Dear Jenny, We Are All Find
reviewed by Roberto Montes
Rarely have I had the opportunity to read a book that so expertly instantiates the terribly beautiful affect of identity as Jenny Zhang's Dear Jenny, We Are All Find. Like a pianist demonstrating how music occupies space by holding a note slightly too long, so that the whole of listening becomes a shared feeling of the song occupying our throats and an urging at our backs, Zhang's poetry constructs three-dimensional objects constantly folding and unfolding their layers across our skin.
It's not an accident that the inflection of questioning tends upward. In "DANGGGGG", the title of which I will explore in a moment, Zhang writes:
Where are you/ are you driving in a car/ thinking about not-me/ the hoarseness of anxiety rubs at the ventricles in my heart/ I ventilated the house/ matriculated through the star/ beneath the ideal of what- evs/ I stopped for gas/ your gaseous head is how you so quickly de-/ stroyed my/ though I am the last of the Chinese Argonauts/ though I am/ someone/ someone/ tried to argue/ I could not have been/ anyone/ I said why/ ??/ Have I a Mongol's face/ ??? […]
In my experience, the slashing of prose into lines is often nothing more than an effort to maintain the acceleration and rhythm of the natural paragraph without losing the occasion to highlight multi-valences in meaning. Here, the isolated question marks burst a new opening in poetry, being purely affective, to stunning result. I have found it impossible to read this poem, with its incredible head for chimeric flow (ventricles becomes ventilated becomes matriculated), and reach that "I said why/" without being physically arrested by the amygdala hijack of the double "??".
And of course it is doubled, tripled, or quintupled (as the "G" in "DANGGGGG") in Zhang's work. In the case of consonants it is a lengthening of sound and space (imagine a stranger on the train suddenly sounding every word out in this manner and how quickly the intimacy of conversation begins to feel as if it is expanding to fill the whole car with annoyance, humor, or dread). In the case of the question marks it is a tightening of the bolt beyond the structure's means. Just as the poem is slashed into layers, the intellectualization of identity is briefly slashed into the pure affect of identity—a rising in our gut that is more of a question than any articulation of it. Could there be a better ending than the ecstatic terror of "Someone said/ let's not turn this into an argument/ too late/ ?????"
The book as a whole is more diverse than my focus on the above poem might lead you to believe. Where poems may differ in structure (some broken over lines, one series built of two columns: one a question, the other an answer, and other variations) they share a tenor of an invitation that unites the collection: I dare you.
Dear Jenny, We Are All Find is partly a provocation of the sexism and racism that has and does permeate literature. The reader is invited to fall into the familiar fetishization of Orientalism and objectification so that by the end of the poem they have only themselves to bury. In "You Go Away for A Month and Come Back A Gadabout" the speaker offers "me I stay a cynic/ later becoming a stoic/ later my friends point out I'm neither/ you're a zen Buddhist,/ they say/ and your skin has the texture of rice/ oh right". The easy acquiescence into the friend's racism (how quickly we are told about who we are by our social circles) is the shovel we are handed and accept. The end of the poem continues with the drunken facade of glee as the stakes are raised beyond most readers' comfort level: "my mother taught me filial piety/ my cunt grows sideways/ when a man wants to fuck/ he gets at a right angle/ a yi ayi a ya a ya a yaaaaaaaaaaa/ and it's over." The stark sobriety of the last line is what we're left with, and we cannot back out as we climbed in as willing participants. And now it's over.
While Zhang is not alone in her usage of the flourishes of colloquial speech (e.g. "It's all very scientific and it's all very necessary", "I'm Baaaaad", "That avant guard dood draws so many cunts/ I find him weird he says, yr cute/ okay then, cutie/ yr boring me with the cunts"), her work is one of the few that treats the now-familiar trope of "what-/evs" with the sadness, anxiety, and caffeinated exuberance it deserves. The identity of the relentlessly identified is realized to staggering effect. That Dear Jenny, We Are All Find is Zhang's first book is nothing short of a terrifying feat. This book is scary. Zhang's talent is scary. I invite you to pick up this collection and join me in much-needed terror.