Review: Chansons of a Chinaman

By on Apr 13, 2010 in Reviews

Book cover of Chansons of a Chinaman

As he writes in the poem “The Calm Clam,” poet Changming Yuan yearns “to be a voice empowered / For all around me.” In his collection, Chansons of a Chinaman, he strives “To translate my loud pain / Into a muted pearl,” to reconcile his Chinese ancestry and his American life.

To do so, Yuan, whose work has appeared in Wild Violet, draws from history, mythology and natural imagery. In natural images he finds personal comfort and resonance, as demonstrated in the poem “Name Changing.” Here, he defends his choice not to Anglicize his name, which his parents created by “rearranging the sun and moon / vertically and horizontally” to give the name a balanced power. In the final stanza, he writes:

But to retain the subtle balances
In the wild wild world I wander
To hold my father’s sunbeam
With my mother’s moonlight
I fiercely refuse to change it.

In “Passengers” he turns racism on its ear, drawing power from his difference. He begins the poem with a litany of societal assumptions: “I speak aloud in tongue / I eat noisily with bamboo sticks / I appear everywhere like locusts” and then addresses directly those who might fear or even despise him for his “otherness”:

You can feel my Chinky shadow
Until we touch down
My breaths will invade
Your private space
My chanting will beat your eardrums
While you pursue your dream

Finally, he casts away such fears, saying, “I am not a phoenix / No more or less than a fellow traveler / With my own destination”. In the final lines, he calls for togetherness and understanding to replace fear and distrust: “So, feel free to do whatever comforts you / We will travel together”.

In the final section of the book, Yuan travels to China to seek out connections between his family history, his life today, and the legacy he will pass to his son. Once more, he finds inspiration and comfort in the natural world. In “Chinese Chimes: Nine Detours of the Yellow River,” he personifies the river as a toothless ancient one with “brownish wrinkles” whose “love for the Loess Plateau often overturns and overflows”. Although the river’s course is “crowded with holes and crevices”, Yuan finds hope within the river’s perpetual flow:

You may be tortured or burned to steam
But you will eventually find your impossible way
                                To the sea of blue sky

While occasionally prone to melodrama, for the most part, Yuan’s collection serves as a sort of guidebook: a translation between cultures, a nexus between past and present. In his best poems, Yuan’s work marries mythology and modernity with simple diction for a highly-accessible read.

Rating: *** (3 out of 4, Good)

Leaf Garden Press, 2009; ISBN: 978-0-557-08922-2

Disclosure: A preview copy of the book was provided by the publisher.

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Alyce Wilson is the editor of Wild Violet and in her copious spare time writes humor, non-fiction, fiction and poetry and infrequently keeps an online journal. Her first chapbook, Picturebook of the Martyrs; her e-book/pamphlet, Stay Out of the Bin! An Editor's Tips on Getting Published in Lit Mags ; her book of essays and columns, The Art of Life; her humorous nonfiction ebook, Dedicated Idiocy: How Monty Python Fandom Changed My Life, and her newest poetry collection, Owning the Ghosts, can all be ordered from her Web site, In late 2019, she published a volume of poetry by her third great-grandfather, Reading's Physician Poet: Poems by Dr. James Meredith Mathews, which also contains genealogical information about the Mathews family. She lives with her husband and son in the Philadelphia area and takes far too many photos of her handsome, creative son, nicknamed Kung Fu Panda.