Thursday, April 11, 2024

Ellen Chang-Richardson, Blood Belies


I can still hear the mosquitos in my deepest anxieties, hear
their high-pitched hum. I can feel the oppressive heat. I can
smell it, that combination of human feces and fear pungent.
My small nose        wrinkles.

I crawl into my fort-like cabinet, run my hands over solid
wood, feel the      p   u l s   e    of my father’s secrets in my
veins. enclosed. safe. claustrophobic.       free. (“storm surge”)

Oh, I am absolutely delighting in the structures and shapes of Ottawa-based poet, editor and collaborator Ellen Chang-Richardson’s full-length poetry debut, Blood Belies (Hamilton ON: Wolsak & Wynn, 2024), published through Paul Vermeersch’s Buckrider Books imprint. Even the back cover copy provides a liveliness, working to prepare any reader for the wealth of possibilities that lay within: “In this arresting debut collection Ellen Chang-Richardson writes of race, of injury and of belonging in stunning poems that fade in and out of the page. History swirls through this collection like a summer storm, as they bring their father’s, and their own, stories to light, writing against the background of the institutional racism in Canada, the Chinese Exclusion Act, the head tax and more. From Taiwan in the early 1990s to Oakville in the late 1990s, Toronto in the 2010s, Cambodia in the mid-1970s and Ottawa in the 2020s, Blood Belies takes the reader through time, asking them what it means to look the way we do? To carry scars? To persevere? To hope?” There is such a wonderful polyvocality to this collection, a layering of time and tales told, including asides, overlapping and faded, fading text; a multiplicity within a singular frame, representing multiple ways, furrows and threads across this collection. The poems offer quick turns, clipped lyrics and inventive speech, writing heredity, silence and open space.

Set through three sections, and a poem on either end of the collection to bookend, Chang-Richardson plays with space on the page through word placement, composed absence, swirls of text and image, erasure and hesitation, providing a forceful book-length provocation of slowness, storytelling, pulse and punctuation. “My brother and I sometimes posit” they write, part-through the collection, “that maybe they named him Sing in the hopes he would go through life / embodying a song – // past present and future interactions make us question that line of thinking.” Chang-Richardson writes of race, of family, of identity; of anti-Asian racism, and a history that provides an intimacy around such facts as Canada’s Royal Commission on Chinese and Japanese Immigration in 1902, and The Chinese Immigration Act of 1923, which prevented Chinese immigration into Canada until the Act was repealed in 1947. Chang-Richardson offers a delicate and powerful lyric of such strict, incredible precision, speaking only a single word or phrase or absence, where others might have offered pages. Through memory, archive, gymnastic language, erasure and an expansive, inventive sequence of forms, Chang-Richardson offers insight into and through family history, trauma, possibility and story, one that honours both past and the present, constructed as a larger portrait of family, history and self, but as much a loving and attentive outline of the author’s father. “I lost my wanderlust    in tandem / to losing you --,” Chang-Richardson writes, near the opening of the collection, “ – but we no longer speak / of such things.”

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