by Claire Matthews
The Family China
Brick Books, 2013
The Family China is Ann Shin’s second collection of poetry, and with it she continues to stun readers with her innovation, attention to craft, and rendering of language. Shin is originally from the Fraser Valley of British Columbia, and urban and suburban life are some of the central themes in this collection. Shin also explores migration, death, and how childhood can haunt the present day. Although these five suites have a fine-tuned personal narrative, the poems invite readers to look inward at their own narratives and definition of selves.
Almost every poem has a sidebar-like segment. These fragments emerge from a word within the poem. The words are easy to miss upon first glance because they’re faintly tinted grey. If the word was bolded or italicized, however, it would lose the effect that the poet might have originally intended—that these fragments are memories. They’re inspired by seemingly simple and banal words such as fresh, official, safe, and yes, and then Shin unpacks them. Out of forks emerges:
your thia and yiayia sorted through the burnt rubble rescuing blackened spoons, forks with curled tines they polished and bundled them into 5 handkerchiefs, one for each grandchild
Although the fragments can be read immediately following the inspired word, they seem better suited to be read after the end of the poem. The tone throughout the collection is so smooth and controlled that if the fragments are read as the inspired word appears, they interrupt the rhythm and flow. They work well as conclusions, as moments the reader might think of when they see a fork, a house, or define what legacy means to them. More than anything, these fragments feel true to each poem. They don’t appear forced or gimmicky. Instead, they add even more layers that Shin has already created through such lines like, “Children in their nightgowns stand waiting to sing,/ as the song skips a generation.” (7)
This line appears in my favourite poem from The Family China. It’s from the suite entitled “Forgotten Fields” and it explores youth—the failings and joys, the overwhelming longing for something different, to be anywhere else in the world. This poem captures what it’s like to grow up in suburbia with such deceptively simple language and evocative images.
Roll me down the length of your long, black driveway.
Let’s steal back what’s ours from closed-mouth houses
where lights are left on, mail delivered, lawns mowed,
while we’re out on the hunt in the dew-wet fields
hungry to find and twist open the seed
of our own promise. We’re not lost,
we’ve just been looking away.
In this poem, Shin uses safe as the key that unfolds a memory, the fragment found beside the poem. It’s an apt choice, a word often associated with the suburbs, though not the first one that comes to mind to those who live there.
The Family China is rich with layers, a dark undercurrent beneath language both simple and haunting. Shin has the skilled ability to evoke whatever landscape she wishes, to bring the reader there and make them feel as if they really know that world. She takes the reader behind the scenes, behind each poem. Shin lures readers further into the world she created and leaves them breathless.
Claire Matthews is working on her MFA in Creative Writing at the University of British Columbia. Her fiction has appeared in Joyland Magazine and her poetry is forthcoming in Room. Her poetry was also long-listed for the CBC Canada Writes Poetry 2013 Award. She was a cofounder and the Managing Editor of Kwantlen University’s fine arts and literary magazine, pulp. In her spare time, she makes soap and drinks whisky.