Each Crumbling House
by Melody Gee
Perugia Press, 77 pp., $16.00
I first came across Melody S. Gee’s work when I was the Poetry Editor of The Greensboro Review. After much careful reading and surprisingly little deliberation, the other editors and I selected her poem “The Voice Before” as the winner of the 2008 Robert Watson Literary Prize in Poetry. In this remarkable poem, Gee writes, “What was that voice before // the voice released, the unheard body, / the naked, shivering idea / of sound? What are you now, climbing back toward / my mouth out of the canyon’s …?” The poem ends, “The first sound was an emptying. / The first return, departure.” In her debut collection, which contains “The Voice Before” and many other stunning poems, Gee focuses on how our origins come back to us and remake themselves. A first-generation Asian American, Gee attempts to piece her inheritance together through meditations on Chinese history, family history, and her mother’s experience as an immigrant, all of which are essential to the speaker’s understanding of her present insatiable desires. The poet’s specificity and unique arsenal of imagery make each relayed experience seem exceptional, but Each Crumbling House is as universal as it is particular. Through these restrained lyrics, Gee discusses how so many lives are marked by leaving, missing, and a hunger for the past and the unknown.
The book is divided into two sections, and the first begins with the following epigraph, from Anne Carson’s Autobiography of Red: “As in childhood we live sweeping close to / the sky and now, what dawn is this.” Like the entirety of Each Crumbling House, this quote interweaves the past, the present, and a perpetual sense of wonder. In the opening poem, “Migration,” the speaker and her mother observe a kaleidoscope of monarchs. The butterflies “break their bodies over mountains” in order to reach this “redwood dusk,” and the speaker likens their migration to her mother’s sacrifice, implying that her mother emigrated to the U.S. for her daughter’s sake. Conversely, the speaker has nothing or no one to make such a sacrifice for. She takes on her mother’s hardship as best she can, through rituals, meals, and journeys to China.
In “Eating Bitter,” the mother in the poem pours her emotions into the food she prepares, and Gee writes, “My stomach filled with my / mother’s intentions / and forgetting.” Here, the speaker knows she is “tasting pain” in these traditional recipes, but other relics of China are less straightforward. In an earlier poem, “What You Believed,” which is set in Li-Hong Lei village (where “MaMa” grew up), the speaker doubts the veracity of stories her mother told about her birthplace. They have traveled to China together, but while MaMa had described the village as “dead,” the speaker states, “the bones of your village / are the same as your own, as mine.” Like the speaker and her mother, the village has continued on. The two women share a connection with this place but are outsiders, and Gee amplifies this feeling of both belonging and intrusion in “What They Saw.” The speaker wonders if the residents of the village would call them “ghosts” as well as “tourists.” The poem ends:
This is what they saw:
two ghosts moving through their country,
through their own country.
Gee’s poems are best at these paradoxical moments, which are fueled by the palpable imagery leading up to them. Though several poems hinge on the effect of such a paradox, this technique never ceases to surprise and reward. For example, in “The Flesh and the Valley,” after breaking a bowl, the speaker states,
We have words for the cut
and what remains on either side,
words to tell ourselves
the broken thing is more
itself now, and it need
not heal to be whole.
Readers recall William Butler Yeats’ lines “nothing can be sole or whole / that has not been rent.” Throughout Each Crumbling House, Gee reasons that one’s identity is both diluted and fortified after being “broken”: MaMa has lost her homeland, but her Chinese identity seems even stronger and sharper in the U.S., due to contrast. The idea of how we constantly break and remake our histories reappears in the title poem, which concludes the first section. The speaker calls her family’s stories of their life in China “crumbling house[s]” that she has “already rebuilt.”
Most of the previously discussed poems emphasize the importance of Chinese heritage to the speaker’s identity, but the majority of the poems in the book depict experiences that any American, woman, or human being could share. In addition to several poems set in China, the second section of Each Crumbling Housecontains many love poems set in America. In “How We Thirst,” though the speaker is happily married, she feels oppressed by the summer heat and wants, “every / moment, to be elsewhere.” This wanting continues in “Moh-Gua”; the title is the name of a bitter green melon used to make a soup called “ghang.” The speaker describes the ritual of eating the melon soup every winter “even here where there are / no such seasons / where I am never and always hungry.”
Desire intensifies in pre- and post-coital poems like “A Line of Skin,” which merges the book’s themes of immigration and love:
you say you want us without
borders bodies ending
in each other, the countries
of our shoulders laid open
we are despite ourselves
a body and a body
with a line between
always at the edge of each other
always at the edge of ourselves
Gee explores the difficulty of knowing both the other and the self, and her disjointed and highly enjambed lines manifest this feeling that true connection is impossible to achieve. The speaker often feels even more separate from her Chinese heritage than her lover. Though she tries to respect her mother’s beliefs, her patience wears thin. In “Giving,” the speaker’s mother has left an offering of oranges on the mantle, so ancestors can drink their juices, but the speaker’s mouth is “sour / from giving them what’s mine.” She cuts a rotten fruit, but “Fetid acid punches water // out of my eyes.” Neither honoring the custom nor rebelling against it satisfies. Sometimes, these customs are as awkward to her as a new language; others, they are as comforting as home.
In the book’s final poem, “What You Remember,” set in Hong Kong, the speaker’s mother speaks Cantonese poorly. The poem ends:
The words you have not forgotten: China,
revolution, ocean, daughter.
By ending Each Crumbling House with these four words, Gee honors both the past and the present: the speaker again acknowledges her mother’s sacrifice, but while other poems that feature sacrifice contain bloody imagery, the word “daughter” connotes love. The speaker’s journey to this quiet realization has been a rough one, but she knows her struggle does not compare to her mother’s. While the mother-daughter relationship constitutes the book’s main narrative, Gee seamlessly incorporates almost a century of family history and other threads, such as romantic love, all of which are connected by emotion or image. The whole of Each Crumbling House is a solid fortress, and I commend Melody S. Gee most strongly for how this book achieves cohesion, all while stimulating the reader with a variety of settings, relationships, form, and striking language.