- Creative Writing: Poetry
In a time saturated with the upheavals of war and displacement, Cathy Linh Che’s volume Split (Alice James Books, 2014) speaks directly to the imprint left by these traumas on bodies both intimate and global. Che’s precise economy of language illustrates how lyrical attention to violence can become a mode of resistance to personal and political histories of brutality, including the sexual violence inflicted on girls and women.
Split chronicles a life journey of betrayal and redemption. The first-person gaze of these poems is introduced in the low light of childhood sexual violence: a young girl undergoes systematic sexual molestation by family members and others, enabled and overlooked by those entrusted to protect her. Full of hands and punctures and black holes, her eight-year ordeal is told from a harrowing first-person point of view. And, as an adult, [End Page 427] she still is prescribed by the bruises and masks and thorny barbed wire, the dissonance of heartache. Nonetheless, she seeks redemption, an arrow that joins a split heart. She finds sustenance through understanding her parents’ own secrets of survival during the Vietnam war, and afterward as boat people and refugees in America. Ultimately, she learns to rely on herself, an arrow pointing back, to draw out poison, to find love defined on her own terms.
Che’s treatment of these images and tropes illustrates a feminist poetics that is critical, confident, and fiercely unflinching. Throughout the book, the poems remain harrowing in their insistent and uneasy corporeality, as Che writes in “Home Video”: “If my body can be a box. If I can close it up. If it has to be open. Who will touch me again?” It is poetry, with its shining forms and sounds, that proves an appropriate mode for giving shape to feelings not easily contained: “I am not meant to be desolate, / an evening pulled apart like smoke.”
At one point Che describes her father trying to remove a scar on his face with sandpaper. Later on, she shares a plaint, “I want to rewrite everything” (“Letters to Doc”). In a portrait both brutal and tender, Che’s volume eloquently writes and rewrites the scars of history, crafting a poetic testimony to survival and creation.