canadian ~ twenty-first century literature since 1999

Maples and the Stream: a narrative poem
by Lien Chao
TSAR publications, 1999

Reviewed by Joanna M. Weston

‘this is a dream and also a reality’ is the statement made before the preface. And this sums up the book: there is a dream-like quality to the free verse which moves between the real world of rats, janitors, math competitions and emigration, to the world in which Chao sees ‘one hundred colours/ glistening/ in the artist’s single/ leaf’.

Chao was inspired to write the story of her life as a poem by a painting by Peng Ma, of the same title. The blazing red of Canada’s maples is a theme running through the poem, a touch of colour that stands out against Chao’s life in China of grey misery. She uses the colour with irony in referring to the ‘red dragons’; with frustration as she writes of Mao Ze Dong’s Little Red Book; by inference in ‘the sweet sap from the maple’.

Chao asks the age-old question ‘Who am I?’ and finds answers at various times and levels. She asks the painter ‘What do you see first -/ colour, shape, or line?’ She is told ‘Your father is a bourgeois intellectual,/ the colour of that class is g-g-grey.’ She knows that ‘Like all of you/ born in the Five Red Categories/ I was born in New China’. She asks ‘Am I a railway steward/ like everyone else?/ Why am I singled out,/ ... an unwanted person?’ She was punished for her heredity but breaks through the cage in which she had been put. Finally, she says, ‘Who am I?’/ I cannot answer/ such a profound question’.

The dream-quality of the narrative is enhanced by the frequent use of gerunds, giving a singing character to the lines. Occasionally Chao piles images one on another, as ‘passengers/ crowded/ like knotted pines/ human limbs entwined/ no water/ no food/ couldn’t move/ couldn’t sleep/ sweat/ stench of bodies/ in the moving car’ and the story becomes immediate and present to the reader. It moves into nightmare with precision, wakes the reader, and then resolves into that property of dream in which one is observer and not participant.

The Chinese version of the poem, which runs concurrently with the English, gives an added dimension of reality to the story - Chao is truly a Chinese-Canadian and that duality is honored here.

This is not a placid story: it is one that shifts from idyllic childhood to painfilled, agonizing youth where dreams such as higher education and free artistic impression were forbidden and ground down; where a brief marriage ended in social ostracization and humiliation; on to the realization of the dream of university education in Canada. Even the realization is understood to have pain within it - Chao is a realist, perhaps as the result of what she has experienced, but we can only be thankful that she can still dream, and put the dreams on paper.

JOANNA M. WESTON: born in England; married to an accountant, Robert; 3 sons, one daughter-in-law, 3 grandchildren, two cats; has a green thumb and an enlarging garden. M.A. from the University of British Columbia; appears in several anthologies; published in Canada, U.S.A., U.K. etc. for the past 15 years in magazines such as CANADIAN WOMAN STUDIES, CHIRON REVIEW, DANDELION, ENDLESS MOUNTAIN REVIEW, SPIN, WRITER’S OWN MAGAZINE, GREEN’S MAGAZINE, etc.; reviews poetry. chapbooks: ONE OF THESE LITTLE ONES, 1987; CUERNAVACA DIARY, 1990; SEASONS, 1993; ALL SEASONS, 1996 (2nd edition 1997).







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