REVIEW: The 8th House by Feng Sun Chen

the 8th house

by J. Fossenbell

I’d never been to the 8th House before—I didn’t even really know what it was, before I read this book. Or rather, I knew it but didn’t know its name.

The stutter verges on the 8th house
when I become unrecognizable as a person

The 8th of the 12 houses in Vedic astrology is not where you would want to live, but it’s essential to occupy and have occupied it: the home of life, death, and rebirth. You emerge from it bloody and tingling. Not renewed in any traditional sense, not absolved, not any of the adjectives we might associate with being reborn, but with eyes burned/aching, you come out “SHINY AND DISLOCATED AND GRATEFUL.”

Feng Sun Chen’s latest collection of poems traces an enclosed space of intimacy that invites you in—not like sex (though there’s sex here, too) but primarily like inhabiting/invading the wet cavities of a massive, contaminated body in a darkly domestic and sincerely spiritual way.

It is stupid to escape the self
The real self wants to be ruptured

The speaker is equal parts human and animal, stupid and divine, full of longing and compassion, grieving the dissolution of the self that can only express itself in failed dualities and broken language(s). Thoughts are de/formed through the language that births them, already dumb translations from another realm into the sphere of the mouth, tongue, breath, utterance. The speaker asks, “Is it because we have two eyes that we can only see two things?

From the first long poem “[I AM THE MIDAS]”, with its initial six pages SHOUTED as if from a splintered dais in some hyper/surreal amphitheater of cruelty, Chen stumbles into sudden possession of revelations.

I SUDDENLY THOUGHT I HAD GIVEN BIRTH

Nascence, or the need for it, is at the core of many of these poems’ energy—both the unbearable emptiness of “epidemic” infertility, and also the frightening and beloved fetuses that can’t or won’t come, the lost Suns of “mary. There’s a sense here of the utterly impossible task of either forming or being a perfect body.

I am desperate for a fetus.
To be a soft stomach bloated with sea life
cannibalistic like a virgin.
I will walk on the black shore with my child
still shiny with mucus and blind

The speaker’s drift across registers and spiritual states ranges from the corporeal Peg to the transcendent mary, with many others in between. Peg/Peggy is never fully revealed or explained, but reminds me of the dead pig tree and “I’m OK, I’m Pig!” of Kim Hyesoon, the only person Chen directly names in her acknowledgements. Her references to the little Pegs carry in them a deadly serious joke on the nature of consciousness and communication, and what it means to be a gratuitous human. Pegs/pigs are sentient, except as pork, and in both forms make repeated appearances throughout these poems.

The Three Little Pegs is a love story
What story isn’t about longing
Even a story with no plot is about longing
Perhaps it has forgotten what it longs for
long before what we have forgotten is forgot

Peg becomes a surface where Chen carefully stacks some of her most allusive linguistic pick-up sticks. But even her LOL non-sequiturs and base puns are more than just punchlines; they’re another kind of rite.

I am a Peg when I copulate.
It is difficult to be sincere while Pegulating.

The shame of both animal urges and human sentiment—of the drives to eat, piss, and screw; and to love, be loved, remember, and prayis another major emotional project here. The speaker often confesses to feeling ashamed, but it’s a fearless shame without embarrassment.

I am being watched
even when the eyes
of the world have been burnt
in fact that is when I am most base

In this spiritual logic, bodiesbelong to evil, cruelty” and only the ways our bodies are broken belong to us.So disease is proof of self, though it is a contaminated self. And good doesn’t lie inopposition to evil here, but next to its sister in suffering, who deserves our compassion.

After so long, I believe in demons because I saw one.
It was weak from pain, a universe of pain
lying next to me.
I felt for it
and stroked its face.

Another of the speaker’s modes is mary, a name almost a reference to the Holy Mother, but which mostly flattens to a common noun, which is always just out of reach, being reached for and missed. Yet strangely, these moments are some of the most devastating and disarming for me. While the animalistic Peg seems like it should be easier to touch, it feels more distant than the abstract and agonizing quietude of mary.

Suddenly I have insides that have contacted me, they say mary
*
mary slipped through my fingers
dried into gray crust.

Also present here is a shade of Aase Berg’s “black shell” from Dark Matter: a calling of names and feeding of bodies into machinations of history and death. Only this is a kind of modified death, death with a prefix—superdeath, maybe, or psychedeath. Uncannily cute drawings of little maggots clump on the pages and cover, plus a stray fly or two (art by Josh Wallis). The maggots remind me more and more as I read of miniature dumplings that I want to pop into my mouth, because in the emotional logic of these poems, consuming is similar to prayingan act as embodied as it is transcendent. It’s in the fat of the pork, which is both salvation on a cellular level and a ritualistic return to the fucked-up stupid joy and terror of being a person. It’s pure, even in its gross impurity.

All I wanted, I still want.
I still want to be filled with the richest light.

These are poems that will pierce and rupture your mental plane. Its sun will shine light on the blood it draws. Immaculate porcine ghosts and black angels will haunt you. This is a calling out, and despite the speaker’s resignation, or her insistence that, as a poet, she has no historical power, she is not powerless. Her insides are contacting you and sending you an urgent message. Listen. You can laugh, but in laughing wonder what you’re holding back.

I want blood to splatter from my mouth when I speak
Because sharing is caring

Available from Black Ocean.

J. Fossenbell lives in Minneapolis, where she reads and writes poetry and stuff, and teaches fresh snowmen to stop making sense.

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