Review: Night Market in Technicolor
The YAWP Masthead
In cosmology, ylem is the term formerly used by physicist George Gamow to describe a hypothesized original substance at the start of the universe. Now known to be the plasma that formed immediately following the Big Bang, it is essentially the matter out of which all things emerged.
In “Ylem Theory,” the opening poem in Stephanie Chang’s newest chapbook, the word is used in conjunction with a beginning of a far personal, but no less powerful, scale:
… A body that hounds prayer like a housekeeper
with heirlooms. A body where you die
in every iteration of sick, wake only to count fewer
and fewer bones. To live and tell the tale
when the world’s already in love with shinier things—
You and I both know it’s what I do best.
Looked at a certain way, these final few lines are a thesis statement, or perhaps an explanation. Chang has prayed for salvation; she has seen her own end at the hands of a tragedy that, as she remarks lines earlier, has been authored by no one but herself. Yet she has lived to “tell the tale.” To write poetry about her tribulations may be useless to a world that is “in love with shinier things” than the musings of a 17-year-old, but it is what Chang does best, and it is what she sets out to do in this collection.
Through a cast of characters from Chinese mythology, and sometimes history, Chang weaves a story at once about heritage, femininity, and the role that poetry plays in her life. These characters emerge and re-emerge; sometimes they interact with Chang in these poems, sometimes Chang slips within them. Meng Po, the goddess of forgetfulness, is the first among these figures to greet the reader, constructing a new body for a narrator that desperately wishes to forget her old one:
I have broken the same body so many
lives over, touched myself a legacy
of scar tissue & lightning.
What is it that Chang wants to forget about herself? Perhaps the question is not what she wants to forget, but what she has already forgotten. “By now, my reflection has migrated anywhere but home,” she says. So what is home, to her? The answer is partly revealed at the very end:
I have the Cantonese for flower
but not arrangement—though that
can be arranged in the next life,
says Meng Po, my heart already
breaking in its new body.
As the Canadian child of Chinese immigrants, Chang feels herself cut off from her family’s past. This is a disconnect evident in language—she has the “Cantonese for flower but not arrangement.” To obtain a new body, then, is to become fully Chinese again.
But is there another reason here? Throughout the poems in this book, Chang also explores her femininity; her greatest ally in this task is the moon goddess Chang’e, whom she finds connection with beyond just name:
...I am tired of loving men
while the herring of my heart migrates to sea. A sunk cost.
Come autumn, fireworks cry shrapnel, and I hate rabbits and men.
The “I” here is twofold: Chang tells her story through that of Chang’e. In the latter’s flight to freedom from her husband’s abode, the former expresses her own longing for independence—she is tired of “loving men” who try to entrap her while her “heart migrates to sea.” Perhaps Meng Po can grant her this freedom too, in the next life.
The ideas that are first introduced in these poems—“Ylem Theory,” “Haunt,” “Ghazal for Moon Maiden”—are returned to again and again throughout Night Market. As Chang reflects on her cultural homelessness in “Haunt,” she fumbles for its label in “Reflections in a T&T Supermarket”:
...and there is a word for this. There is a word for homesick
when you’re already halfway there.
And several poems earlier, she melds her two struggles in the life of Anna May Wong, the revolutionary Chinese-American movie star who resisted the stereotypical roles common for Asian actresses of the time period:
Tonight, the men are hungry.
I forget the name of the news anchor.
I imagine his face lit on the streets
of a red-light district.
“Hungry”; “red-light district”—in accepting the traditional roles available to her, Wong feels herself more a sex worker than an actress. She is giving up her body to the “masses,” dancing for the enjoyment of these “hungry” white men. In context, the metaphor is obvious. Chang is as much an actor as Wong, in her own way. She is Chinese, after all, and female—a pair of labels coming with their own rigid stereotypes.
Amidst Chang’s exploration of identity is a quiet confidence in her own power as a poet. This is a power expressed first through distinctive style. Chang writes boldly, constantly redefining vocabulary in terms of connotation, rather than denotation. This is a choice evident in the first few stanzas of the book’s namesake, “Night Market in Technicolor”:
Or a bullet in the anglerfish’s mouth.
I pyrite. I silver-tongued.
I gut fish where the spear pierced first.
When I tire of smoke & little animals
you buy me a river & undress lanterns,
search the water’s underbelly
for a stone with an ugly face.
Following this chain of imagery is like playing a game of shiritori. From the anglerfish with its deceptive lure, we proceed to fool’s gold. From gold, we find silver—tongued. The anglerfish has a bullet in its mouth; this is like piercing fish with spears. Fish are little animals; when Chang grows tired of fish, the nameless figure she addresses buys her a river and undresses lanterns—why lanterns? Because she has grown tired of smoke also.
Wordplay in Chang’s poetry is less a question of connection than category. Both anglerfish and pyrite are known for their falseness; in the same way, gold and silver are both metals. This allows for an incredible diversity in imagery, while also providing an insight into the mind of the poet. In making these connections for ourselves, we are allowed to think in the way Chang thinks.
This confidence is revealed in other ways as well. All the way back in “Ylem Theory,” the reader gets a glimpse of why it is that Chang compiles these poems: she has undergone hardship, and in surviving it, she finds herself needing to write. Completing the bookend is “Unsent Letter to Tulip Manor,” whose few final lines reveal further Night Market’s purpose:
...Here, the brightest
place I can apologize. I won’t keep you
long, I just wanted to know you.
Who is the “you” that Chang addresses? Her use of the second person is not limited to this poem alone—it appears in other places as well, including “Ylem Theory.” That this “you” seems to know details no one else but Chang can know, such as the very fact that poetry is “what I do best,” suggests that it is herself to which she is speaking. Or at least, a version of herself.
Which version? There are two that are addressed in these pages; the one that Chang belittles for not speaking Cantonese and the one that is created by Meng Po, in “Haunt.” The need to apologize suggests it is the former, so by process of elimination it is Chang’s ideal self who is speaking to her imperfect self. But this doesn’t seem quite right. Especially given the last line of the poem—surely Chang, having emerged victorious from her trials (as declared in “Ylem Theory”), would know her past self? The final piece to this puzzle is really found a few lines earlier, when Chang plaintively reflects on
How I revised the definition of lonely
just by looking at you. You were saying
all these terrible things.
This apology, then, seems for a different purpose. Chang is not apologizing because she has torn down an imperfect version of herself—rather, she is that imperfect version, and it is her ideal self who has said “all these terrible things.” Instead, Chang is apologizing for hoping to become her ideal self—for having “a body that hounds prayer like a housekeeper with heirlooms,” to return to “Ylem Theory.”
The last line of “Tulip Manor” suggests a learned lesson, and indicates Night Market in Technicolor as a medium by which Chang can “know” herself. Here, we finally learn the power of poetry, for Chang: it is through her poems that she can fully accept her flaws, and reject prayer for a perfect self.