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Marilyn Chin is a “Witness to History”

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Marilyn Chin

Next Wedensday, May 1st, Marilyn Chin will join poets Brenda Shaughnessy,Patricia Smith, Brian Turner, and Kevin Young in “Necessary Utterance: Poetry as Cultural Force,” a reading to celebrate Natasha Trethewey’s year as Poet Laureate Consultant in Poetry at the Library of Congress. Chin, like Monday’s featured poet Patricia Smith, was selected by Trethewey as a poet whose work exemplifies poetry’s ability to reach across the gaps of language and culture into a place of understanding, reason, and beauty.

Chin is the author of four collections of poetry and a novel. She is the recipient of many honors, including fellowships from the Fulbright Foundation, the National Endowment for the Arts, the Radcliffe Institute at Harvard University, and the Rockefeller Foundation. Chin’s work has been awarded the PEN/Josephine Miles Award as well as the Paterson Prize. She has translated collections of Chinese and Japanese poetry, and currently co-directs the MFA program at San Diego State University.

Her poem “Tienanmen, the Aftermath” addresses one of the most complex cultural moments of the 20th century. With a measured care, Chin navigates between the deeply personal experiences of a single speaker and the universal implications of the acceptance violence as part of every day life.

Of her own poem, Chin writes, “I wrote this poem shortly after the ‘Tienanmen Incident’ on June 4, 1989, when the world witnessed a violent crackdown of student protesters in Beijing. Some students were killed and many were imprisoned, and the crackdown was swift. As I recall, the news of this event was all over CNN and the network news cycles for about two weeks. I remember one unforgettable image of a young student holding out his hand against a giant tank. However, today hardly any of my American students know about this incident. Moreover, when I taught in Beijing, I queried my Chinese students and only a few responded; some said that they were not born yet and had vaguely heard about it from their parents. Although initially I conceived this poem as a strange symbolic dream about an imagined soul mate . . . twenty years after its publication, I see that the poem is now serving a higher purpose: as a lingering witness to history. A poem can be a powerful ‘cultural force;’ it can inspire us to learn from the mistakes of the past and thereby help us work collectively toward a better future.”

Tienanmen, the Aftermath

There was blood and guts all over the road.
I said I’m sorry, darling, and rolled over,
expecting the slate to be clean; but she came,
she who was never alive became resurrected.
I saw her in dream…a young girl in a qipao,
bespeckled, forever lingering, thriving
on the other side of the world, walking in my soles
as I walk, crying in my voice as I cried.  When
she arrived, I felt my knuckles in her knock,
her light looming over the city’s great hollows.

Hope lies within another country’s semaphores.
The Goddess of Liberty, the Statue of Mercy—
we have it all wrong—big boy, how we choose to love,
how we choose to destroy, says Zhuangzi, is written
in heaven—but leave the innocent ones alone,
those alive, yet stillborn, undead, yet waiting
in a fitful sleep undeserved of an awakening.

Comments (3)

  1. Powerful, passionate, moving. I think of my China: Beyond the Wall,work, a series of 20 paintings about China, and wish I could in twenty watecolor images convey the depth of feeling Ms. Chin has complished in two brief paragraphs of her poetry. Congratulations Ms. Chin on a lovely gift to us all.

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