Jenny Zhang’s first poetry collection, Dear Jenny, We are all Find, is highly exploratory, raw, and vulnerable. It is filled with the pain of an individual embracing and living in a sense of lost-ness, a feeling of forlorn disorientation provided by an ancestry that is laden with ghosts and skeletons, a collapsing relationship, and fragmented and splintering writing. Though, it is this anguish that makes Zhang’s work so excellent.
As I read Dear Jenny I found myself wrapped up in the narrator’s world as she delved deeper into introspection and at times a personal and linguistic violence that expressed her own struggles. Zhang’s narrator never shies away from unrefined examinations of her shattering world and ultimately creates a sphere where, contrary to the title, nothing is fine, and nothing is found. The wandering path through the narrator’s haunted background styles itself in a fashion that is as fractured as the narrator’s state of mind and emotion. Language folds in on itself, paralleling the narrator’s psychosomatic confusion that is slowly revealed as she explains her roots and her personal relationships. And though the text ends in distress, it humbly provides more questions than answers and yields catharsis that feels as productive for the narrator as it does for any reader who has walked the path of heartbreak, uncertain self-identity, and slow, halting healing.
Though Dear Jenny’s linchpin is the deconstruction of language and the slow fall of the narrator’s relationship with her partner, she begins her three-parted collection with the section, “Motherlands,” exploring a psychosomatic lost-ness relevant to her heritage. Zhang’s, “I Saw a Skulk,” presents what appears to be a painful past indistinguishable from a lonely present.
This was back when I lived on a mountaintop
The balancing act
was more difficult than you could imagine
Who cares if only one thing drawn to scale
(my head) (your fingers attached to my missing finger)
(the punitive wakefulness of mornings
alone) (the tiptoeing and the wandering off)
Reader’s transition in and out of a bewildered waltz, wondering if the poem is about a challenged childhood or a struggling relationship. The narrator dithers between juxtaposed loneliness with a distant “you” figure and a childhood summoned by a discussion of the narrator’s father and a former home:
They were shown a slideshow of a performance
of a scripted exaggeration of a theatrical reinterpretation
of my life and who I used to be
They clapped for me, reinforcing my outline
as a shady place for entrapping the past
and the pre-past passing of years
I’m only depressed for a moment when I show them
the drawing of the mountaintop where I lived—
My father slept on a cloud
I kept the swelling down with a cane
I purposefully rolled down
enduring thorns and the branches and the bramble
and the broken glass and the upright bottles (12-14).
Whirling between the past and the not-past, the narrator simultaneously confronts the challenges of being Chinese in a western culture, malaise with her father, and loneliness with Michael, the “you” figure that reappears throughout the whole collection. As the text moves forward, it becomes clearer that the damage and pain apparent in “I saw a Skulk” is personal and moves in and out of past and present alongside a relationship that still thrums with strain.
In Dear Jenny’s second part, “New York,” the narrator’s distressed relationship takes on a larger significance and the language subsequently falls further into disarray. Zhang’s “Danggggg” addresses another familiar theme – unchanging minds in unwanted arguments:
Where are you/ are you driving in a car/ thinking about not-me/ the horseness of anxiety rubs at the ventricles in my heart/ […] your gaseous head is how you so quickly destroyed me/ […] (he said: I will turn your heart into gold/ I said: how will you turn stone into gold/ he said: how will the planet spin from left to right if your mind is as indivisible as a kiwi seed/ […] let’s not turn this into an argument/ too late/ ????? (49).
Zhang complicates our perception of poetry and prose; she generates staccato images written in a paragraph format separated by poetic line breaks. With this frenzy of strung together thoughts, Zhang allows readers to step into the racing mind of a disheartened lover struggling with her partner. The phrases hit like misfiring engine pistons, articulating themselves out of order and unexpectedly. The narrator envisions her partner after the fight, thinking about anything but her; she reflects on the dispute itself, replaying the words and revealing terms of phrase so unique they must be personal; finally, she concludes with her hesitance to argue, her own wish to not go there with the relationship, but she knows it is too late.
The toll the narrator’s failing relationship takes on her dilates as Dear Jenny moves into its third and final section, “La France.” Zhang’s narrator more explicitly describes the abuses she and her partner laid on themselves as they mutually tried to deny their impending collapse. Zhang’s language reveals a confusion that matches the plot, the uncertainty of their partnership, and the violence of a break up in, “It was good to drink wine to pass time before you came home, I mean bad:”
I knew what would happen
and I let it happen anyway
it was frisky and you were fiscal
I was very lonely and I became non existent
I had almost no dignity
I had nipples that pointed north
and a twat that said hello
when strangers passed in a sweat
and I said good and we’re just touching
because of the loneliness I told you about (90-91).
In “La France,” we don’t just see the clash of a struggling couple, we see the narrator and her partner using drunken sex to screen a failing partnership, to hide a loneliness that overpowers their togetherness.
As “La France” concludes, readers witness the relationship end and watch the narrator move on in life, trying to not fall in love again; she still quakes from the trauma of the previous ninety pages. The text ends morose, and sadly, there is no spasm of hope to walk away with. Nonetheless, Zhang’s honest reflection on familial challenges, heartbreak, and feeling adrift, is inarguably moving. Zhang explores these themes devoid of saccharin; she fills her verse with powerful images and raw insight and takes a cathartic journey that can help all readers reflect upon or move on from a feeling of pain and lost-ness.
Buy it at SPD: $12
Tim Etzkorn lives in Laramie, WY where he instructs at the University of Wyoming and is a M.A. candidate in literary studies. He specializes in early modern poetry, drama, and iconography. Outside of teaching and writing, Tim scales the mountains of the Snowy Range and participates in walking meditation with his dog, Jake.