Declan Fry Reviews Cham Zhi Yi

By | 24 September 2020

Cham experiments frequently with the layout of the poem on the page. ‘all the water of Weereewa passes through’ draws links between water, language, and the materials that sustain life. A vivid food metaphor illuminates the twilit sky on Ngunnawal country: ‘fogging over Ngunnawal/in evenings make/this sky/baby blue sweet/like pulut tekan’. The limits of language, pushing against borders of belonging and place, are expressed in the structural arrangement of the piece:

in welcome to country. the malaysian anthem goes learn the name of country in language say negaraku,tanah tumpahnya darahku dhaura my country, for this earth my blood spills if darah be blood dhaura be country show me a future where i become both

Elsewhere, Cham reflects on how familiarity with language can yield a sense of belonging, as in ‘throwaway lux’:

in the entirety of my small bulbous adulthood my name
has only once been naturalised, to the tongue of a boyfriend

‘throwaway lux’ speaks to how, through language, we attempt to try and contain the messy amplitude of daily experience. But between the apparently organic (the tongue) and the constructed or symbolic (the act of naturalisation, of adulthood and acquiring a boyfriend), there are always gaps threatening to upend the whole endeavour. As Gloria Anzaldúa wrote in her influential Borderlands/La Frontera (2004):

Until I am free to write bilingually and to switch codes without having always to translate, while I still have to speak English or Spanish when I would rather speak Spanglish, and as long as I have to accommodate the English speakers rather than having them accommodate me, my tongue will be illegitimate’1

Cham insists on this kind of freedom, refusing translation. Unlike their earlier incarnation in magazines like Pencilled In, where they were accompanied by explanations, here, the Malay and Chinese words of poems like ‘soak’ and ‘ingatan’ appear without any gloss: 公公, 婆婆, 孟老师, baju, seluar, kaya. In this she calls to mind writers like Yoko Tawada, whose novel The Naked Eye was written in both Japanese and German (sections came to the author in either language and were translated each way until two manuscripts were completed). In The Naked Eye language is synonymous with identity itself. The unnamed Vietnamese narrator, kidnapped in Russia, protests, ‘I screamed in Russian: “I want to go home, home, home!” In a foreign language it sounded like a lie.’ Stranded in Bochum, she does her best to remain alienated from her surroundings: ‘I was doing my best not to learn this language. I was afraid it might fetter me to this place forever.’ In Tawada’s novel, language loss is seen as akin to the loss of any communicable identity. And Cham, in ‘throwaway lux’, might be seen as responding to this fear:

do i spend my time lining my gums with cliches? or may i learn

to speak true –
truly, what does it take to recall a person into a language?


[...] the source of her greatest frustration however

is that she has still yet to unthread mango flesh from
between her teeth & in reckless, charged attempts to dislodge

had bitten her tongue clean off

‘in reckless, charged attempts to dislodge/had bitten her tongue clean off’: this is what happens when the nightmare of losing one’s language becomes real. Speaker and tongue are separated; the identity they offered are suddenly unavailable. The Cronenberg viscerality of the image recalls Elias Canetti, the German author who grew up within a multitude of spoken languages. The opening of his 1979 autobiography, The Tongue Set Free, recounts the threat of language loss using the author’s ‘earliest memory’, a recollection ‘dipped in red’: a smiling man asks the child to stick out his tongue, before placing the blade of a knife against it. At the last moment, the man pulls the knife back. ‘That’s how the day starts,’ Canetti recalls, ‘and it happens very often.’2

Yet what appears in place of the four of five newly redundant languages, Cham suggests, is not a lacuna per se. Nor is it necessarily the sense of Unheimlichkeit experienced by Tawada’s narrator or Canetti. In its way, it is a new identity – although it may not always be clear what that entails; what rights and responsibilities it may require, what recognitions. Like Tawada’s narrator, who reflects on how words can work imagistically (or images be made legible according to grammar: ‘I knew that the film was trying to end with a period, a bit of punctuation with some finality about it, not wanting to let us down with a comma’3), Cham uses typographical variation and experimentation with page layout to galvanise her explorations of identity. It provides her poetry with a tactile quiddity, a materiality that keeps it solidly anchored in the mind. Her poetic technique is grounded, too, in daydreams – an earthy whimsicality. If Ginsberg sought Whitman among the meats in the supermarket refrigerator, Cham Zhi Yi looks for Beyoncé among the snack aisles: ‘my awake self struggles/with how i wasted Beyoncé’s time with/caramel popcorn’. Yet, if anything, Cham’s practice is closer to that of Solange. Like Solange, Cham combines ‘deep joy mediocrity’ – affection for the quotidian, that empathy and cognitive recognition demanded by poetry – with ‘full time tenderness’. They are a gracious host (offering up the good cutlery, the nice bowls at the back of the cupboard), and are consistently and amply solicitous of the reader.

Blur by the often feels animated by the approach Eileen Myles described in her 1999 talk, ‘How to Write an Avant-Garde Poem’:

if I kept thinking too long, the poem would get buried in decisions, it would lose its precious access to breath. Down the stairs the legs would go, and I imagined us, my companion, as stars in a movie, an independent one, and we’d eat food and I’d go home, filled with new thoughts, and my accounting would continue, or begin, fresh.4

Cham Zhi Yi’s accounting is always fresh. These poems harness that quantum of life which belongs to memory: the internal whispering of breath. You can hear the subaural vocalisation, the silent mouthing voice as your fingers follow the lines (or rise to meet your lips – something that happened to me regularly, struck by the sharpness of insight). Her writing recalls a range of poets, from Saaro Umar and Ouyang Yu to Eileen Myles and Chen Chen. It is omnivorous, polyphonous, and determinedly generous. Honouring the mantra of Juan Goytisolo (‘I have always advocated: adding, adding and adding cultures and languages’), blur by the equates to something genuinely special: a collection that is always adding.

  1. Gloria Anzaldúa. Borderland/Frontera: The New Mestiza, Faber & Faber, 2004 (59).
  2. Elias Canetti. The Tongue Set Free, The Seabury Press, 1979 (5)
  3. Yoko Tawada. The Naked Eye (trans. Susan Bernofsky). New Directions, 2009 (220)
  4. Eileen Myles. ‘How To Write An Avant-Garde Poem.’ The Importance of Being Iceland: Travel Essays in Art, Semiotext(e), 2009, p. 154.
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