On Dorothy Chan’s BABE

Dorothy Chan. BABE. Richmond: Diode Editions, 2021. 68 pages.  

Dorothy Chan writes poems that know exactly who they are, even as they move in and out of different roles, confessions, and redefinitions. “I’m a Chinese girl who loves fortune telling / and palm readings and my zodiac,” her opening poem, “Triple Sonnet Because I’m a Lucky Girl” declares. “I love nuance,” asserts the speaker in “Triple Sonnet for Charging Admission.” The poems in their fourth collection, BABE, are full of such decisive, emphatic declarative statements: “I like boys who are named after prestigious schools,” “I don’t need / anything from anyone,” “I will not be attending your wedding,” “I hate going to the beach,” “I am a freak,” “I’m baby.” Chan’s speakers maintain a remarkably clear sense of self, even amid their active and ongoing self-construction and definition. Self re-negotiation and renewal animate the heart of this book, as does a sincere appetite for the deliciously middlebrow. These are not speakers concerned with something as mundane as being liked; these are speakers who are hungry, who want and are not afraid of that want, speakers who eat lobster and chocolate-dipped poached pears and wear red lipstick with a fuchsia fishnet bodysuit whenever they please.

Neither does Chan shy away from the uglier parts of queer existence under compulsory heterosexuality. BABE displays a profound commitment to the sexy and suggestive in the face of those characters in the text who seek to diminish and harm them: “My pussy’s too precious for his unshaven face” (39). BABE is a collection marked by its speaker’s resilient impulse to continuously invent and assert themselves. At its core, BABE shows us what it means to take seriously the power of a self-defined aesthetic experience.

Chan positions queerness as an identity rooted in self-expansion. In a world that associates queer identity with shame, that insists on the marginalization and minimization of queer experience, Chan’s poems amplify and relish in their queerness, in their unabashed love for themself and their community. The collection begins with self-declaration and self-love, proffered as antidotes to something so bland and expected as “self-acceptance,” before moving through various encounters with homophobia, misogyny, and the specific, racist fetishization employed by older white men who prey on Asian women. Chan’s speakers traverse an inhospitable world full of homophobic family members, disappointed parents, oblivious, entitled straight girls, and mean lovers who do not always listen to the word “stop.” With each of these encounters, the speakers of Chan’s poems are forced to redefine and reassert themselves. It’s a reminder both to others and to themself of who the fuck they actually are. Chan inhabits queerness as more than orientation or rather, defines orientation as more than sexual attraction. They define queerness as performance, attitude, tastes and preferences designed to counteract the oppressive forces that seek to diminish them. In this collection, they depict a queer femme poetics that delights in itself—and fuck you, they might say, if you don’t delight in it too.

One of the standout components of this collection—and perhaps the signature of Chan’s queer femme poetics—is the triple sonnet form. Of the book’s twenty-six poems, fourteen are triple sonnets, and the book kicks off its first section with “Three Triple Sonnets For the Price of Admission.” “I want a heart-shaped bed and pink curtains,” begins “Triple Sonnet, Because I’m a Lucky Girl,” (3) and many of the book’s most recurring concerns appear in this theme and tone-setting poem: old and new Hollywood, television, adoring lovers, classical art, the color red, the speaker’s complex relationship with their identity as a Chinese girl, wardrobe changes, and lavish descriptions of food. Chan packs so much life into this opening poem and foregrounds the expansive performativity of this particular queer femme identity:

I want a heart-shaped bed and pink curtains
            in true Hollywood fashion, like a leading lady
whose love language is physical touch
            and whose favorite food is Red Velvet Cake
with extra cream cheese frosting. A lover says
            a Roman artist sculpted my breasts, and I love
when he kisses them goodbye—oh, his chiseled
            face—that movie star laugh that melts my body,
but I swear, I’m giving up all men, because even
            the best ones aren’t psychic the way women are. (3)

The triple sonnet form becomes a vehicle for expansion itself, allowing the traditional sonnet to multiply and launch itself into another sonnet and another, such that lines five and six in the first sonnet, “A lover says / a Roman artist sculpted my breasts,” echoes in the collision of Renaissance artists and Ninja Turtles in the second before finally resolving in the lines “my straight friends who watch my love life like / it’s spectacle—As Seen On TV for free” in the third and final sonnet. What begins as an exultation in the erotic attention of a lover morphs into something more commercial—a cartoon facsimile of an intimate moment—before being likened to an actual commercial one watches between programs on TV. The self-assertion and definition that characterizes Chan’s speakers reveals itself to be a necessity; if the speaker does not embody their lush queerness, if they do not “sing louder” or “make myself / happy, chewing up the scenery with my lips,” they risk dislocating the joy of the queer experience. That joy, this poem asserts, is not in the exhibitionism for the heteronormative gaze but instead resides within the queer experience itself, in those intimate moments of admiring a lover, of feeding “orange blossom macarons / to a lover in the tub.” 

Still, for as much as Chan’s poems resist heteronormativity’s voyeurism, the visual performance and construction of their queer femme poetics is unavoidable, and there remains a recurring tension between resistance and performance throughout. In a collection full of Hollywood references from Judy Garland in The Wizard of Oz to the CW teen drama Riverdale to the cringe-worthy artificiality of reality television, several poems cast the speaker and their family as characters in a pop cultural storyline—“Triple Sonnet for Being a Queer in a Family of Straights” imagines the speaker as a reluctant participant in their family’s reality television show, while “A Poem about Killing Off Your Homophobic Characters” describes the women the speaker’s brother loves as villains in the soap opera of the speaker’s life, a “recurring character” who is often “replaced mid-season” (though, of course, “no one notices”). It’s in this poem that the book’s speaker seems most self-aware of the role in which they have been cast—not only in their family but in the broader narrative of their own life (which one might also refer to as a character arc):

If life really is a soap opera, then I demand an evil twin. I want to hug her.

                                                Let’s take over the world, body double.

I remember how growing up, I dreamt of having an older sister
rather than an older brother, because an older sister would shame
me less—would not make fun of my growing body—

Would not ask me about my sexual orientation out of nowhere at a
stoplight in Washington DC.
Would not assume the worst of any sexual orientation that wasn’t straight. (30)

The poem goes on to meditate on the name “Dorothy”—how the speaker’s parents named them after Judy Garland’s character in the Wizard of Oz “unintentionally,” further unintentionally casting them as one of the most iconic characters of feminine, wide-eyed innocence in cinematic history. “Dorothy,” then, becomes a point of negotiation for this speaker and their relationship to queer femme identity. In “Five Sonnets for Red Lips: Goodbye, J,” the speaker refers to Dorothy as “Judy Garland in gingham and pigtails,” then rejects this image of innocence before acknowledging Garland as the “inventor of red on the silver / screen.” Their shared name appears again in the fourth sonnet of this poem, but this time with a new sense of reclamation: “when I’d rather you just call me Dorothy. /… as in Judy you’re a forever / icon.” The costume of Garland’s Dorothy, the speaker concludes, can be stripped away, but Dorothy as icon—as singular, as celebrity—remains a crucial aspect of their queer femme poetics.

While by turns vulnerable, decisive, playful, and provocative, Chan’s collection is also aware of the inherent risk of queer visibility. Underlying many of these poems is a sadness for what the speaker has been denied: familial love and acceptance, bodily autonomy, and respect for one’s own desires and wishes. But rather than dwelling in that sadness or longing for something as bland and unsatisfying as tolerance, Chan constructs radical poems obsessed with themselves, poems that can’t get enough of what their speaker has to offer. In these poems, the queer femme gets to decide what they want and when they are wanted, and what they are going to do about it. They are precise in their wildness and unafraid to admit when they’re wrong—though let’s be honest, that doesn’t happen very often.

Caitlyn Alario is a queer poet from Southern California. She received an MFA from Sarah Lawrence College and is currently a Ph.D. student and Teaching Fellow at the University of North Texas. Her poems have appeared or are forthcoming in Flypaper Lit, Third Coast, and MORIA