On Chia-Lun Chang’s Prescribee
Chia-Lun Chang. Prescribee. Brooklyn, NY: Nightboat Books, 2022. 88 pages.
What does it mean to be a poet who writes in one’s second language? In her debut collection, Prescribee, poet Chia-Lun Chang crafts unsettling, intricate poems which articulate her deep ambivalence about the American Dream. She describes herself as being “prescribed” to, showing both the betrayal and powerlessness she feels as she leaves behind her home of Taiwan and falls for the alluring, deceptive possibility of inhabiting a Western vernacular.
To prescribe, Chang writes, is to authoritatively rule or socially dictate as remedy. To prescribe, then, refers to the actions of the collective “America”—prescribing her with language, legality, and culture. Prescribee is an unraveling of English as a second language, the abandoned lacuna between what it means to be an immigrant who, on one hand, seeks refuge and stability, and on the other, feels the simultaneous erosion of native tongue and identity. Chang imbues the story of her immigration process with moments of transgressive fantasy and unconventional grammar structures to subvert the governmental transcription of her selfhood onto a piece of paper. Throughout Prescribee, Chang self-prescribes a proposal that, unlike a green card, can never be revoked.
Chang documents the shattering disillusionment of inhabiting Western culture and society, as she joins a country that she soon realizes she is unwelcome in. In the final poem of the collection, titled “Go Back to Your Country,” Chang says, “Go back to your country / which I would very much wish. / Not a day goes by when I don’t dream of my family living / in the States & sleeping in my arms. / Yet none of them believes in white supremacy as I do / I have always believed in white people / begging for this destiny” (74). It is through these lines that Chang most explicitly articulates the alienation she feels in the States, away from her family in both distance and expression, as she grasps the language of white supremacy and notes that her belief in whiteness resides in the past tense. The painful emotional chipping that occurs throughout each of the preceding poems accumulates toward this final destruction of the speaker’s idealism. It is at this moment that all of the poems align to as if to say: this is what I’ve done with my second tongue, to dismantle the words used to displace me.
“The Government Makes Me / lie if I want a visa,” Chang writes. “Thus, my answer oozing / from the polygraph is nimble” (13). In “The Government Makes Me”, Chang describes what it means to assimilate: which is to adapt, which is to lie. In between her lines is the chasm that forms when the chase for betterment becomes inherently linked to the erasure and manipulation of self and one’s true identity. The visa application becomes a polygraph; the visa becomes a marker of lies. The poem’s speaker reveals that her dishonesty acts more like flexibility, and is what allows her to be approved by the U.S. government, shape-shifting from a rose to a Venus flytrap to meet their needs. Chang makes her liminal experience as an immigrant particularly clear in “If I Were Born In America,” where she writes how she still can not socially call herself a citizen or label herself using the desired, esteemed adjective of “American,” despite living in the States. She writes, “I stay invisible / invisionable until / The empire murders itself / With foggy heroism / I’ll volunteer to be an / American obituary writer.” (12) Her immigrant status stipulates that it is only when America crumbles—which she comments will likely be because of its own mishandling—that her words will be allowed to appear widely in print.
In her lyric prose poem “River Mississippi,” whose title challenges the strict rule of English grammar’s adjectival placement, Chang writes of an incipient experience in America, saying “Sarah drove us to look at / Southern culture. We picked and carved pumpkins and / repeated Thanksgiving. We pitched forts in the park. We / arrived on the top of the hill and read American Poetry” (3). The reading of “American Poetry” as a form of learning, and the later repetition of “Thanksgiving,” describes an intentional cultural indoctrination, an introduction to the craft of poetry as a textbook to be deferred to, rather than an art. These lines reveal an ars poetica in which Chang as someone who uses American poetry to learn English becomes an American poet herself. Chang’s approach to English reminds us that language should not be prescriptive, but interpretative.
Chang expects that readers will read her poems with her voice in mind: “I’m sorry that you’re / forced to be surrounded by my voice,” in “The Accent That Floats.” Chang emphasizes the sonic in order to encompass all the ways in which she speaks. But there’s a limit: “please remember, we’ve only interacted in script,” she reminds readers, as her English poetry comes from “lips aren’t placed where they’re supposed to be” (5). Reading these poems with her voice further admonishes the idea of writing poetry in “proper English.” Chang articulates the baggage that comes with speaking in a second language, which is to always be second-guessed and met with hesitation and suspicion: “my tongue mixed too many oceans / maybe it will drown next time / my tonsil swallowed a bag of stones / on the muddy path” (6). Through these lines, Chang uses the heightened descriptions of “drown” and “swallowed a bag of stones” to reveal the violence that is inflicted on her tongue as it is asked to fit the mold of a citizen before she is allowed that status herself. Chang continues: “always owing between terminals / my accent never takes off since / my throat has not applied for a passport / it is too thick to pass through your years” (6). It is in lines like these, with the metaphor of her accent as a plane that can never leave and the homonym of “years” in place of “ears,” where Chang’s craft and mastery over the poetic form are evidenced.
Chang also explores the physicality of immigration, writing how as both a woman and a daughter, she is objectified as not only exotic but sexual and complacent. “This acquiring language has shrunk, I wear it the way girls are waterproof,” she writes in “Engli-shhh Isn’t Yours,” identifying the way she weathers storm after storm (5). In “The Photographer Took My Photo and Claimed I’m the Immigrant Dwelling,” she writes of her being silenced by hegemonic forces, describing the gap between her words and their reception. “Sir, I no longer want to participate since / it’s dangerous to expose my condition,” she says. “How beautiful,” he replies, “you’re still a monster that submits to my amusement” (55). Chang then compares herself to an insect, preserved in resin in an exhibition in a visualization of “gold fever,” which is a synonym for both lust and the fetishization of Asian women. Chang calls our attention to a long line of female Asian immigrants who fall victim to a white gaze that strips away their humanity. No longer people, they become monsters and bugs on display. It is a historical violence that can trace its beginnings, as this poem nods to Afong Moy, the first female Chinese immigrant to America, who was brought in 1834 from her hometown in Guangzhou and showcased in a New York City museum.
Prescribee is ultimately a collection about a daughter who “is turning American” (43). It weaves together images of corporate America, the New York City skyline, and a city sinking into salt water, with charged lyrical lines that convey invisibility, futility, and a desperation for stability. Chang is a poet who dares to not only speak in an accent but brings you face-to-face with the complicated experience of a Taiwanese-American immigrant, and how you may too be complicit in her erasure and abandonment. Chang declares, “I would assassinate / For many reasons, especially for one future, but / No one should be coerced / To prove I belong” (72).