Split on The Constitution: Reconstructing Identity through the Stars

by Jimmy Sbordone

Cathy Linh Che, Split (Alice James Books, 2014)

Brian Foley, The Constitution (Black Ocean Press, 2013)

It is the human experience: to perch on a hill and wonder into the night stars. With every new discovery in the subfields of astronomy, we grow to realize that we are born of the stars. For example, we now know that most of the metals and chemicals in our bodies can only be produced by supernovae. Furthermore, the recent Kepler mission has discovered that Earth-size planets are extremely common around the trillions of stars in the known universe. These discoveries have reopened an already vast discussion of what it means to be human and have changed our perspective of ourselves as living beings. In their respective searches to construct identity in the wake of personal crises, Cathy Linh Che and Brian Foley each employ a phenomenon of astronomy to come to terms with, get frustrated by, and grapple with their experience. Cathy Linh Che draws on galaxies, massive, all-encompassing bodies that last for billions of years, as an objective correlative for the seemingly endless cycle of sexual abusers in her past. In contrast, Brian Foley compares the end of a relationship to a supernova and the Big Bang: lightning rod moments of immense reactions where old orders and identities become the meat of a new revolution.

* * *

In an interview, Cathy Linh Che explains that her personal trauma and her parents’ “stories are ultimately intertwined, and they speak to each other as a kind of legacy of trauma, violence, and aftermath.” Che retells her own struggle with childhood sexual abuse as the next link in a transgenerational chain of violence. Haunting anecdotes from the speaker’s parents paint the ugliest facets of the Vietnam War that marred their family. Che’s mother recalls encounters with American soldiers: “Soon after, a village girl / was raped by a soldier / in a dried-out gully. // She was air-lifted / to the field / hospital.” Che’s father suffers from similar flashbacks: “On Christmas day, he mistook / the Macy’s star / for the Viet Cong flag. // While watching / Forrest Gump, he told me / how he too carried a friend.” The speaker watches as her father’s inability to gain distance from his trauma gnaws from the inside out: he eventually firms into “an angry brick” from the frustration with the vastness of the “galaxies” that Che discusses. We see one instance where the father had previously experienced hope through the stars: “The oil-black water. / The stars spearing the night. // My father steered the boat, / calibrating by the stars.” The father’s use of stars to guide his journey to America was a moment of profound hope, but his inability to maintain that perspective and distance from the “galaxies” in Vietnam and America drives his transformation into “an angry brick.” For Che’s parents, the horrifying tragedies of Vietnam have a similar effect as the sexual abuse does on Che: it is a takeover by some event bigger than the individuals victimized by it. The speaker is continually frustrated by her own inability to break the cycle of violence in her own life, which stems from the sense of galactic vastness of the events and the immense distance from these events.

Interestingly enough, it was Che’s abuser that brought her to astronomy: “My father’s nephew, he lived / in my home for eight years, took me // to the Griffith Observatory.” Che retells traumas from these “men like galaxies:” vast bodies that, when they encounter each other, they never harm each other, but the other stars gravitationally bound to these galaxies might be totally disrupted or fundamentally altered. Che’s initial response to the power of these galaxies is almost defeatist in nature: “When he kissed me… Inside, my heart compressed // into a black hole.” The original perception of a black hole is of a place of infinite darkness, a bottomless abyss that represents a final death, the light of a star permanently extinguished. Che returns to almost those exact same lines in one of the last poems of the book, perhaps with a new insight: “My heart is small / & I want it, like a star / to collapse.” By the end of the book, the black hole takes on a new meaning: it becomes an image of creating one’s own gravity and beginning to create a new source of grounding and embodiment separate from the previous patterns (the “men like galaxies”) Che had been frustrated by.

* * *

Cathy Linh Che grapples with long-term sexual abuse that became the constant of her childhood, a pattern she swore to break. In stark contrast, Brian Foley’s The Constitution tackles a sudden and unexpected end of a romantic relationship. For Foley, the constant of change is frighteningly paralyzing: “I’ve not time / to humor a tree / compromising sky / to no end.”  In “Amendment,” he writes,

to deviate
more false than

the universe

a billion years
before we know it

I turn a dark
into an explosion

it seems impossible
I’m not hurt

Here, Foley is drawing comparisons to the Big Bang, and how, because this event is so distant, the light of the explosion will not reach us until thousands of years later, much in the way that Foley’s relationship had begun to erode long before he was able to comprehend it. Later, he writes, “a corona / tightening a fist //… chasing away / sleeping horses I thought / I had travelled.” With these lines, Foley tells of how this “supernova” blew away the speaker’s previous misconceptions (the “sleeping horses”) of the relationship. In contrast to Che’s trauma, which happened so many times throughout her childhood that it became monotonous and predictable, Foley’s trauma was a one-time bang, a painful and destructive moment of, as he titles one poem, “Enlightenment:” “Bang! / because life / wants us to.” Foley centers much of his book on this image of the supernova/Big Bang and its connection to the objective correlative of the American Revolution.

With this objective correlative, Foley establishes his approach to the breakup: much like how the Founding Fathers reexamined the value system of America in the wake of the American Revolution, Foley puts his own “constitution” under the microscope in the first poem (entitled “Self-Assessment”): “Already we need / hay to fill / our effigies.” In the time leading up to the American Revolution, American protestors burned the leading villains of the British government in effigy, as people symbolic of values that the infant nation would have to rid itself of, and Foley uses his break-up as one such moment.

In his persistent examination of supernovae, Foley searches for another order, an existing constitution, as a potential model for his new constitution. Much in the way that new metals necessary for human life are only produced in supernovae, a new variety of mettle for Foley’s identity comes out of this personal revolution. This new constitution, however, is not a permanent fixture: it must constantly evolve in order to avoid another supernova. The amendments Foley included serve to show the back and forth dialogue that often happens in the process of writing a constitution and the various compromises that have to be made, as the Founding Fathers discovered in Philadelphia over 200 years ago. Furthermore, The Constitution does not end on a finite resolution: “if we are home / it is by accident.” Foley would agree that the Founding Fathers were wise to leave the door to amendment open, knowing that theirs was not a perfect ending and that contexts and attitudes evolve every second.

* * *

Much like Foley, Che’s speaker does not end with a perfect resolution. She acknowledges the existence of the light at the end of the tunnel: “I too can change… I can crown myself / with my own life.” In this sense, perhaps a better objective correlative for both Cathy Linh Che and Brian Foley might be the Arab Spring: a much messier, violent, and emotional turbulence. The initial victory of emotional logic over rational progression towards a full solution is common to the people who drove the Arab Spring as well as Che and Foley. Both authors opened their books with a set perception and concept of astronomy that developed throughout the course of the books and became a source of light. The astronomy itself never changed: only their understanding and application of it. As Foley explains in an interview with Wendy Xu, “A constellation’s a man-made illusion of connection. It’s up to us to make them appear. Every stars’ its own island… They’re still beautiful and unfamiliar each night if you want them to be… We make a shape and feel better.” This same insight applies to how the books open with a certain frustration with the time it takes to change: Che writes, “I swore to breaking patterns-- // Yet, they continued / to echo through / the dark chamber--.” Likewise, Foley writes, “How much a stir / can slow understanding. // As soon as we finish / we want to be // understood again.” But, as their respective explorations of the heavens unfold, new insights are gained. Where can Che and Foley find solace and move further towards a more durable resolution? Perhaps the answer lies in the cosmos.

Jimmy Sbordone is a freshman at Boston University, majoring in International Relations and aspiring to a dual-degree with Communications Studies. His passion is for cross-cultural dialogue through finding the East in the West and vice-versa. He was born, raised, and still lives just outside of Boston, in the small city of Newton, MA.