In this remarkable chapbook, Kristin Chang emerges as an urgent, sumptuous voice, a poet of numerous gifts and intellectual dexterity who we’ll be reading for years to come. Chang’s wide-ranging concerns—familial love and violence, queerness, race, the first-generation immigrant experience, and the paradox of masculinity—strain at the edges of the page, this slim collection containing a fully imagined, immersive world. The constant, however, is the pleasure of Chang’s verse, which has a protean energy—a shifting, silvery beauty that allows her to carry darkness lightly, and as it moves through her poems, transform it into something unexpected and entirely new.
One of the strongest threads through Chang’s collection is that of matrilineal belonging—how young women see themselves echoed in mothers and grandmothers, inheriting both trauma and resilience, as in “Yilan”: “It was my grandmother / who taught me to burn / only what you must, then water / the rest.” Chang draws a contrast between these bonds and the volatile masculinity of the family’s men, like the father who “teaches / my brother to body / bag furniture, to drag chairs / like women: by the legs” in “The Movers.” The grandfather too is nearly ritualistic in his subjugation of women in poems like “The History of Sexuality”:
upstairs my grandfather unbuttons
his pants before prayer pisses into an urn
of my grandmother’s ashes to remind her
who’s still alive he says
Chang’s women view their degradation as an inevitability that dovetails into the meek obedience shown to god: “She teaches me / to kneel for every meal / to let the man eat first, finish / in you first. Then sop up / the blood, rinse out your / mouth” (“Poem for my mother’s cleaver”). Of course, Chang’s speaker chafes against these expectations in poems like “Closet space,” where she says, “I want men / to stop writing & / become mothers.” In these poems, like “Poem for my mother’s cleaver,” beauty and rage are constant bedfellows—“Someday I will / feed my father / to my hands, make meat / of men’s minds.”
However, matrilineal bonds are strained by the speaker’s queerness, which troubles both the family’s patriarchal structure and Christian religious practice. In “Symmetry,” “My mother says / women who sleep with women / are redundant: the body symmetrical / to its crime.” The speaker’s experience as a queer woman is such an anathema to the family that it represents her fundamental remaking, as Chang says in “The History of Sexuality,” “What happens now / is motherless. What happens now in / my body means I am / alone.”
Some of Chang’s most stunning line breaks appear in her poems of queer eroticism, such as, in “Symmetry”:
I consider coming clean
through you like an arrow.
And it’s hard to imagine anything more sensual or haunting than “I still / dream of your breasts floating / over my head like furred moons” (“The Chinese Sappho”).
The speaker even encounters the violence of racism within the intimate terrain of queer desire, as in “The Chinese Sappho,” where, “every time a white woman / compliments my eyes / I want to pluck them out.” But Chang continues to remake and reimagine the world around her, finding escape hatches in poems like “on loving a white woman,” where she asserts, “eve / ate the apple / believing in someplace / better than a white body.”
Past Lives, Future Bodies gives readers access to a new, queerer world that sears with self-knowledge and becoming. The magic conjured in this collection—lyric intensity coupled with sharp political intellect—is utterly singular, as Chang says in “Midas,” ”I ate myself out of the womb, slurped / my umbilical cord like a noodle.”