Erin Noehre reviews Dorothy Chan's Attack of the Fifty-Foot Centerfold
Dorothy Chan’s new book, Revenge of the Asian Woman, comes out on March 27th. To celebrate the former HFR Poetry Editor’s second full-length collection, Associate Poetry Editor Erin Noehre reviews Attack of the Fifty-Foot Centerfold, Chan’s debut book of poetry. You can order Attack of the Fifty-Foot Centerfold from Spork Press and can preorder Revenge of the Asian Woman from Diode Editions.
In her striking debut collection Attack of the Fifty-Foot Centerfold, Dorothy Chan showcases an ability to seamlessly negotiate the cloying conventions of femininity and a sardonic questioning of those same ideals with agility and depth. The titular “Centerfold” looms over the reader as Chan explores the rich material of food, heritage, displacement, familial roles, and hunger. The reader becomes absorbed by the always hungry, always whip-smart voice behind the poems, as it tends to its wide grouping of subjects and the histories that lives within them. It’s in this voice that Chan asks us to consistently bother the status-quo while simultaneously reckoning with how we were indoctrinated with it in the first place.
In the first section, the poem “Ode to Sexpots and My Mother’s Red Stockings” captures Chan’s ability to fly across subjects like femininity, hunger, desire, and familial histories. The poem orbits a pair of red stockings given to her by her mother, which blend together generations of female hunger, doubling it with Chan’s own. The poem opens,
All my mother ever wanted as a little girl was a pair
of red stockings, her childish version of elegance,
the way scarlet would pop against her clothes,
and I think about this when she sends me a package
of fishnets, because I like things a little sexpot,
a little oh honey, it’s not what I did, but what
I can do to you tonight, and how my mother wanted red
so bad it gave her a fever.
Chan’s language poses female desire as a driving source of power. It’s a power that grows and builds throughout the collection until there is no question that the femme figure in these poems is here to consume, and you would do best to submit. Chan challenges her audience, (a world dominated by hetero-patriarchal ideals) to experience the undaunted pleasure of a femme body reclaiming both sexuality and hunger, leaving the reader covered in an awe-struck chill. Chan crafts a world that pays homage to the beauty of this aggressive femme, whatever she may be stomping through.
The second section leads us into a skillfully crafted quadruple crown of sonnets. Chan’s sonnets are impressive and playful as she opens up the raw subjects of identity, place, and family. By using this condensed form, she creates decisive vignettes often depicting moments of displacement within generations of her family. The quick-witted voice observes how many ways life has failed to provide an exact home for everyone closest to her. Instead we follow as the people depicted in her poems find small pockets of home within food, Chinatown locations, TV shows, and more. The section ends with “XXVII. On Father’s Day” and its heavy final line: “This is my Chinatown, technicolor and gone.”
This loss of home is entangled with Chan’s appreciation of its beauty and rarity. Then, just as the reader is softened by this moment of memory and ache, the final section emerges with the poem “Attack of the Fifty-Foot Centerfold with the Killer Legs” to topple you over:
Attack of the Centerfold in technicolor
and again in 3D, my long legs challenging you
boulevard by boulevard, smashing everything,
then eating a doughnut shop,
guzzling it all down with carrot juice,
then tequila muddled with blackberries,
because this is LA, and women will have it all
In one swoop Chan has swallowed every piece of history and echo of pain, and set loose her Centerfold. The spotlight clicks on and the reader can see the grandiosity and inescapability of this grotesque, glamorous femme. Now, we can proclaim as deeply as Chan has: it is she who rules all. The technicolor of the past has turned watery and elusive but within a few lines Chan has brought it back to life in the form of an all-too-familiar body standing over us. 50-foot and roiling, unconquered and insatiable, hungrier than ever, our Centerfold is ready to do her worst.
Erin Noehre is a Midwestern-born poet currently living and writing in Tempe, Arizona where she is an MFA candidate at Arizona State University and an Associate Editor at Hayden’s Ferry Review. She is the recipient of an Interdisciplinary Enrichment Fellowship from the Graduate College at Arizona State University as well as the Dr. Russell Brock Memorial Scholarship for Non-Technical Writing. Her work has been featured or is forthcoming from The Poetry Spot in AZCentral, Northern Lights (2016 award for best poetry), and Sonora Review.