What We’re Reading: Butcher’s Tree
Butcher’s Tree by Feng Sun Chen (Black Ocean, March 2012)
Feng Sun Chen’s first full poetry collection, Butcher’s Tree, feels like a scalpel to the brain, followed by gnashing, hungry teeth. And believe you me, pain has never felt this good.
Chen’s writing is extremely focused and intense. The poems are often violent, bodily, earthly, and full of blind… something. Rage? Release? Unquenchable appetite? The subject matter often deals with fairytales or folk tales we are all familiar with, but turns them over on themselves until almost unrecognizable. It’s a dense book, meant to be slowly digested, unlike the ferocious, hungry inhalation of the poems’ speaker. The poems carry a brutal beauty, and are grotesquely alluring as such.
The collection is split into 3 sections: Milk Vein, Wolf Teeth, and Grendel is a Woman. The first section is a nice introduction to Chen’s voice, getting us used to it through mostly third person voice. Then in Wolf Teeth, we become the target for the speaker, as he/she spews at “you” directly. Finally, the last section is one long poem, itself broken into sections. This poem I found especially intriguing, with its declarative title, which Chen immediately challenges with referring to Grendel as a he throughout. The form is varied throughout, which I appreciated, as each poem’s form felt organic unto itself.
A juicy excerpt from the first poem, “By the Dark” which sets the rest up like a poised slingshot:
One can see the other’s rage.
His rage is small but dense. It catches the wet light
by its webbed gravity.
He looks up at the dark
socketed between a ring of mountains.
Rage grows smaller and denser
with each point of old light.
That there should be so much walking
and so much distance
even burnt comets must pass.
That his shame should come so far.
That none of this could release him.
If you will indulge me one analogy further: Chen’s poems are a cleaving away of body fat from her poems to reveal a lean, bloody mass pulled taut with wiry tendons, poised to pounce on the reader.
One of my favorite poems, “Moontube,” quotes Sylvia Plath, and one of these quotes says all that need be said about Chen’s collection: “Does not my heat astound you. And my light.” Indeed.
Do you have a favorite explosive poet or author whose work floors you? How do you approach dense collections of poems or short stories?