The Body as a World: Kristin Chang’s Past Lives, Future Bodiesconsider/the way we shape in bed, like the sea//has revised its shoreline & we /the country it moves to meet.These lines appear midway through “Symmetry,”the opening poem of Chang’s stunning debut Past Lives, Future Bodies. Here, the reader is introduced to major themes of the collection in one tour-de-force poem –generational relationships and loss, cultural and personal identity, sexuality, and the elemental resonance of blood, salt, and sea. And the body is the axis on which these themes deftly spin. These poems are a kingdom ruled by the body.Here the mouth “shapes after its language,” the mouth is “swabbed with a sword.” Here the teeth “roll (them) like dice, gamble God,” the teeth are “eating bones.” Here breasts are “floating like furred moons,” are “identical bullseyes,” are “dumplings.” The body is animal in its need, in its failures, in its yearning. The body lives between countries, between expectation and desire, learns its own frailties along with its own power. The end of the poem “anchor baby” shows these dichotomies: “I followed/this country’s/coast like a scent/to prey/I didn’t listen/when they told me stay//away/I didn’t anchor/the ship//I sank it”Chang’s use of repeated images - the sea, blood, the jaw, god, feathers - is only one way in which she creates a cohesive world. Despite the inherent grief and chaos of the content, the poems cohere and speak to each other through the use of not only this repeated language, but also through masterful line breaks, internal rhyme, and use of white space. "The body in this world is aflame – “ In every mirror, I am a double/ended wick. A match to my mouth/& ass./No smoke without a fire/to feed.” This body hungers – “When a girl begs me/to fill her like a meal, I lift my hips//like a bowl to her lips. I cut from us/a cake.” The body is meat–“ in this country/I am both//the piglet & the butcher’s/hook it was born for.”In the moving and visceral “I take my mother to the hospital,” the poet ends with “Birth is a price//we’ll pay till death, my mother/says she carried me out of her/body like a briefcase. I didn’t cry,//only opened my mouth/in hunger, practice/for the day//the hospital calls me/back to collect/my mother//like a mouthful/of rain.” Here again, the mouth. Here again, the water. The connection between the body and the world.In a collection this consistently strong and moving, it is difficult to pinpoint a stand-out poem. It is a collection best experienced as a whole, immersed in a flood of salt and blood and bone swirled into its own unique sea.Past Lives, Future Bodies by Kristin Chang. 2018, Black Lawrence Press
Donna Vorreyer is the author of Every Love Story is an Apocalypse Story (Sundress Publications, 2016) and A House of Many Windows (Sundress, 2013) as well as eight chapbooks, most recentlyThe Girl (Porkbelly Press). Her poems and reviews have appeared in numerous journals including Waxwing, Rhino, Quarterly West, Poet Lore, Diode and Sugar House Review.