Book Review: Some Say the Lark by Jennifer Chang
Natasha Tretheway calls the book “a piercing meditation, rooted in loss and longing, and manifest in dazzling leaps of the imagination.” And Patrick Rosal: “In Some Say the Lark, anything can erupt into fury, anything into tenderness.” Jennifer Chang’s second collection roosts in that tension—between fury and tenderness—with such authoritative comfort that you leave the book with nothing but confidence in your own unalterable vulnerability. Like the best poetry, she argues,
the best walking is without
reason, formless, scattering the self
into thinking, more winter. —from “We Found the Body of a Young Deer Once”
Chang’s first book garnered well deserved attention, and her poetry is prevalent across some of the best pages of our literary community. With this new book, published just last fall, her voice has reached a new maturity and internal-intimacy, daring a tireless and vulnerable look at the winter of scattered selves.
The language of Some Say The Lark carries the same delicate aggressiveness of poets like Silvia Plath or Frank O’Hara, mixed with the detached appreciation of nature and beauty of Mai Der Vang. But the poems speak with such self-authority that the influences remain firmly in the distant background.
Indeed, though the central struggle of the poems—how language grapples with the blind overwhelming power of death and nature—is timeless, Chang writes with language and a point of view that feels fresh and intimate to now.
Take the tension with systemic forms of knowledge that invades the book:
We never swam in the sea
is the way I now distinguish
the people who’ve known me long
but not very well. — from “It Was Your Birthday Again”
The poems seek a place where knowing isn’t condensed to names or designations. In the poem series “Small Philosophies,” Chang tackles this anxiety head on with her language, splitting the poem into three parts, “Phenomenology,” “Logic,” and “Epistemology”—things, how things work, and how we know how things work. The lines of “Phenomenology” are filled to bursting with specific natural language: “feverroot”, “marsh weed,” “marigold”, “peony”, “delphinium.” And in the seventh couplet,
Why forlorn? Because
the clouds have gone brute.
The poem arrives at the heart: all this knowing, all this phenomenology of flowers and birds and grasses, is good for what? The names do not remove their brute silence, their indifference or blind hunger that would consume us if it could. The names of things are nothing in the face of the immense muteness of those things.
You are a quality
And a thing silenced
By pine-shrug. Stern willow.
Now run and hide in the fern.
The silence becomes our own. Frightened out of knowing anything at all, we run, we hide.
We may have to hide from time to time, but, as Chang’s poems here remind us, we can’t stay hidden forever. From a settled sense of ambiguity toward the silence of death, Chang seeks the “fire pond” of her own youth by exploring her relationships, her memories, her family. The final poem, “About Trees,” feels incredibly vulnerable and intimate after such profound explorations of earlier poems, moving from the opening declaration, “to master love one must be devastated by it,” to the interrupting couplet a few lines later, so tender:
What were we talking about last night,
Listening to the fan, falling asleep?
Some Say the Lark doesn’t wrap anything up. The book doesn’t give us a new name that fixes all of our problems, eases all our worries. Instead, Chang has crafted out a small space in the world where it’s okay to be lost, it’s okay to be stunned to silence. Her vulnerability, her loss and longing, becomes inspiration and permission for our own.