Reflection on Ching-In Chen’s The Heart’s Traffic

As other secondgeneration immigrant writers, Chin-In Chen addresses the American experience from a position of both belonging and not-belonging, which is clearly evident in her collection The Heart’s Traffic. The collection crosses embodies boundary-crossing beyond the typical use of plot (though that is present as well), and results in a comingled impression of life from the perspective of an immigrant and her family. As with many poetry collections, the evidence of the collection’s conceptual identity (in this case, border-crossing and existing in multiple realities concurrently) presents initially with the cover of the book. However, the reader will notice quickly that Chen’s collection follows through with these concepts in nearly every poem. Even the reader’s quick initial exposure when flipping through the book will offer evidence reinforcing the concepts it addresses. Upon deeper consideration, Chen’s poems build upon one another to reinforce the immigrant experience and concurrent existence themes. One after the other, Chen’s use and deconstruction of poetic forms serve to examine those themes while also challenging the reader conceptually and his comfort with the status quo in multiple arenas of our society. Chen consistently mixes all of these things together in The Heart’s Traffic, and although some of the poems are difficult, the result of the collection is a meditation upon the status and experience of immigrants to America.

Specifically, Chen offers the reader both a challenge and an embodiment of immigrant perspective in “The Geisha Author Interviews” (59-61) and its companion “Two Truths & A Lie” (62). Both prose poems, Chen manipulates the form to create an intermingling of Eastern and Western perspectives. One of these manipulations is the extraction of “Two Truths & A Lie” from within the text of “The Geisha Author Interviews”. The astute reader must wonder which was written first, although in the long run it does not quite matter. Furthermore, a quick internet search reveals the fodder for “The Geisha Author Interviews”, and while not necessarily quoted directly from various interviews, the sense of orientalism presented in that poem is evident within the interviews as well. In “The Geisha Author Interviews”, Chen presents several levels of dialogue, including the interviewer, Memoirs of a Geisha author Arthur Golden, the internal monologue of the geisha in question (Mineko Iwasaki), and the speaker of “Two Truths & A Lie”. The post-modern collage of voices in “The Geisha Author Interviews” is another manipulation of the prose poem form, which often relies on the presence of only a single speaker and perspective (however stream-of-consciousness that might be), and the sound patterns within sentences. Chen interrupts these sound patterns by interrupting the sentences, voices, and perspectives, and the reader is left grasping for the threads of logic throughout the poem. Including the companion poem “Two Truths & A Lie” immediately after is another subversion of the form which clarifies the voice of the interview consumer. More than just being a subversion of prose poems, however, “Two Truths & A Lie” is also a subversion of poetry itself, as it subverts the reader’s challenge of determining speaker and instead offers a clear clarification. This self-awareness between the two poems, the discussion between the two texts, is a clearly post-modern maneuver by Chen, one which reinforces the theme of seeing the world through multiple lenses.

As the reader considers the inclusion of Eastern, Western, and other forms, both traditional and deconstructed, he begins to realize the result of Chen’s collection. It is not just Eastern/Western dichotomies being deconstructed here, but also gender, perspective, genre, and other societal memes. In our post-modern, schizophrenic society, Chen has written a collection which challenges the very idea of dichotomies and advocates instead for a plural and inclusive method for understanding ourselves and each other. What more can we ask of a collection of poetry?