Waterborne: A Review of Tina Chang’s ‘Hybrida’

As I turned the pages of Tina Chang’s Hybrida (W. W. Norton & Co.), several lines of fictional dialogue I’d recently heard re-surfaced with an insistent resonance. “She is a friend of my mind. She gather me, man. The pieces I am, she gather them and give them back to me in all the right order. It’s good, you know, when you got a woman who is a friend of your mind.”

These lines from Toni Morrison’s Beloved open Timothy Greenfield-Sanders’s new documentary “Toni Morrison: The Pieces I Am,” which is as focused on Morrison’s challenges and achievements as a working mother of two children as it is on her literary accolades. Its release is well-timed to inform a reader’s experience of Hybrida, whose governing concern is motherhood as both personal and political undertaking. In her latest collection, Tina Chang, also a working mother of two, illuminates the concerns that attend parenting a child of mixed ethnic heritage (Haitian and Chinese) in a dreamlike, fragmentary manner; bookended by surrealist narrative sections structured in regular tercets and couplets, the collection’s middle section employs the zuihitsu, or “running brush” form, in which extracts of personal essay, lyric, and reportage appear with collage-like associative logic.

Construing the detritus of a fraught political moment, referencing the tragic cases of Michael Brown, Leiby Kletzky, and Noemi Alvarez Quillay, which are shown to directly affect the prospect of motherhood, Chang too proves to be a friend of our minds. Yet Chang’s goal is not to give us back these fragments in any “right order,” but to depict a psyche both embattled and imaginatively reactive at a juncture where existing structures—political, sociological, and ecological—are being called into serious question.

“Google-able fact:,” runs a prose line of the collection’s central zuihitsu, “There is no federal database that tracks the number of people of any race killed by police.” In this poem’s associative stream, such fact can float alongside the “Non-Google-able fact” that “when my son wakes from his dream, he finds me in another room folding clothes […] In his dream we are separated.” At such moments the reader may feel, having digested this mother’s assertion that “I have a right to fear for him, / though I have no right to claim his color,” that rarely in poetry have these tenderly matter-of-fact tasks of household maintenance been rendered so persuasively political. One thinks again of Morrison’s Beloved, depicting the mother and child in their haunted house who together “waged a perfunctory battle against the outrageous behavior of that place.” The world outside one’s door may hold personal violations and fatal dangers, and one’s own dwelling may be haunted by the ghosts of American history, but a mother goes on, moment by moment. There are the protests, the headlines, the horror stories; but there are also these clothes to be folded.

Intriguingly, Chang is equally interested in fairy tale and magical realism as means of sociological exploration. Totemic figures such as wolf and falcon appear, transform, and hunt or are hunted with an air of anthropomorphic agency. In “Theory of War,” the speaker constructs “dioramas of the future: paper birds rested on live wire” that either come to life or die “magnificently inside the box.” Later, walking “the tightrope of history,” the speaker finds that “the rope made speeches…the rope said Halleluiah and raised its arms heavenward…the rope held a rope. There was a tug of war and it won.” Chang’s narrative conceits will often employ such ironic humor, or, like Tomas Transtromer’s, comment on their subjects using a kind of Deep Image dream logic, or an uncanny animism, resisting pat interpretation.

A century after T.S. Eliot presented his reader with “fragments I have shored against my ruins,” his references to drowning and wreckage implying that Western civilization had steered itself awry in the madness of world war, Chang’s Hybrida, examining its own fragments of history, myth, and observation, is similarly awash in water imagery, but with a peculiarly American sense of ending and beginning. Here, the feeling of apocalypse is immediate, political and personal. This makes sense, given the collection’s thematic focus on motherhood. If you are the mother of Leiby Kletzky, the Hasidic Jewish boy kidnapped as he walked home from his day camp in Borough Park, Brooklyn (the borough of which Chang has been named the first woman Poet Laureate), what more do you need of apocalypse?

Even as Hybrida explicitly names such incidents, the reader feels the push and pull of more faceless elemental forces, and of water in particular. In “Creation Myth” a grin becomes “a boat at sea”; “water teeters at the edge” in “She, As Painter”; and we see “white caps of longing” in “Prophecy,” among other depictions of tide, rain, and drift. In the ekphrastic suite “4 Portraits,” which profitably engages with visual artworks in a manner reminiscent (though not derivative) of Claudia Rankine’s Citizen, one speaker, in response to an installation by the artist Sondra Perry, observes that “Everyone floats / except the ones who started the torrent, / the ones who laid the babies in watery graves, / then paddled away in a rowboat humming.” As in Eliot’s “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock,” it is human voices, not those of mermaids, that wake the listener into drowning.

Chang’s water imagery, however, seems inextricable from what the speaker of “Creation Myth” calls “the latticework of blood and cell and fret,” providing Hybrida a thematic undercurrent of gestation and birth. In context, this motif speaks to America’s perpetual conception and delivery of a national identity, with all of the attentiveness, the rupture, and the risk that birth entails.

“Vocabulary is the future we’ve all been waiting for,” proposes the speaker of “Hybrida: A Zuihitsu,” noting that the etymology of hybrid includes a connotation of “mongrel.” Chang’s fragmentation is, at heart, an effort at coherence rather than a depiction of ruin; it represents the attempt of an inspired imagination to reconcile at times divergent aspects of a first-generation, twenty-first century American self, whether these are social, political, or simply corporeal (“I am not the same person I was. Time changes forms”).

“A fully dressed woman walked out of the water,” wrote Morrison in Beloved. Offering us fragments of dream and reality in this associative current, becoming a friend to our minds at a moment of acute cultural atomization and re-combination, Tina Chang is seeking—and finding—a lexicon for a particularly American mutability. In Hybrida, with a mature voice engaged in eyewitness reportage, ekphrasis, and lyrical utterance to convey the urgency of one mother’s concerns, a poet has emerged fully dressed.



Jerome Ellison Murphy

Jerome Ellison Murphy earned an MFA from the Creative Writing Program at New York University, where he currently serves as Undergraduate Programs Manager. His critical writing has appeared in LA Review of Books, Publishers Weekly, Lambda Literary, The Brooklyn Rail, and American Poets. His poetry can be found in LitHub, Narrative Magazine, The Awl, and Bellevue Literary Review. See more at Jemwords.com.

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