House A by Jennifer S. Cheng

If the Body is a Gathering of Reverberations and Tides

by mica woods


If water is a metaphor, then it is because water fills up a room, slow-moving, blurry, immersive but obscured    

Here in Jennifer S. Cheng's House A, the relationship between the private and the public, the idiolect and the dialect(ic), the relationship between sleep and waking, becomes so glaringly obvious that it cannot be perceived, making the connections as tenuous as intrinsic. So too does a memory and the history constructed around a remembering become a flood, one that shrouds itself and its surroundings. Between the oscillations and waves of the tidal tongue that are the poems of Cheng’s first book House A (Omnidawn, 2016), we are asked to interrogate with her these fragments of dissolving sound, feeling, and memory, these “brief lingering notes” with “such residue” from our collective and private “phantom limb.” Cheng studies the volatile meteorology between distance and absence, the echo dividing “into lights and breaks,” and all that haunts our and our poet’s “landscape of embodied history.”

For I know how a landscape can cradle a person home. If I could miscarry you all the way to the ocean.

For to say we have forgotten is to assume we once fully knew, but I have never known anything except white noise and the sound of traffic from very far away

In the first section, “Letters to Mao,” Cheng takes these remnants, these shadows of understanding, and starts stitching them together as “a roof above my head,” just as she sews language together, “with an ever-escaping thread.” If that weren’t enough of a challenge, these epistolary prose poems string together the most uncannily loving and intimate fibers of childhood and family with the vastly geopolitical. The photo of Mao in her father’s cabinet serves as a triggering image for the opening poems and addressee of what become in themselves a trigger for the “secret accumulations of geometries” of “House A; Geometry B,” which serves as the blueprint for the weather-beaten body of “How to Build an American Home.”

No one told use how to mark the gaps between us, how to
compensate for them in the first place.

No one told me that if I left, there would always
be a reason to return

To prevent an invasion of overhead winds, I placed my child heart near the skin of the floor and wafted in a condensation of history

Jennifer S. Cheng weaves together the body, one of many particulates within the A-framed history, and her private memory with her home and former homes of her parents who had immigrated to the US. She shreds speech from her “small mouth haunting the air” with the gears of manufactured understanding. But the poems reveal that any structure cannot stand to be stable. Even in the buttressed additions of architectural jargon and mathematical investigations, Cheng’s poems in House A allow for all of it to tremble, to oscillate. It becomes difficult to tell whether the house of the poems is swaying in the breeze, crumbling, liquifying, or if a sinkhole has begun to swallow all of us along with it. In this ocean of palimpsest and ekphrasis from which Cheng draws much of her material, she creates such a dynamic weather system in her lyric muddled with narrative that a cyclone forms and destroys the very land under our feet. Distinctions like border and body become misnomers. Shoreline and foundation become jokes of time and water. Shelter too:

If we could trace such a system of invisible dimensions unearth an inheritance of fractures and cracks 
we would know once and for all how decades have no margins
oceans do not stop


House A is the winner of the Omnidawn 1st/2nd Book Prize for 2015 and is available now.