Mary Jean Chan, Fleche – review

Mary Jean Chan’s Flèche describes the speaker’s struggle to assert her gay sexual orientation despite social prejudice and her mother’s horror. This story is interwoven with themes of cultural change and intercultural migration as the poet travels from Hong Kong to America and England. The whole book is framed by metaphors drawn from the sport of fencing – flèche itself and the section titles ‘Parry’, ‘Riposte’ and ‘Corps-à-Corps’. A more deeply imagined inner structure lies in a series of accounts of eating, drinking and cooking that runs through it, and particularly in an implicit parallel between Chan’s gnawing erotic need and the constant hunger felt by her mother as a result of youthful starvation. This too ties in with the title, since flèche is pronounced ‘flesh’.

Chan’s formally ambitious, experimental and inventive writing does justice to her rich material. Risk is inherent in experimentation, of course, and her success varies; sometimes her expression seems luminously effective, at others less certain. However, given its context in the speaker’s ongoing struggle of self-definition, uncertainty itself has expressive power: it acts out her effort, and keeps us alert as readers.

Although each poem makes its own impact, they come fully into their own when the book is read as a single story. Event leads into event, poem into poem, discovery into discovery, and every state is provisional. Family, sex, culture – now one now another strand seems uppermost at different points but they’re always interwoven. The resolutions they achieve are precarious in a way that makes them open-eyed and convincing.  The tender and lovely ‘Tea Ceremony’, presenting harmony between mother and daughter and between Chinese and Western cultures, begins bracingly, ‘There are days when I pretend / to understand my mother’s grief’. ‘At the Castro’ describes the joyous shock of stepping into a gay bar for the first time and feeling the thrill of acceptance there. This is beautifully done, but the poem is subtitled ‘for Orlando’ and ends with thoughts about the homophobic massacre in a gay nightclub in Orlando in 2016. The love between the poet and her partner is lyrically evoked in ‘Safe Space III’ and suggested in a narrative way in the glance of understanding they exchange in ‘The Importance of Tea’ but has  its own difficulties. Two of the most haunting lines in the book are ‘the abiding terror / of the world’s light’. Flèche as a whole seems to say that to be alive is to be vulnerable but that courage allows one to snatch beauty from terror. In this way, the fencing metaphors have their own deep appropriateness.

Mary Jean Chan, Flèche, 88pp, £10.99, Faber & Faber Ltd, Bloomsbury House, 74 – 77 Great Russell St, London WC1B 3DA

I would like to thank Ann and Peter Sansom and Suzannah Evans for permission to post this extract from my review of books by Katrina Porteous, Mimi Khalvati, Mary Jean Chan and Hugo Williams in issue 64 of The North.

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