Melody S. Gee‘s first poetry collection Each Crumbling House won the 2010 Perugia Press Book Prize. Originally from Cerritos, California, she attended the University of California, Berkeley and the University of New Mexico, and has taught at Purdue University, Ivy Tech College, Saint Louis University, and the University of Missouri-St. Louis. Her poems and essays are published or forthcoming in Blackbird, Copper Nickel, Southern California Review, Dogwood, Packingtown Review, Alligator Juniper, The Greensboro Review, Cha: An Asian Literary Journal, The Spoon River Poetry Review, Washington Square Review, and Crab Orchard Review, among others. A Pushcart Prize nominee, winner of the Robert Watson Literary Prize for poetry, and a 2008 Kundiman Asian American Poetry Retreat fellow, she currently teaches writing at Southwestern Illinois College and lives with her husband in St. Louis.
Each Crumbling House arrived just when it seemed like first-generation Asian-American themed poetry was out. These subjects are alive and well in fiction and memoir, but not so in poetry. Some of the titles, like “In Translation,” seem to set the reader up for a display of clichéd ethnic tropes. But Melody Gee puts an original and unique take on most of these poems. “Always / a word away from the word I need,” Gee writes, suggesting the obstacles of intergenerational language barriers.
Each Crumbling House is also unique in its engagement with other histories. Gee takes a pan-Asian American approach in her poem, “Internment Farm.” The last two couplets are full of empathy for both the father and the Japanese family:
Father said the floor of our
childhood was laid by Nanking rapists.
A family taken in early dark with the baby
half-fed, the sow left waiting for slaughter.
Unlike the father, the speaker is removed from Nanking by America and the experience—or self-knowledge—of being Asian-American. The first two couplets show that the speaker’s sympathies and her father’s sympathies are two separate things, as if his sympathies are “a world away from the one I need,” or as if they are separated by history:
The Japanese grow soybeans: here.
Sheltered animals: here. Made their
children: here. They were taken
in the morning, and by the time they climbed
the truck, we moved in.
There is a remarkable absence of anger. There is no anger for Nanking expressed here, and no anger towards those responsible for the internment. Even though the speaker is implicating her family in a way—they move into the house that the Japanese family are forced to leave—there is no anger at the self. Rather, the sadness beneath the anger is left to simmer, and it is that more productive, reasonable simmering that makes up the force of the poem. The speaker is more concerned about the children and the trauma of a family life so violently disrupted than she is with pointing fingers, for who, in particular, is there to blame? And if there is no one in particular to blame, then where does empathy focus, settle? These are some of the questions that Gee successfully explores in her debut collection of poems.
Not all of these poems deal with ethnicity or history. Gee combines meditative lyrics with ostensibly Asian-American subjects. In “How We Thirst,” Gee reflects on the timeless subject of expectation: “How easily we live in preparation and just until, / how worn the path of prologue.” How do we mark the evolution of our lives, or chart out a phase of our life? Ultimately, Gee’s thinking on Asian-American and family history return us to these questions.
Gee has included three poems titled “Paper Sons,” (Paper Sons were young Chinese immigrants who came to the U.S. prior to 1944 and claimed to be the sons of citizens, but were actually only sons on paper. Because of the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, pretending to be a son of a citizen was one of the few ways to gain entry to the U.S. These boys were rigorously interrogated to determine if they were the true sons of citizens.) In one of the poems, she describes a woman who is separated from her son as he sets off to the U.S.: “Her son will belong to a merchant / and his elegant wife. They will will write his / paper history, which is a story / of herself she cannot read.”
Again, the Chinese / English language barrier, the barrier between countries, and generations come into play here. If there are Paper Sons in the family, how do they fit in to the time pattern of history, of family history and the speaker’s own sense of personal history? What kind of expectations do the Paper Sons create for the speaker?
“Paper Sons” is similar to “In Translation,” Internment Farm” and other poems in this collection, because it deals with the idea of being removed, or at one remove, from someone or something one loves. Characteristically, there is no anger in these poems—it’s as if the speaking of the truth carries the power that lesser poets would try to reap through anger. Gee understands that anger could upend the very power she is striving to express, and she strikes hard.
There is no hatred in the speaker’s take on oppression and history, and in this Each Crumbling House has much to teach.
Each Crumbling House
Perugia Press (2010)
88 pages, $16.00