Marilyn Chin’s fourth collection of poems, Hard Love Province is an assortment of love songs, elegies and frisky quatrains that rivet and ricochet. Hard Love Province is a sisterhood manifesto, even as it is an extended meditation on the experience of sickness, of grief and loss. This collection expands and contracts. It is personal and of the world; it is a sick body and a world sick with the anti-feminine, a culture sick with hegemony. It is also a long series of goodbyes and an inquisition into the nature of suffering. And then, sickness becomes something to laugh out of our lives, something to counteract with every ounce of brilliant and chaotic being-in-the-momentness, and with love. Hard Love Province’s multi-formed, multi-voiced and rhythmic unfolding is complex, compelling and human.
Divided into four sections, the collection begins with an offering of five poems that range from the intensely personal to more universal or archetypal expressions of grief, loss and other rememberings that tend toward lament. This section establishes the collection’s overarching impetus to redefine what it means to be sick. In “Alba Moon Camellia Lover,” Chin writes, “Let my happiness blister and counter-glow / Against your magnificent sick light.” Here, sickness is the illness that steals a lover, and then, the burden a mother carries into ghosthood, not being able to forgive. It is the language however that screams subversion. Happiness blisters. The light is sick. What is physically sick (the lover) is not sick and what is dead (the mother) imparts sickness to the light. The poem asks the reader to question how sickness finds its way into our lives. Is the sickness the sickness or is the way we are taught/learn to deal with sickness the sickness? Is sickness only of the living, or is it carried through memory, through history? Chin offers up potential answers along the way. In “Formosan Elegy,” Chin writes,
Birth and death the same blackened womb
Birth and death the same white body bag
Detach detach we enter the body alone
Detach detach we leave the world bone lonely
If we can’t believe in god we must believe in love
Chin suggests that which hastens death, hastens the inevitable; and even as an imperative to detach appears here, so does love as elixir in a temporary world. Images that echo these sentiments glitter through the remaining poems in this section, glowing like signposts or symbols, more detached and universal. Chin asks again and again: What is it that connects us all, living or dead, past or present? In “Nocturnes,” Chin strings together a series of disconnected images and scenarios that speak to both illness in its myriad and unexpected manifestations. These mini-narratives are international, universal, political and rich in allegory:
Beautiful moon the murderer begins to sing
….The their takes off his mask to smell the heliotrope
A junkie steals asters from a rich man’s grave
….And spreads them on the modest mound of his mother
Pol Pot sleeps counting heaven’s lambs
….His ex-wife is learning ikebana
What is democracy but too many things
….And too little time to love them
The manifestations of sickness also work to blur the lines between the living and the dead, present day and the past, suggesting that perhaps there is a deeper connectedness than one lifetime can perceive.
In section two, sickness manifests as bullying, peer and societal pressures, the repression of sexuality, of excess and keeping-up-with-the-Jonesedness. Here we find prose poems, quatrains that scream, deconstructed sonnets—all united in language distilled to concentrate. In “Study Hall, Deterrritorialized,” multi-cultural children in a schoolyard play out racism and abuse in a microcosm, and just as they seem to “laugh all at once” and find a sense of unity, “from the west, a strong explosion of sun bullies through the big gray-loogie-of-a-cloud.” If these children learn sick behaviors, are they sick because of the culture they exist in, or as the loogie-cloud suggests, is the need to dominate or control or feel superior an extension of some larger natural or universal truth? Chin seems to call into question any assumption that a human’s sufferings die with the body; seems to suggest in fact that because all lives overlap, there is a connectedness between all living beings.
Later, this interconnectedness is made more specific with the idea of sisterhood. In “Cougar Sinonymous,” a speaker introduces various stories of women involved in sick sexualized patriarchies embedded within societal narrative of what seems to be various or mixed cultural experience. A grandmother married by custom to a man sixty years older than her, and miserable, who in the end “polished his bones for all of eternity.” A little girl to be thrown in a river like her mother and grandmother who “won’t drown.” A sister to be eaten by a man who “coats her in rice flour / Pinches her corners / calls her ‘sweet dumpling’” and then “serves her on porcelain.” The speaker herself subverts these stories by active resistance. Refusing to reign in her own sexuality, the majority of the final quatrains coalesce into a manifesto for unapologetic female sexuality, a declaration of the right to exist on one’s own terms:
What they say about a woman at forty-five
Too late to live Too young to die
My wine is bittersweet My song is wry
My yoni is still tight My puma on fire.
Also in this section, in “From a Notebook of an Ex-Revolutionary,” a section where Sylvia and Emily respond to one another in dueling quatrains, and “one bōnsho shell / Cries out / To another.” Chin speaks not only to the archetypal feminine wild, but to the tribe of women that stand with her. Again, the ranting energy, the scream to the heavens, the pain, the sickness—but always the singular stand against all that would bring sickness, always the solidarity, the sisterhood of the poet-tribe that cannot be quelled by time, by death.
Section three continues the conversation on sisterhood, becomes sharper. Now past the revolution of “Cougar Sinonymous,” the feminine is charged with power, humming along unstoppable. “Every Woman Is Her Own Chimera,” dedicated to Adrienne Rich, calls out toward the sisterhood, not in acknowledgment as much as invitation. Opening the poem, the speaker asks, “Whose life is it anyway? / She born of chrysalis and shit / Or she born of woman and pain?” Later the speaker seems to push the feminine to action, “Let’s drum girls let’s ululate let’s praise / The White-Haired Maiden.” Woman is, of course, not all powerful, but aware of the ways in which the world plots against her and aware of the ways in which she is connected to other women and strong. The speaker commits wholly to the concept of love above discord, above war. Even as “The Black Hawk scats vilip vilip vilip / The Humvee murmurs surruu surruu,”and the poet calls into the chaos the concept of war and of violence and of discord, the speaker in “Brown Girl Manifesto (Too),” calls out, “Love me stone me I am all yours.” And even though this subtext of war-chant and violence remains a constant undercurrent throughout the book, and Chin’s manifesto of the sisterhood is drawn up and chucked at the reader like a grenade, there is humor too.
In “Kalifornia (A portrait of the poet wearing a girdle of severed heads),” we find the eternal morality tale: you’re damned if you do, damned if you don’t. Here Chin invokes herself by name as the central figure of the poem, which explores the ruminations of a famous female poet of color who “can walk forever on the island of Caucausus / Without harm.” Opening with dark playfulness, the poet describes herself in the second person:
You are a Goddess
You beautiful swine
You necklace of heads
You girdle of past deeds
You have your fresh lovers
O how you wear them like nipple rings
Later, Chin commands herself to “Refute that a woman’s body is filthy / Although a woman’s body is filthy.” And again Chin bangs her head against the question, quite openly now, “If God is a woman / Why does the world remain / Smug / And Male?”
If section three is hard right to the jaw, the fourth section is the ice compress. By now, you’ve been ravaged and beat up, called to answer for your world, your place in it. Brilliant then to slow it down and breathe deep, as if after any knock-down-drag-out. In the section’s opening poem, “Two Inch Fables,” Chin writes,
The dead dingle on the fence makes amends
Free the cock from sacrifice, free the hen
Let the orphans feed, set the windows free
Teach a killer how to cry
We must love one another or die
Love one another of die
The energy has changed. Yes, there is acknowledgment of pain, of sickness, of imperfection, but there is also the epiphany that since sufferings exist, because death is non-negotiable, we must live. It is because of the bleak, dark side of human existence that we must love, that we must choose to find light, love. Chin suggests:
Because the truth is so very very sad
Oh anonymous corpse in the churchyard
I must dream of you
………………………………..festooned with flowers
And in the end the poet returns to where she began this book, to the loss of a lover. Chin’s great loss bookends the collection, seems to set off the scream that screeches through all of the other poems in Hard Love Province, as if one great loss can unbury every other one we once thought long forgotten. In “Beautiful Boyfriend” Chin declares,
If I could muster the nine doors of my body
And close my heart to the cries of suffering
Perhaps I could love you like no other
Float my mind toward the other side of hate
I like to imagine Emily hollering back, “For love is immortality,” or Sylvia calling out, “I know the bottom. . . . I know it with my great tap root. [D]o not fear it. I have been there.” We all have our sufferings, we know pain, loss, grief and sickness. Hard Love Province compelled me to believe in the great tap root, in the hustle and shine of the daily grind, and that yes, we must be sisterhood; but above all else, we must find a way to love.