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Review: ‘Flèche’ by Mary Jean Chan

How do you learn to love when you’re versed in the ways of war? Equal parts sinister Aesop’s Fable, lived experience, and fairy tale with a twist, Flèche invites readers into a labyrinth of longing.

There’s an ongoing war across generations, between mother and daughter, in Mary Jean Chan’s debut collection, Flèche. But the battles extend farther than two individuals to encompass several time periods that coexist, albeit not peaceably. Past doesn’t stay relegated to the past. The mother’s childhood spills into the poet’s childhood and present.


Listen: there is no measure for the tempo of grief. My mother would raid the fridge at midnight for a salted egg, some pickled carrots. I didn’t know we were safe in a different city, a different year. Once, during a bedtime storytelling, she sobbed until I cried for help, but father was asleep:

(‘My Mother’s Fables’)


Chan’s mother’s childhood, as depicted in the stories that Chan was told as a child, consisted of political turmoil and The Great Chinese Famine, which lasted for three years and killed up to forty-five million people. The unremittent hunger that the mother experiences as a lasting consequence of the famine may be one reason why food and salt are repeatedly mentioned:


What does three years of famine teach a person? Nothing.

Except that there is such a thing as perpetual hunger,

loss pounding on the windows like rain.


(‘(Auto)biography’)


[…] how too much salt brings back

the years of loneliness


(‘They Would Have All That’)


‘Salt’ seems symbolic of grief and loss, but also of the wisdom that surviving such conditions brings, i.e. ‘having had more salt, / than you have eaten rice’ (‘Rules for a Chinese Child Buying Stationary in a London Bookshop’). The overarching significance of salt here is how it is associated with flesh (note the cross-lingual punning of flèche / flesh). This is a natural pairing — with the body comes pain. In the poem ‘Flesh’, the mother ‘seasons wounds’, and ‘pain is indestructible’ is quoted from an anonymous poet in ‘song’, which may point beyond the poem to the timelessness of the mother’s grief, the perhaps impossibility of prevailing against such an opponent.

If hunger and desire are played together, Chan’s collection makes good use of their shared resonances. The harmonies of a ‘hunger for food or love’ (‘Names (I)’) begin Flèche and pulsate throughout. It could be argued that hunger from famine and hunger for love are two different experiences, but because Chan’s desire for women is considered taboo in her nation of origin, mother and daughter are sympathetically linked, both growing up in social situations that denied them of something essential to survival. For who can survive without food or love? In ‘Preface’, Chan writes ‘We are defined against something, by what we are not and will never be.’ Though the poet is neither her mother nor her mother’s past, she is deeply impacted by both; emotional resonances ring between the two experiences.


Mother, what do you think?

You are always where I begin […]

Always the pen dreaming

It could redeem the years

You fled from […]


(‘Always’)


We all have a past and a context into which we are born; aspects of that history may bolster us up whereas other aspects may hinder us. As the poem ‘Always’ suggests, Chan re-writes her mother’s past which is also Chan’s inherited past. In this revising she automatically, re-writes her present and future as a place that gives sanctuary to queerness and desire — where there is both plenty of food and love.


Dear fantasy mother, thank you

for taking my coming out as calmly

as a pond accepts a stone

flung into its depths


You sieved my tears, added

an egg, then baked a beautiful cake.

You said: Let us celebrate, for today

you are reborn as my beloved.


(‘Conversation with Fantasy Mother’)


In this poem grief, desire, and love are mixed together into something edible that could satiate not only the longing that both mother and daughter regularly feel, but also mend their relationship. The poet’s sense of duty and desire for her mother’s approval is often in conflict with the poet’s expression of her true self, ‘my lover wants me to be myself/ which is both a brilliant and cruel prospect’ (‘song’) and more explicitly stated in ‘an ode to boundaries’:


how healthy

i am, choosing

to betray her

to save the self

in formation


Rebellion becomes essential to the poet’s survival, as is pointedly mentioned in ‘The Window’:


[…] tell the one who

detests the queerness in you that dead

daughters do not disappoint


The modes in which Chan is versed in the ways of war include her self-protective instinct to hide and her training in fencing. The quote at the beginning of Flèche by James Baldwin – ‘Love takes off the masks that we fear we cannot live without and know we cannot live within’ – succinctly describes the internal and external conflict that shapes this book. In the beginning of the collection, Chan adopts mask after mask, including a literal fencing mask complete with protective steal mesh. In ‘A Hurry of English’ the opening line reads ‘What isn’t obvious isn’t obvious because I intend to obfuscate’. Self-protective measures also show up in three poems titled ‘Safe Space’, making abundantly clear the poet’s need for refuge and her likeliness to be a target of vitriol and ignorance. Chan confesses ‘… I am terribly afraid of mouths / capable of wielding language like a winter threat’ (‘Vigilance’).

However, it is using a different language that helps Chan to break free – ‘I left half of my language behind to escape my impeccable persona’ (‘A Wild Patience Has Taken Me Thus Far’) – and it is ultimately the promise of love that urges Chan to move closer to what she fears. And so, in this labyrinth we are navigated through the mother’s history, which the daughter has inherited; through the daughter’s burgeoning awareness of her own queerness and the various masks she wears to cover it up; through desire that can safely be expressed behind a mask, to love which can only be expressed once all the masks and armour are removed. Chan provides the reader with as hopeful of an ending to the collection as possible, a fictional kind of benediction from the mother (‘what my mother (a poet) might say (II)’) which the poet has sought all along and ends up writing for herself.


Buy Flèche by Mary Jean Chan from the Poetry Book Society.

If you’d like to review for Poetry School, or submit a publication for review, please contact Will Barrett on [email protected]

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