Jane Wong

The winner of the 2012 Kundiman Prize, Split is Cathy Linh Che’s debut collection of poetry. Split unflinchingly delves into trauma, interweaving Che’s own experiences with that of her family during the Vietnam War. Rejecting apathy, irony, and the poetics of erasure – that which worries the state of contemporary poetry – she writes with open vulnerability. Split does not shy away from that which terrifies us; these poems look trauma straight in the eye, with a bravery that allows for tears.

The title echoes the collection’s geographical, sexual, psychological, and emotional rifts. These rifts are notably housed in the body, a space marked by wounds in the constant process of healing. In her opening poem Che writes: “I woke with an archipelago/of bruises.” Indeed, throughout the book memory operates like bruised fruit – ripe, tender, delicate to the touch. Tenderness is often juxtaposed with brutality: “Mother’s shame,/father’s cold and brutal shielding./There was more tenderness in the rain.” 

Interestingly, Split’s wounds and rifts are threaded together across time and space – connecting Che’s personal experiences with sexual abuse and her family’s displacement during the Vietnam War. In this way, the feeling of being “split” is all encompassing, and cannot be broken down by a singular experience. Rather, the act of splitting contains multitudes. Personal, familial, and political stories constellate. 

In this act of splitting, readers feel deeply connected to the speaker, who tells us these stories from different angles. Split raises difficult questions: how can one address trauma and history through words? How can wounds heal (if they can)? What role does form and craft play in the poetry of witness? There is a curiosity here that is both fearless and fearful. Che digs underneath each layer of history, to better understand her present. She warns us: “You’re not supposed to look into/a gun you dismantle/to try and see its parts.” What are the consequences of writing about our fears? These poems aim to see the inner workings of war and abuse, knowing full well that the gun can go off at any time. 

Split’s “Doc” poems – epistolary poems to an imaginary therapist – are weaved throughout the book. In these poems, there is certainty in her voice. Here, the speaker recounts trauma. Poetry becomes a way of recovering that which is buried, such as the truth behind the Vietnam War:

"No one talked of the war,
but history

was in the billboards,
in the films

the tourists watched
at the tunnels at CuChi."

Here, she acknowledges the danger of war being mythologized in the movies – moving further and further away from what actually happened. Silence becomes the wound, the source of fear. These poems refuse such silence, unfurling personal experiences over images from the media. To continue, she tells her mother’s story in the poem “Bloodlines.” Here, she gives her mother a massage, pouring eucalyptus oil along her spine. The body acts as a visceral space in which silence cannot survive:

"I excavate
a skeleton:

war, seizure,
my older sister dead,

buried in the motherland-
somewhere in Vietnam,

a broken seed, still
waiting to grow."

The body is the vulnerable vessel through which Che is able to “excavate” a story. By massaging her mother, she works out the hidden consequences of the War – death and the desire to heal after death (“a broken seed, still/waiting to grow”).

Of her sexual abuse, Che offers us the snapshots of her memory as if to declare: yes, this happened. From “In what way does the room map out violence?” she writes,

"I don’t recall being sick.

        His hand brushed against my breasts
        as I passed in the hall.

I was ten, eleven.

        The body’s disorderly circuitry.

The page flipped, I saw a picture of myself.
        with a swollen eye."

In the gaps between what we know and what we don’t know (“I was ten, eleven”), Che points again to the significance of memory. Even though memory is faulty, memory also serves as evidence. And these poems demand to be seen. As a question of bravery, guilt, and desire, the poem ends: “How do I forget the child/in the dim room/of the sleeping house?”

Throughout, her family’s stories meld with her own stories of violation. For instance, her grandmother’s sickness becomes her own. This transferal is deeply felt: “Her teeth kept grinding/like a machine’s stuck gears.” In the poem “My Mother Upon Hearing News of Her Mother’s Death,” Che literally envelopes her mother. She becomes her. “I lept into her mouth, her throat, her gut, and stayed inside with the remnants of my former life. I ate the food she ate and drank the milk she drank.” This transferal of trauma and pain also occurs when she writes about dressing up as her father in “Dress-up.” Through the childish act of dressing up, she becomes her father and must face the adult world; she is transported to his violent life in Vietnam:

I wore the gray pants he wore to work.
They fit me perfectly, as if my legs
were machine-cut his exact dimensions.

In this moment of transferal, “machine-cut” moves beyond the factory and reads as a weapon (later, Che writes: “He hasn’t carried a gun in over thirty-fire years”).  The poem continues to imagine her father as an extra in Apocalyse Now, dressed as a Viet Cong. Yet, this act of transferal is always difficult, which she acknowledges this at the end of poem: “The letters collapse around my pen -/I write a poem that never seems to fit him.” In this way, poetry can only get so close. Yet, as Che suggests, we must try to get close.

In the book’s third and last section, an older voice appears, grounded in places: New York, California, New Jersey. This section explores the lyric deeply, engaging with metaphorical ways to articulate pain and recovery. For instance: “My bright face/like crushed glass//floating on the ocean’s bent surface.” And: “I split two coins, ended/with two halves/a multi-plied separation.” These lyric moments move the reader into a space of reflection, in order to move forward. The book ends with final fragments from “Doc”:

I want to be part
of the world again.

But here, I lie
on my back,

I look up at the trees.
Like me, they have disrobed…

Here, the desire to be “part of the world” is clear; however, of course, there is the act of “disrobing” – of being naked and vulnerable. Leaves, like the fragments in “Doc,” fall and reconvene on the forest ground. Yet, we keep returning to the voice who declares “I want.” This voice rings so clear and so open, we believe the world needs her.

It is not often that books move us to the point of heartache. Split continues beyond the last poem, as war and trauma continue to echo across recovery. Che writes, “If my body can be a box. If I can close it up. If it has to be open. Who will touch me again?” This last question is built-in with fear, but also desire. There is hopefulness here, created through the very act of writing (thus denying silence). Indeed, as she writes earlier, “My posture folded in./And yet, I grew.” In this book, trauma doesn’t stay private or in the past. It grows into the current day, current hour, current minute. And, by acknowledging its growth, trauma becomes something quite powerful and resplendent. As the last line of Split declares, with such quiet ferocity: “I can crown myself/with my own life."

Jane Wong lives in Seattle, where she is a Ph.D. candidate in English at the University of Washington. A former U.S. Fulbright Fellow, she holds an M.F.A. from the University of Iowa. Her poems have appeared in journals such as Mid-American Review, CutBank, Octopus, and in the anthologies Best New Poets 2012 and The Arcadia Project: North American Postmodern Pastoral. Click here to read more by Jane Wong on Warscapes.