Review: Jennifer Tseng’s Not So Dear Jenny

Not so dear Jenny
Jennifer Tseng
Bateau Press (February 2017)

 

Bateau Press’s latest prize-winning chapbook arrived in the mail and it’s a humdinger. Jennifer Tseng’s Not so dear Jenny incorporates some of my favorite elements: found text, intense attention to music, and really long titles.

The titles, like “If I lose in Superior Court, I will appeal myself” and “Do NOT try any sleeping pills under any circumstances,” are witty and chatty (often) sentences that make me want to hear the speaker’s life story. Many of the titles are taken from letters to the poet from her father, which, she says in an essay, are full of phrasing that initially seems to be slightly grammatically off, but which, as stand alone sentences, hold exquisite poetic nuance. Take, for example, “Good medicine tastes bitter. You should not feel hurt. You should feel being deeply loved.” The last sentence in the title is not ungrammatical, it just isn’t the way most English speakers would express that idea. The insertion of “being” technicolors the sentence, conveying the sense of an ongoing action. Rather than using the perfect tense, the “you” in this sentence is in an continual state of reception. It’s an ever-filling cup, that sentence: “being loved.”

When Tseng talks about these non-native English moments in “Dearest Jenny: Reading My Chinese Father’s English Letters,” she notes that these formulations “are the opposite of immigrants, they make more sense outside their native context. They make sense as islands unto themselves.” In translation, folks often talk about what cannot carry over from the original language, but here the author’s talking about the inverse. Rather than a translational subtraction, in her father’s sentences we get a surplus of meaning. Second language learning creates an abundance. Again, an ever-filling cup.

The book is full of striking language from her father and those subtle, deeply poetic word choices are heightened by Tseng’s lyrical ear. In “ If I lose in Superior Court, I will appeal myself,” the speaker ends the poem with

The part which is sacrificed
Floats like an orange on the water.
Which part of me pines away?
Which flayed swimmer?
The swimmers’ hunger is unified.
If you win, where will you begin?

The repetition of the question mark creates an inflectional epistrophe. The anaphora and repetition of “part” (in this section but also further up in the poem) create a sound pattern. Then the iambic last line, with its mid-line and end rhymes, disrupts that pattern, thereby signaling the end of the poem. This chapbook is full of similarly tight, skillful songs that are by turns funny, mysterious, and flush with familial love.