Chapbook Review: Chinatown Sonnets by Dorothy Chan
Chosen by Douglas Kearney as the winner of New Delta Review’s 6th annual chapbook contest, Dorothy Chan’s Chinatown Sonnets takes us on a whirlwind tour of Chinatowns from Philadelphia to Manhattan to Roman Polanski’s 1974 film Chinatown. On selecting Chan’s collection, Kearney claims his “senses blissed on a blitz of color and clamor, flavor and texture, all that pungent love…”
And it’s true: Chan’s sonnets invoke the distinct sights, sounds, smells, and unforgettable flavors of Chinatown. We are dazzled with the many renditions and manifestations that we encounter as we are effortlessly transported from one major city to another, to Chinatowns real, romanticized, and remembered. But the romanticizing depicted here belongs to that of the mainstream media and their reductive depictions of this ethnic enclave, which Chan seeks to subvert. In the very first line of the opening poem, a line that also reappears later in the collection, Chan writes “This isn’t Chinatown from the movies,” setting up the tone for the rest of the chapbook.
Reading further into the collection, we find that Hollywood’s whitewashed caricature is splintered, turned loose, turned on its head so that we get a more authentic and gritty glimpse of the Chinatowns of the speaker’s reality, which is closer to the truth than Hollywood film.
From there, we enter into Chinatowns neon-lit by Chan’s own experiences: it is a world of haggling at the market, paying ancestral respect with a stack of Florida’s Best oranges, picking out fake Tiffany or fake Louis. And, always, there is food: shrimp crackers, bubble tea, frog legs, fish heads and curried fish balls, “American” egg waffles, chicken feet, and lychee gelatin alongside coke-floats, mashed potatoes, TV dinners, Campbell’s soup, and the speaker’s first burger (how she “opened America on a bun”).
The wide-ranging mix of food in Chinatown Sonnets that the speaker views or consumes shows us how cultures can collide—how one culture’s cuisine can be influenced, appropriated, or adopted by another and how the desire for “authentic” food comes down to one’s own experiences.
And Chan describes food miraculously well: watching the dangling ducks from the windows: / the pig-heads hanging and coffee-brown bags / sucking duck fat the way club girls chug drinks.
In doing so, she offers us a tender glimpse of family through all of the neon and glut and further invites us into the complex, layered world of Chinatowns where food is used to honor customs, to look at, to admire and desire, consume and commune: I can’t even hear my grandfather speak. / He hands me a crab claw cut-open, / showing love. In the same poem, Chan later writes: Grandfather points to the spring rolls, tells / me to eat more. I know I’m his American potato.
This collection offers us many colorful details dished out by an observer with a powerful eye, unapologetic voice, and a smart attention to musicality. The form and prosody propel the reader forward, keeping them furiously enthralled. Chan’s collection succeeds, not despite the form her poems arrive in, but because of the pleasure that she derives from making the sonnet form her own—Chan has no fear of breaking and tweaking and, overall, embracing the sonnet’s necessary power to gut unwanted excess.
This is a fast-paced collection brimming with textures and flavors that will envelop you, draw you in like your grandmother extending a plate of warm food that you can’t turn away from. I myself finished the chapbook in one sitting during my first go-around. The next day, I came back for more, my eyes ready to devour, fearing I’d missed something during my initial read.
Chan ends the collection with this stunner of a line: “This is my Chinatown, technicolor and gone” and we can’t help but feel sad with her.
Chinatown Sonnets is published by New Delta Review.
Dorothy Chan is the author of Chinatown Sonnets, which was selected by Douglas Kearney as the winner of New Delta Review’s 6th Annual Chapbook Contest. She was a 2014 finalist for the Ruth Lilly and Dorothy Sargent Rosenberg Poetry Fellowship and a 2017 finalist for the Lena-Miles Wever Todd Prize for Poetry from Pleiades Press. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in Blackbird, Plume, The Journal, Spillway, Little Patuxent Review, The McNeese Review, and Salt Hall Journal. She is the Assistant Editor of The Southeast Review. Visit her website at dorothypoetry.com.
Reviewed by Susan Nguyen, Poetry Editor, Hayden’s Ferry Review
Susan Nguyen hails from Virginia but currently lives in the desert where she is at work on her MFA in poetry at Arizona State University.