An Engagement with Cathy Linh Che's Split

by Connor Pittfield

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

As Cathy Linh Che’s debut collection suggests, often times confronting one’s troubled past is the only way to overcome it. Crafted in form paralleling memories, Split features simplistic poems comprised of blunt diction, that when examined as a whole become meaningful. Utilizing the constructs of time and memory to examine the history of both the speaker and her Vietnamese immigrant parents, Che chronicles the speaker’s recovery from trauma. As all are victims of circumstances out of their control, comparing herself to her parents and their past inspires the speaker, allowing her to emotionally survive the trauma of childhood molestation. 

While comparing her own past, the speaker examines that of her parents in poems which tell of their culture and journey in and out of Vietnam. These pieces include historical events and family traditions and mark points of emotional growth for the speaker. She is reassured by the uncertain nature of her parent’s past, as it is similar to her own, and is inspired by how they endured hardship, particularly the Vietnam War. In “Bloodlines” the speaker performs natural medicine on her mother, and discovers stories about her troubled past:

I pour
eucalyptus oil

into the crease
of her spine.

With a quarter,
I scrape,

press down,
bruise her skin

pink, then red,
then purple.

Good, she says
That’s the poison drawn out.

When I dig in,
he bloodlines emerge,

ribs from a spine,
each line a bone,

each bone
a story.

I excavate
a skeleton:

war, seizure,
my older sister dead,

buried in the motherland-
somewhere in Vietnam,

a broken seed, still
waiting to grow.

Che’s inclusion of traditions such as a home remedy for back pain reinforces the idea that the speaker draws confidence from her heritage. She is encouraged by the resilience the Vietnamese people have displayed throughout their history of hardship. Even more so, the speaker admires her mother’s ability to revisit her troubled past, and realizes it is what helps her survive. The lines “Good, she says / That’s the poison drawn out” reveal that her mother experiences healing from the process of remembering: while the “poison” is literally the pain in her back, it is metaphorically the pain which imbues her history and is “drawn out” upon confronting the stories of her past. Witnessing this process brings the speaker closer to her mother, and encourages her to look back on her own past. Identifying with her this way gives the speaker a companion who helps guide her toward recovery; she learns from the reflections and is inspired to emulate her mother’s openness with the past in herself. The openness her mother displays is contrasted by the way her father remembers hardship; he becomes angry, closed off, and chooses not to reflect: “My father was an angry red brick.” Like a brick, her father is silent and emotionless, he internalizes the pain and never addresses it. Living through the tension of her parents’ contrasting ideologies, the speaker learns it is best to confront her past as her mother does, and in doing so, begins to understand and accept it.

Through learning to revisit her past, Che’s speaker becomes obsessed with the idea of time passing and the concept of memory: “If memory / were a suitcase, mine/is overstuffed.” These abstract phenomena provide a safe place for the speaker to revisit her past, which she does in poems told predominantly in remembrance of events from her perspective. In the first poem, "[Doc, there was a hand]," she remembers being molested by her cousin:

Freud’s On Dreams. A child’s
wish fulfillments, my cousin’s
hostile need. He returns


like a wild obsession.
I unwind like a skein
in my dreams

The present tense verbs indicate that the speaker is not only looking back, but relating this experience to who she is today. This style of recollection continues throughout the book, revealing that understanding the past and its relation to the present are essential to the speaker’s survival; she is consoled by the passing of time as it represents distance from the trauma of her childhood. Che’s choice to include Freud (who was fascinated with memories and the process of growing) further emphasizes the speaker’s belief in the therapeutic nature of remembering. As “The German word for dream is traume” demonstrates, the action of recalling, interpreting, and desensitizing her memories facilitates the speaker’s ability to grow:

I was seven.
The training wheels
were coming off.

Between the couch
and wall, the ceiling was white
with popcorn bits. The boys stood

and watched. I lay there,
my eyes open like a doll’s
Someone said, Let me try.

He pulled down his pants
and rode on top,
then abruptly stopped.

This poem tells of the traumatic event which has dominated the speaker’s life, but without emotion. The simplistic nature of the words and matter of fact tone cause the piece to be read as an objective analysis rather than a story. The lack of emotion, feeling, and reaction creates a powerful juxtaposition which provides the speaker the comfort necessary to confront her past. She is able to relive and attempt to understand the moments without feeling the same pain.  

As Che’s collection closes, the speaker accepts her past, and in doing so, is able to find her place within the history of the Vietnamese people. Through interpreting the stories of her parents and her own memories, it becomes clear that her heritage is one marked by adversity and pain, and that she is the next generation in the sequence. Understanding this eliminates the feeling of isolation the speaker has experienced and empowers her: she is proud to be Vietnamese and accepts the hardships as part of who she is. In order to grow and recover from trauma as the speaker has, it is necessary to truly know oneself and learn of one’s history through revisiting painful memories, which she explains: “The caucus of past, / present, and future, / convening.”

Connor Pittfield is a first-year student in the Questrom School of Business at Boston University. He is new to writing poetry. In his free time he enjoys attending poetry readings and documenting his experiences in one-page “from the field” reports.