Winner of the Costa 2019 Poetry Award, Mary Jean Chan’s debut collection, Flèche, deftly explores the conflicts and desires of a queer woman, the multiplicity of identity, and the power felt when wielding a sword.
In her brilliant new poetry collection, Flèche, Mary Jean Chan explores the many dualities in her self/selves. Her superbly skilled and precise writing details the conflicts and coalescences she experiences as a queer woman, as a citizen of first Hong Kong and then England, and as a daughter.
‘Flèche’is a term from fencing, the sport in which Chan represented her school and, later, Hong Kong. It is derived from the French word for arrow and refers to a move initiating a strategic attack, as well as sounding like the English word flesh, the connotations of which are fully exploited by Chan. In the title poem, Chan acknowledges the Renaissance charm of fencing and conflates it first with writing, then with desire and sex:
At the age of thirteen, I wielded a blade because I had a firm grip, I was in love with Shakespeare, and the school team needed an épéeist.
As in the poem, ‘A Wild Patience Has Taken Me This Far’, Shakespeare functions as a way for the young Chan to explore her sexuality, “Surreptitiously reading Shakespeare (the scene where Cesario woos Olivia)”. The image of the cross dressing lovers informs the third verse of ‘Flèche’, as Chan’s sexual desire is liberated in her fencing kit, but constricted by her change back into school uniform: “Changing into school uniform felt like cross-dressing. I took my time: removing mask, then chest protector, lingering at the breeches.” Her italics call our attention to the terms’ multiple significance, such as the mask for a girl yet to fully come out as gay, her fascination with the more conventionally masculine part of her gear, or the way the sport permits physical contact: “Once, my blade’s tip gently flicked her wrist: she said it was the perfect move”. The poem ends with witty clarity as the speaker now credits fencing with her skill as a lover: “Now, you say: You’re a great lover. Thank years of hard work on point control – how two fingers manoeuvre the blade’s tip – a flurry of sickle moons.”
A pervasive theme in the collection is Chan’s mother’s disapproval of her daughter’s queerness. In ‘Always’, Chan holds this in tension with her own desire for her mother’s approval – a position which is not unique to queer readers, of course, but is particularly familiar to many of us, caught as we often are in the old pattern of revelation (“coming out”) followed by parental shock, disapproval and rejection. As her mother interrogates her work, Chan acknowledges her importance:
Do you ever write about me?
Mother, what do you think?
You are always where I begin.
Addressing her as “Mother” suggests an uneasy formality to the relationship and this is borne out by the next lines suggesting her mother shamed this inconvenient, unconventional child, “who wanted to be/ a boy”. She goes on to situate the differences between herself and her mother in her body itself, as in these lines where her choice to write in English creates yet more dissonance between them:
Always the ear that hears you
translating my poems
with a bilingual dictionary.
This culminates with Chan frustratedly reducing herself to
Always the lips wishing
they could kiss those mouths
you would approve of.
Part of the force of this unforgettable collection derives from the poet’s clear, clinical attention to her feelings. Though at times autobiographical, the work is never mawkish or overly sentimental, nor so specific as to alienate readers. Chan’s use of form, spacing and layout deftly frustrates any purely personal readings. For example, in an ostensibly very personal piece, ‘the five stages’, though the line length is prosaic and Chan writes in the first person with some obviously personal details (“I am sitting in my friend’s room”), there is always the desire to broaden out the relevance of the piece from her own experience and chart larger sensations of confusion, desire, expectation. She sees herself as “a pathetic Juliet”, her heart “a stampede” in an almost-romantic encounter, “my friend is helping me lie // down on her bed”. Yet as in this last line, her repeated use of // interrupts, jars and fragments the reading, reminding us that this is not an uncontrolled outpouring and that plenty here is left unsaid.
Mary Jean Chan’s Flèche is published by Faber & Faber and is available to purchase online and in all good bookshops around the UK. To find out more about Mary Jean Chan, click here.