by Jordan Karnyski
Cathy Linh Che, Split (Alice James Books, 2014)
Cathy Linh Che utilizes her book Split as a vessel to store her childhood memories – from stories about Vietnam to interactions with her family – for both safe-keeping and examination. However, these events are not recalled with the nostalgia one might expect; rather, Che strips away the expected sentiment, her poems containing nothing more but factual evidence about her past. In recalling her childhood in such a direct, straightforward way, where descriptions take precedence over internal emotions and thoughts, Che emotionally separates herself from the events she has experienced to objectively look at them. This detachment ultimately allows her to accept her past as a fact of life that shaped who she is today, which suggests that Che places great significance on memories and feels the need to keep them externally protected to prevent constantly changing emotion from corrupting or changing their importance.
In an interview with Rigoberto González, Che states that she turned to poetry in her “need to name experience, to address silences.” In reading Split, these experiences and silences reveal themselves as parts of an overall traumatic childhood of rape, war aftermath, and cultural identity challenges. Instead of addressing these moments in her life through an emotional lens, Che removes herself from her past and chooses to objectively review it. She refuses to rely on conventional poetic devices to relay her stories. Rather, she favors blatantly stating, “His tongue kept moving and I didn’t understand. / I punched and punched him,” to talk about rape in the poem “In what ways does the room map out violence?” She does not eliminate the presence of emotion during the rape – the feeling of helplessness in “my heart compressed / into a black hole” is evident as “compressed” connotes suffocation and being stuck. However, she does not choose to make this feeling the overall concern of the poem, it is merely a line that reinforces the tragedy of rape among a recollection of various ordinary encounters with her cousin, suggesting she has accepted this as equally as she has accepted other events. This emotional estrangement recurs throughout Split, as in “Self Portrait in Summer I,” where Che plainly states, “My swimsuit was a hand-me-down // with patchwork flowers,” when recalling childhood summers with her family, vaguely implying a sense of security and ease but ultimately focusing on the description of the summer itself.
The emotional absence in telling of various events from her past indicates that Che values each memory equally, and that each of these memories is so imperative to her identity that she must solidify them as factual recollections rather than sentimental remembrances. A few poems, including “Home Videos,” touch the edge of the emotional barrier Che created, where phrases such as “In each barrel is a vacuum that can suck you in, spin you round, snap your bones” connote pain and desperation. However, the second person point of view detaches Che from her memories, reinforcing the fact that she does not want to focus on her internal thoughts. To solely focus on feeling would be to focus on a momentarily biased point in time – an arbitrary aspect of the big picture. Alternatively, Che finds it more important to concentrate on the event itself, which ultimately influenced her identity. In the poem “Camera,” Che reflects on a bonding moment with her father as he teaches her “the simple physics” of how a camera works. In lieu of evoking the emotion in this bonding, Che reveals that this instance allowed her to connect with her father’s past as she can see “the tint of photographs // of my father in youth.” Sentiments towards an event can change over time as one assesses and reassesses the memory; Che’s focus on the actions themselves eliminates the chance of altering the memory, strengthening her ability to evaluate how they impacted her life.
In possessing this ability to objectively review her life, Che is able to recognize who she is based on what she has experienced and accept the person she has become. In the last poem of the book, “Gardenia,” Che acknowledges her self-acceptance as she declares to her audience: “I can crown myself / with my own life.” In concluding with this revelation, Che relays that although her childhood was traumatic, it is the reason she became who she is. By accepting this, she accepts her past and therefore comes to peace with its pain, enabling her to put its memory to rest in Split and move on to focusing on her present and future lives.
Jordan Karnyski's work can be currently found in The Voice and The East Aurora Advertiser. She currently lives in Boston, where she is studying Biochemistry and Molecular Biology at Boston University, but calls Buffalo, New York, home.