There are few poetry collections that make me want to underline every passage and sticky note each page. From the very beginning, Split, by Cathy Linh Che gripped me. As a reader, I could feel the speaker of each poem reclaiming herself as a woman and as a child of refugee parents. Reading Split is empowering, despite the pain tugging at your arm as you move farther and farther into the collection: “Archipelago of desire. I skip stones, / one to another. Mother’s shame, / father’s cold and brutal shielding. // There was more tenderness in the rain. / I woke with an archipelago / of bruises, ([Doc, there was a hand], lines 25-30).
The collection consists of three sections. In the first section, the speaker vividly recounts her experience of being sexually assaulted by a cousin. This section is brave and does not hold back: “He loved you in the same way / he loved his mother. // He pulled your pajama pants / off in the dark. // The carpet scratched at your back” (“Profile” lines 2-5).The subsequent denial of these incidents by family members is even more shocking: “A family secret / ending in shhh,” (“In What Ways Does the Room Map Out Violence?” lines 73-74). The shame and abuse that is endured by a speaker who is bold enough to tell her story with such beauty opens a space for survivors of sexual assault and abuse. This collection is important because we see the way we allow people to hurt others, and the consequences of not speaking out.
Split is not just about the sexual abuse. It also boldly recounts the experiences of the parents in Vietnam and during the Vietnam War with tenderness and love: “On Christmas Day, he mistook / the Macy’s star / for the Viet Cong flag. // While watching Forrest Gump, he told me / how he carried a friend. // He squeezed / around my throat so tight, / I thought I’d die with him” (“In every psyche, tiny or dramatic perforation -” lines 27-35). We can see pieces of the speaker’s father in our relationship with our own father. The desire to please them, connect with them on a deeper level, and understand their past is strong here and gives us a powerful message about the nature of family. One of my favorite poems is called “Talk” and is about the speaker’s brother: “You are a coat / I want to turn / inside-out to see // where the silk frays – / in the arms, along / the back, your massive // shoulders. When / did you get so big?” (lines 17-24). Through these poems, you find a family that is struggling to heal as they attempt to reconcile the past.
The language in Split is commanding and insightful. This is a collection that I had to read in small chunks because each poem blew me away. The longest poem in the collection, which is titled “In what way does the room map out violence?” took me multiple reads over the course of a few days to truly grasp the beauty of Che’s words. It comes as no surprise after reading the collection that it was the winner of 2012 Kundiman Poetry Prize. The speaker is forthright about her emotions, but a tone of forgiveness and understanding ends the collection: “I can crown myself / with my own life” (“Gardenia” lines 16-17). It is these words that made me feel like I had been on a difficult journey with the speaker, but one that we had endured and begun to move forward from together.
(photo courtesy of cathylinhche.com).
Buy the collection here.