Poetry as life science: a look at the other house
The Other House by Ting Gou. Delphi Series Vol. 4. Blue Lyra Press. 2016. 108 pages. $12 Paperback.
Ting Gou’s debut chapbook collection, The Other House, brings new insight into what we talk about when we talk about home. In these poems, home is organic, home is in our gut, and we are home only when we see and acknowledge our visceral connection to the natural forces that hold and enfold us. The relentless, lyrical precision with which Gou compels her readers to be connected to the natural world, the world of other creatures and the bodies they inhabit, confirms my long-held conviction that a scientist-poet has a great advantage over those of us confined to the imagery of the external: Gou’s poetic instrument of choice is the scalpel.
The collection focuses on childhood—but this is a childhood remembered organically. In life there is always decay; the relationship is symbiotic. “Excavation: Mobile, Alabama, 1996” illustrates this dramatically in the detailed description of a mother cleaning and gutting fish. “She deroofed the scales / from spiculated skin” exactly illustrates how Gou uses her knowledge to elevate detail into a synthesis of rich and strange, and yet surgically exact, images. A mother making dinner out of “eggless pouches” is not only harrowing, it compels us to consider intimately our relationship to other creatures.
In “Frankenstein,” we meet (again) a speaker whose childhood home, whose parents, are both alive and dead in an overgrown past, glimpsed through long grass or behind loose shutters, existing in heat that is “the exothermic tug of a mad voice.” We are first asked to “Think of / a fig swarming with larval / bees . . . ” before we experience mom and dad as toilers in nature, amid their own litter of human artefacts. Where does one end and the other begin? Where does the child fit?
We already know a thing about figs; they are home, sweet home, a living home, giving life to life. In “Fig Wasp,” the relationship between speaker and “home” is not stitched together—it is thick and sweet as blood. The poem is deeply gendered. The fig contains a wasp-world of wingless males enabling their sisters’ escape—and yet all is sweetness. What mythology, the speaker asks, does the male wasp “invent / to explain a life so dark and sweet?” Here Gou gets to the heart of fig(ure) and myth, twisting classical expectations into a different question—and yet never shaking the reader’s faith in the exact science of her art.
Childhood, home, memory, life and death—such is the raw material of many a poet. Ting Gou’s special gift is to own the science of life-in-death, of heat released, of rot reanimated—and to gain our trust as she makes her images sing, because they are truth.
This enriching volume in the Delphi Series from Blue Lyra also contains chapbooks by accomplished poets Claire Zoghb and Erin Redfern. Altogether a treat.
Jude Marr's poetry has appeared in many digital and print publications, including Panoply and Cherry Tree. She is a PhD student at the University of Louisiana at Lafayette, and poetry editor for r.kv.ry. Her chapbook, Breakfast for the Birds, is forthcoming from Finishing Line Press early in 2017. More on Jude’s work at www.judemarr.com.