émigré – Genève Chao

de tout = of all

I was eager to read Geneve Chao’s multilingual book émigré both because I like other books from the press Tinfish headed by one of my favorite poets, Susan Schultz, and because I am an emigrant myself, having lived the first half of my life in the USA and the second in Japan where I still reside.

Admittedly, I like poetry that incorporates more than one language and specifically solicited/included some such poetry in an anthology I edited recently which exclusively contains work by innovative female poets living outside their birth countries (Women : poetry : migration [an anthology], theenk Books 2017). I’ve also occasionally inserted other languages into some of my own poems and other works. And I like minimalism, which is a strategy utilised by Chao.

In any case, not understanding or producing perfectly a foreign language doesn’t particularly bother me, as an immigrant myself and as a former ESL teacher in the USA, the daughter of a mother whose first language was Polish, a person who enjoyed and enjoys the company of a variety of people from various linguistic backgrounds back in the states and now in Japan, etc.

So when I read émigré it’s OK with me if I don’t know all the words. However much of the non-English is or seems to be French, and I studied French to an intermediate level in school, so émigré is perhaps less daunting for me for this reason. The poems are made up of relatively simple English and I think or as far as I am able to judge not difficult non-English words. A reader can easily translate these with Google, or just be content to guess at meanings and sounds, like we so often have to do even with poetry in our mother language.

Chao’s apparent decision to choose simple words pays off in this book. It is only about fifty pages long, somewhere in between a chapbook and a full-length book. Each poem is short also, the longest poems being no more than five or six short and skinny stanzas and some considerably less like two to four. Many lines only have one word, most two or three; if I am accurate here the longest lines are five words. So, this is a book of few yet carefully chosen and relatively simple words. It’s sparse, and minimalist. It’s not easy to do so much with so little although the very best Japanese haiku and tanka poets of course know just how to do this. So does Chao.

The first poem in the book titled ‘Wish’ has only three stanzas, the first two of which are:

every morning
into which you awaken
a straitjacket
chaque reve
un dechainement

(I believe in English the 2nd stanza is: every dream a furious outburst) and the first of the two stanzas in ‘Plainte’ is:

in this her
tiny voice
raised over

These excerpts seem to show a person made small by a society into which they have been dumped which strangles them. In ‘Xanthie’ the speaker appears to be stranded in the dark:

on a small rock
in a wide sea
the light faded
the night came

The poem ‘Inheritance’ has only twelve words arranged in three tiny stanzas, beginning with: “he killed / all his children” and ending with “for a better life”. ‘Wisp’ contains fourteen words arranged in two stanzas with each line being only one or two words. The first stanza reads “Remnants of/other tongues/remained in/her body” almost as if foreign language is a “disease” (though poets may regard language as cure).

The first stanzas in ‘Moi’ are:

mon prince
sourd et
in grass or

(I think the first stanza in English may be: my prince, deaf and impassive and ‘Moi’ is of course me). Obviously there is trouble in paradise in these poems! Disappointment, bewilderment, alienation, and fear seem to be themes. Each line of the twelve line poem ‘Foim’ (I think foam, but maybe not French) is only one or two words long and the last four lines are: “into days/de tout/of hunger/poison” (de tout = of all); a poem titled ‘Viedjer’ ends “manque si douloureux/emptied joy” (the French may be missing so painful).

There is an ‘Afterword’ written by Chao which begins:

This book was written in Los Angeles in 2017, a year in which the political regime new to power waged a more explicit cultural and legislative war on immigrants than this century could have imagined . . .

I don’t like émigré simply because I agree with the book’s sociopolitical underpinnings (although I do; the book is dedicated as follows: “For the sojourners & for the evacuees for the sailors & for their memories”), but because it’s beautiful and well-crafted. It’s true, I love minimalism and multilingualism. Surely I’ve read anthologies of “multicultural” American poetry that contained in my view lots of rather (or extremely) bad poetry. Here each poem creates a small world (like a narrow but enticing and perhaps even a little bit strange alleyway in Japan) that I want to enter. The “smallness” of the poems seems to emphasise the diminished stature of the immigrant/speakers but in a way that mesmerises while increasing our awareness of language, emigration, empathy, beauty in simplicity, and poetry.

That’s quite a lot for a “small” book.

There is a powerful emotional but not sentimental impact on the reader. Why don’t you try coming along, too / この本を是非読んで見て下さい! We could all learn much from this book about how to further multi-cultural/lingual, short form, or minimalistic works. Via restraint, Chao shows us just enough, exploring themes which are both particular and universal. I’d urge everyone to read this book.


March 25, 2020

Genève Chao


Buy from Tinfish Press

Jane Joritz-Nakagawa published most recently the books terrain grammar (theenk Books 2018) and Poems: New and Selected (Isobar 2018). Email is welcome at janejoritznakagawa(at)gmail(dot)com.

Categorized as Apocrypha

By Jane Joritz-Nakagawa

published most recently the books terrain grammar (theenk Books 2018) and Poems: New and Selected (Isobar 2018). Email is welcome at janejoritznakagawa(at)gmail(dot)com.