaced, but still, she blends in. In the blending there is still an aloneness, a theme that runs throughout this book. An exposure and a covering-up—an attempt to name and define and still, a blurry futility to this inclination. She is a part of the modern world and also a part of folklore. She is a walking myth. She makes it so by asserting, “Let us say,” and she invites others to share in her reality, her own walking mythology. She uses her voice to define her experience but does not seek a definitive narrative.
In these poems, the speaker provides a new voice but does not want to provide an answer or a final say. To do so would be to miss the point. They ask: “To set about infusing a voice, where do we begin? Its shadow spaces, half-obscured corners, the ellipses at the tail of its third breath.”
By looking into the overlooked places on the edges of the most overlooked places, telling stories where no one knows they exist, perhaps even the owners of the stories. “The sound that cowers is usually the one that rings deepest,” the speaker says. And later, “Perhaps I wanted to un-know a myth.” In the unknowing there is an untelling that inevitably reveals a new myth.
Cheng rewrites stories about creation and the feminine. The speaker tells us:
You will remember, above all else, how she is—motherless, childless, godless—the last girl on earth—how the story of the world begins with her, a body in the marshes, sleeping, alone.
What is the worth of a woman on her own? In a culture that says a woman’s worth is defined by her relationships to others, the speaker asserts the power of this position—everything begins with her, a re-imagining of a creation story. Again, Cheng breaks down a binary: beginnings and endings. This story contains many births and completions.
The focus of these poems is on process and unfolding. In a section of the book in which each of its prose poems are titled “CHANG ‘E:” the speaker of one such poem tells us:
A chrysalis is an envelope of earthly hues, raw green, wrinkly dried brown, seeded vessels like leguminous plants. Instead of the transformation of their wings, now the rows of sleeping pods. Instar, and I am holding a word of celestial materials, ready to make a world apart. Sky and sea, speckled with gold, and empty ones, thin layers of lip skin, translucent, slit open. Inside the envelope: decomposition, disintegration, destruction. The structures are carried in the dissolution. The body holds knowledge as if it were a horoscope, an omen, an intuition of atmospheric currents to come.
Through the symbol of the chrysalis, a temporarily static vessel created to birth movement, Cheng focuses on how bodies contain both stasis and change. She focuses on the sleeping, as well as the holding: both “sky and sea” deep fluid knowledge that is like the sea, free and unconfined. Images of the skin as paper and the body as envelope appear numerous times throughout Moon, and as a symbol of movement and communication, a thin vessel that can contain complex sentiment. For example, Part ii of Moon’s Prelude which tells us that the story of the Lady in the Moon “is immersed in a pale envelope.” From as far away as the moon, apart from others, we can still send messages rich with meaning.
What Cheng delivers us in Moon is a delicate, complexly layered letter. It is both translucent and dense, a sensual story full of texture. It asks us to get inside the envelope, hold it up to the light, peel it apart, and fold it back together again. It is an invitation to participate in the telling of her myths, our own folktales, and the common stories that we as humans are all a part of.