GUTTED by JUSTIN CHINBARBARA JANE REYES Reviews
Gutted by Justin Chin
(Manic D Press, 2006)
Grief is accurate. Grief is not accurate.
Do you want to know the facts or do you want
Justin Chin’s third poetry collection, Gutted, which is dedicated to the memory of Chin’s father, Dr. Chin Jeck Soon, is comprised of poems conveying a son’s exhaustion as he comes to terms with his father’s terminal illness, and his own illness, in which the death process, and the process of grieving are public and participatory. These poems are unadorned, honest, and gritty, and as a result, Chin manages not to manipulate or force the reader to pity for either the loss of the father, or his own looming death.
Formalistically and emotionally, Chin’s poems move between the rigorous and disciplined, the fragmented, and the sprawling and chaotic. He begins with a ghazal, “Tonight again,” in which the end rhyme of each couplet’s second line serves as a refrain or litany, indicating resignation to a cycle of lamentable situations in which the grieving individual is stuck:
I’m slipping down the barrel of this pigpen.
Looks like it’s bareback again tonight.
Under all the sand in the Sahara, all the fossils melting into oil.
How can these bones lay down their arms afield again tonight?
My spectacular failures, my holy spooks, my brilliant bugaboos.
Hold on, little boy, you’re going to bruise like heck again tonight.
There are the individual crises which the speaker has brought upon himself, and then there is the geopolitical; the speaker is subjected to both of these contexts simultaneously, almost indifferent to those things which continue to bring him harm: “Blah blah blah, over and over, again and again, again tonight.” In this way, he is inconsequential. Throughout Gutted, navigating the private and the public, the speaker runs the risk of becoming inconsequential, as in the untitled poem about the one monkey who’s called in sick, one of “a thousand and one / monkeys pounding / away at one thousand / and one iMacs.” It seems so silly, but consider that amid the dull and incessant noise of trendy and cute technology, individuals, barely valued for their work, are dehumanized.
A note on the forms tells us that Chin utilizes a loose variation of the Japanese zuihitsu, “diary entries, lists, quotations, observations, commentaries, fragments,” and this mirrors that emotional range of the son experiencing the father’s terminal illness and the grieving process which is realistically muddled, disordered, and rough. Chin presents us with various fragmented ironies and absurdities, language and concepts his speaker just cannot make sense of while in this prolonged emotionally vulnerable state. In “(Petit Mal),” he writes, “A little evil, a small illness. Why does it sound like a pastry?” And after actually witnessing a petit mal (seizure), “Small is relative. / Illness all.” The L-consonance of this poem underscores the unapt lightness of the word, “petit mal.” Also inappropriate in this time is pharmaceutical language: “Suicidal ideation… Medicine to cure will do this. / Irony? or HMO?” We wonder if it the medicine which causes the suicidal ideation, when we hold such faith that medicine ought to “cure” this. Instead, we find an insert of a Schering Corporation pharmaceutical drug package:
“…may cause patient to develop mood or behavioral problems. These can include irritability (getting easily upset) and depression (feeling low, feeling bad about yourself, or feeling hopeless). … Some patients think about hurting or killing themselves or other people and some have killed (suicide) or hurt themselves or others.”
This, placed at the bottom of a page which begins, “W.W.J.K. // Who Would Jesus Kill?” And with this combination, Chin has provided us with something strange and pointed to think about.
In “Incontinence,” Chin presents us with the father, whose medications’ side effects include loss of urinary and bowel control. Here, no reassuring platitudes from the son, no attempt to clean up the evidence of soiled clothes and floor can restore a grown man’s dignity, nor a grown-up son’s long gone image of a father who provided safety and ease:
And I just again want to be the one
who fell asleep in the stands with his head
in his dad’s lap at the home team’s first game…
What is admirable here is that Chin does not relent in faithfully describing a real situation that is most awkward and embarrassing, where other writers would perhaps use a metaphor, and where readers would find his words off-putting and gross: “And any dignity that you can hand back / to someone who has just crapped his pants in public…”. But this is the reality of treating terminal illness, in which doctors and family members must weigh symptoms of disease against side effects of medication, in which the family must assume the role of caregivers and decision makers, well beyond what they believe they are capable of knowing and carrying out. In the poem which begins, “clotting, weight, brain fn, responsiveness,” we read the son’s scrawled notes, after meeting with the father’s oncologist, regarding what appears to be aggressive treatment for cancer: “alt. to surgery? necessary? // … how know / not working? How decide to stop.”
When the father’s death comes, the son must settle medical bills, close bank accounts, and order the funereal urn. He must then sift with bare hands through the heap that is his father's ashes, which coat the hands as he scoops the remnants of a man into an Oriental soup tureen, heeding the matter-of-fact, pragmatic instruction from the crematorium: “Use your hands ... you can wash up later.” Again, Chin does not relent from providing a faithful description; among the remains of his father are chips of bone resembling coral, and from skullpieces, the surgical twine which has survived the incineration. How easily can this all blow away, and then the physical evidence of the man is forever lost. The son thinks of the adage, “Ashes to ashes, dust to dust,” which is now literal as he washes the remnants of his own father down a sink drain.
In a very dense, untitled prose piece, he writes of what happens in the wake of the father’s terminal illness, as the family turns outward, necessarily concerning themselves with a very public mourning; this is similar to the opening ghazal, “Tonight, again” in which the emotionally vulnerable individual must simultaneously inhabit heavy private and public spaces. The family ties black ribbons on lampposts in the neighborhood and town; they greet each guest and order enough food for these numerous extended family members who subsequently converge upon the family home and stay as houseguests. They talk story, and the son finds different versions of the father he thought he knew. Many days of this public ritual, and the heaviness begins to lift: “We start giggling and laughing, laughing and giggling, if only because we’ve cried so much, each in private, each in our own bewilderment, that we don’t think we can cry anymore.”
Gutted is very, very funny, and oftentimes, what is funny is also filled with tenderness and compassion, as in “Me and My Helper Monkey,” where, post-wake, the speaker continues to deal with his own illness, and comes to care deeply about the emotional well-being of his lovelorn monkey helper, Steve. Here, the monkey is humanized, as he is valued not simply for performing household chores, contrasting the previous monkeys pounding away at iMacs. In “Me and My Helper Monkey,” the speaker and Steve come to help each other, and to connect as many humans do not, and in this way, neither he nor Steve is inconsequential:
While sorting rice, Steve, My Helper Monkey, and I realize our bond
we realize how truly alone we are in this world. My family
and homeland so far away and I somewhat disconnected from them;
and he, his jungle razed to the ground so the 12th largest
football stadium in the world could be built…
With the repetition of “Steve, My Helper Monkey,” we are reminded of Chin’s opening ghazal; here it seems the speaker has grown from the ghazal, as he now speaks lightly of his own death and its inevitability. He is more concerned about Steve and his grieving. The speaker has come to terms with his father’s death, and now has someone who cares enough to grieve for him.
Chin’s humor is also quite serrated and screwy, and it is as bloody as an elephant gone amok upon human test subjects as observed by glass-encased scientists. And at the same time this humor may be appalling, consider that through humor one can divulge one’s deepest and most hysterical fears:
“My great fear is that I do not know / what happiness actually is… And snakes, of course. // That, snakes and giant hairy killer spiders… Each of the spiders would be wearing a hockey mask / and wielding a chainsaw.” Gutted is effective in communicating to us that if we live every moment fully aware of our mortality, then in every moment, we must be brave enough to risk sounding ridiculous.
The bottom line on Gutted is this: I am relieved to be reading a cohesive poetry collection that is largely unsentimental and simultaneously well worth my emotional investment.
Barbara Jane Reyes is the author of Gravities of Center (Arkipelago, 2003) and Poeta en San Francisco (Tinfish, 2005) which received the James Laughlin Award of the Academy of American Poets. Her author website is http://barbarajanereyes.com/