Release we can invent together
A review of Feng Sun Chen's 'Butcher's Tree'
“The person I love should love me so much she wants to eat me alive. If I’m going to die this is how it should be,” a writer once told me. I didn’t know what this writer meant until I read Feng Sun Chen’s Butcher’s Tree. This poetry collection wants to plunge itself into your guts and nest there. It wants to engage in corporeal, spiritual, and emotional cannibalism. It is the blood dripping down your chin. It offers you not a napkin but a compact mirror in the shape of a napkin. Butcher’s Tree enacts a poetics of confrontation and entanglement with unlikely pairings: intangible and material, stasis and movement, mythic and mortal. These collisions swerve into collusion. And from collusion, Chen asks us to consider what forms of release we can invent together.
A person is not a single living organism, and as Chen asserts, “it was not about self.” We contain 500 to 1,000 species of bacteria in the human gut and a roughly similar number on the skin. It’s easy to forget this, because, well, it’s freaky to think about and maybe it grates against ideas of autonomy, self-control, and individuality. Hi, microbiota, we need you. The boldly unexpected images in Chen’s collection force us to reevaluate what the body can contain and undo our lingering suppositions. In the poem “Inter,” the speaker’s lungs have “little gumdrop fish” that “camped out in the forest of alveoli” and her friends are “jealous of the new tadpoles living inside [her] body.” We’re constantly reoriented toward the multiplicity within and how it merges with the seemingly exterior world. The initial stanza of the first poem, “By the Dark,” introduces the reader to these strange amalgamations:
Two travelers boil in it.
Curtains of dry rock drink the glue
of their sweat.
The book begins with bodies undergoing a violent, physical reaction to the external temperature enveloped in the night. What seeps through our pores, what splashes off of the flesh does not vanish, but gets sucked into the rocks beneath. Nothing exists in isolation, and the salty water within us, that is part of us, seamlessly passes into the earth. In other poems, people conjoin (“Our skins fuse like early cells to become one sheet”; “Our blood will mix, grape on grape, crushed seed”; “You are the soup that fills my skull”) or have surprising organs and limbs (“your horseshoe heart”; big teeth made of glass”; “your ears were shells”; and “bones made of shale”). Distance and presence collapse via the constant smushing of parts into parts. To know the world is to let it enter us as we enter it in return: “Love and mourning march out of the little holes in your skin.” We must allow and be aware of these entry points. Chen offers, “Every opening meant access to the sea now, or the wind on the sea.” Always, “access” trumps the threats that can coincide with this vulnerability, as learning and being learned about meld together.
These poems, though, extend past corporal plurality and show us how the ephemeral is just as sticky, ever-present, or tangible. The collection is littered with lines like, “every sound reverberated through his fist.” Noise is grounded in body, given texture and power over the physical. The world is a black metal show that shakes us. Chen writes, “Love secretes reptile eggs into the ruptured drum nest. / This is what we hear.” Emotional abstractions accumulate while morphing into visual and auditory instances. We’re forced to listen to the reproduction of love: it’s slimy, oozing, and has scales. It’s not afraid of bloody membranes, of the tooth’s exposed nerve. Chen renders more observably present what is normally negative space or concepts tucked in our heads. Another notable visceral moment, “The word is ripped from me daily,” reminds us of the physical effort it takes to communicate. Words do not gently float through the air, but are torn from a body-site. They must leave a location to reach another. They penetrate. This particular line also brings into the foreground the power structure of language, as it does not seem that our daily vocabulary is inherently given consensually. Maybe the speaker “ripped” the word from her/himself or someone else demanded the extrication. Further into the book, Chen writes, “And so you are taken, instant by instant by what is taken from you.” Are we taken with (as in enamored), taken by, or taken back? Do we rejoin what has departed? Or “taken” could mean dispossessed, cheated, occupied, made sick, sexed? While the ambiguity in this assertion is complicated by the lack of a single “you”/self, I tend to read it as a general tendency in this book: nothing is ever fully discarded and nothing is fully kept.
This flux, this tangling, is caught up in the tension of movement and stasis. I want to return to the first poem in the collection, “By the Dark,” because it begins with the progress of travelers, treads water with potentials, and ends with a false declaration of immobility. Commenting on one traveler’s plight:
He could go back to the woods.
He could go back to the sea if he closed his eyes.
No going anywhere.
His two hearts are growing teeth.
The “he” is given options that are then negated by a command-like observation, “No going anywhere.” Yet, the poem concludes with growing, albeit a deformed version. Are the teeth an offensive posture or a defense mechanism? Regardless of how a reader may interpret this effect, what at first appears stymied is transformed into startling, slightly gruesome evolution. In the second poem, “Fourth of July,” motion occurs as directionless:
You will not understand your pain,
which is shaped like a windmill and moves
by the tug of a terrible moon
but you may learn to live with it, or forget it
for longer and longer stretches.
An outside source, the moon, drags pain through the body. Thus, while the “you” is faced with this initial lack of control, the “you” can also alter the ramifications by learning or forgetting. Interaction is a given but how you react is not. Management of an unceasing emotion becomes a way to channel movement.
Toward the end of “Moontube,” Chen writes, “Pure ecstasy is stasis.” I tend to think of ecstasy as an overwhelming, fleeting moment. Like a giant wave that sweeps over you. I think of it as a movement of revelry-like or euphoric expansion. A passing, joyous sensation that fills you up. Yet, the word ecstasy derives from “ekstasis,” standing outside oneself. So this moment of personal intensity contains “stasis,” inactivity as well as a sense of otherness at its core. To be fully engaged is to be outside oneself in a frenzy that resembles fixedness. This paradox exists within and then evaporates from lines like, “Each day was filtered through the wall made of movement” and “I am small, I am small. Here comes the parade! All that beauty! / I want to die! I want to die! / I want to die!” Movement is the force behind certain desires, some of which appear deceptively still, “I will keep my mouth on your mouth.” Chen exposes the static of our constant churning, churning.
The three sections of this book continually reference religion(s) and reinvigorate mythic/literary figures, situating them in contemporary habitats with colloquial vocabularies. For instance, mystique and tradition unravel when Prometheus announces, “The Olympians can go suck on the clouds.” A poem titled “Epistle” begins:
Words of wisdom collect in the corners of the room.
I gyrate about in a puffy suit filled with hair.
It takes me out of the circus
into the arena of history, which is full of white horses.
What kind of Apostle writes a letter about gyrating in a hair-filled suit? Maybe the kind that realizes history is composed of more than kings and gods and stale advice. History is no longer unreachable (i.e. unsoiled horses) and thus, foreign, because it’s the context for our current movements. And the present tides are goofy, ravenous, honest: “I will show you the common satellite. / We can go grocery shopping or watch the sunset.” Chen places the mythic next to postmodern terrestrial pursuits, the daily. While she claims, “Yes, yes yes. Let the ancient speak for me” and “legendary spots should remain legendary,” the language of Butcher’s Tree invites us into an absurd imagination that disintegrates literary fixity. In the final section of her book, Chen reinvents Grendel as a woman who is “feeling weird because of his body which was full and curvaceous as the moon. // He remembered the first day again. The only other time this would happen was thousands of years later in a university dorm, on salvia.” No idea, deity, fables, or “spots” are out of reach. As we’re told, “God is a girl in love.”
Butcher’s Tree also branches into poems that animate new characters like “the paper queen” “Wukong,” “Xuanzang,” and “the doctor.” However, I don’t think such pieces aim to plant the seeds from which new mythic heroes would spring. Instead, they feel more like someone purposefully overhearing an intimate conversation on a train. This effect — curatorial attention without elevation — offers release from the canon as a form of immortality. Chen writes, “A name in a book is nothing, said those female eyes black with swirling dust, / You will lose.” As you lose both literary hierarchy and the self that could claim this status, you gain the energy that comes from remembering, “There is no such thing as / time for everything, this much was clear.” We’re released into a thoughtful urgency that prioritizes an imagistic, emotive forthrightness. Moments like “you are alone with ashamed talons and alive loneliness. / I am lonely” are direct and vital. They beckon strangely, like “a gash the shape of you my friend.”