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About Marilyn Chin's Poetry

Marilyn Chin

I am interested in cultivating the consumate political poem. I believe that my work is daring, both technically and thematically. I am working on material which is very ambitious in thematic scope and form and is both a delicate and apocalyptic melding of East and West.

Sometimes this may mean breeding hybrid forms. Once I blended the epigrams of Horace with the haiku of Basho and came up with a strange brew of didacticism and pure image that made a powerful political statement.

Also, I have been working on love poems with a strong post-colonial subtext. In the Chinese American context--love always means assimilation. For, in love, one must completely destroy one's identity to merge with "the other" in a culpable, beautiful way. This is true on the surface level, perhaps. However, in a terrifying subtext--to assimilate into America means to annihilate one's culture, language, religion, and to be usurped by a culture that is monolingual, monotheistic, and whose world view is tied to the vicissitudes of commerce. My work is steeped with the themes and travails of exile, loss, and assimilation. What is the loss of country if it were not the loss of self?

Anne-Elizabeth Green

The pains of cultural assimilation infuse her two collection of poems: Dwarf Bamboo (1987), and Phoenix Gone, the Terrace Empty (1994). In these collections, Chin struggles passionately and eloquently in the pull between the country left behind and America--the troubled landscape that is now home.

Chin has been praised for the intensity and clarity of her voice, as well as for an often bold and unshrinking articulation of her view from the boundaries of two cultures. She does not shy away from expressing anger. In "How I Got That Name (an essay on assimilation)" from her second collection, Chin takes on the American myth of the Asian "model minority:" "Oh, how trustworthy our daughters, / how thrifty our sons! / How we've managed to fool the experts / in education, statistics and demography--."

Earlier in the same poem, Chin speaks of how she was renamed "Marilyn" by her father: "obsessed with a bombshell blonde / transliterated 'Mei Ling' to 'Marilyn'." Chin, returning to that past moment, witnessed herself as the "wayward pink baby, / named after some tragic white woman / swollen with gin and Nembutal." Her name itself represents both the sudden shock and long-term process of assimilation—a name is violently transformed, and yet retains its connections to the prior name by that transliteration. In the new name lies always the echo of the old.

One of Chin's most distinctive marks as a poet is her skilled play with language. She is not afraid of mixing tones and styles within the same poem, evoking radically variant moods and creating strange juxtapositions with differing literary voices. These juxtapositions may be playful, or may shock in the sudden aggressiveness of her shift in tone. In "I Confess" (Dwarf Bamboo), Chin writes an imagined letter to her literary mentors in a tone both serious and deliberately absurd: "Dear mentors: / one day I am filial / monkey, practicing reading / and writing. Next day / I wear ink eyeliner, open up / Mandarin frock for the boys."

Chin does indeed carry a doubled consciousness. She is able in her poetry to articulate skillfully that interplay of, and tension between, cultures which constitutes her experience of the world. A critical part of this process of articulation includes establishing links and continuities between an ancestral past and cultural history, and an American present.

From Contemporary Women Poets. Ed. Pamela L. Shelton. Detroit: St. James Press, 1998. Copyright 1998 by St. James Press.

Chin's exploration of East-to-West cultural assimilation carries harsh political overtones. In her "How I Got That Name: An Essay on Assimilation" from her 1994 collection The Phoenix Gone, the Terrace Empty, she writes of her father's seduction by Western culture and values: a "petty thug," he "obsessed with a bombshell blonde/transliterated 'Mei Ling' to 'Marilyn,"' thus dooming his dark-haired daughter to bear for life the name of "some tragic white woman/swollen with gin and Nembutal." Other verses reflect upon the scars borne by diverse Asian Americans, including women whose value as a human being has been reduced to their novelty as a sex object ("Homage to Diana Toy") or even of the second-generation of Asian Americans about whom Chin writes in "I'm Ten, Have Lots of Friends, and Don't Care," included in her first collection of verse, 1987's Dwarf Bamboo.

From The Dictionary of Literary Biography. Copyright 2000 by the Gale Group.

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