In her new chapbook, Bodies of Separation, Chim Sher Ting examines the connecting threads and thread snips that tie and break identity. In this collection from Cathexis Northwest Press, Ting crafts poems that play with her Singaporean-Chinese heritage, culture, and language. By drawing upon the images and phrases of her youth and how they have been challenged by various factors, Ting provides a deep and poetic examination of how language shapes isolation, relationships, and personhood.
Throughout the chapbook, Ting includes many Chinese characters in her verses. At the start of the book, Ting provides some translations, such as in “Hunger” which examines “饭 and 烦”, two characters pronounced “fàn” and “fán,” respectively. Ting notes how many words in her native language can have different pronunciations and mean different things, such as when she notes, “How 饭 / was the ivory harvest from / fields of salt and rain, / ploughed to fruition through / thunderclouds and a wrist of light. / How 烦 was the keening of a storm, / the frustration of a sky at the weight of its libations.”
At other points in the collection, Ting leaves the characters untranslated and instead lets them exist in their form. While some readers may look to translate these to understand the meaning of some of the lines, (such as in the poem “They Told Me A Dragon Was A Phoenix That Never Rose From Ashes” where she writes, “In Chinese, there is a saying / 泼出去的水，不可能拿回来.”) in some, Ting asks the reader to take in the strokes and shape of the characters to let them be their own entity. For example, in “How Every Bird Has Clipped Its Ancestry and Made Itself Into Something Lovable,” she writes, “Since young, I had liked writing 飞 as 飛, believing that 飛 was a rising phoenix till it had its wings clipped that made it a singular boring entity 飞.”
It’s also in her exploration of language that Ting begins to examine subjects like racism, isolation, and conflict. A few of the poems involve Ting being asked to use her language by well-meaning, but woefully misguided individuals, such as in “The Things We Call Beautiful,” where she writes,
“When I was in sixth grade, my teacher told me
to transliterate my name into Chinese characters.
She tells me Chinese is a beautiful Orient language,
and how lucky I am to be Chinese.
So I wrote: 弓升三尺 七工内巨
Bow rises three feet
Seven labours inside giants.
It means nothing to me.”
Other pieces look at how people address these languages by refusing to learn or understand them, and how this refusal incites ignorance and negativity. In “一 (n.):”, Ting writes, “When I was 10, my teacher told me to / stop writing my name in alien letters / no one could understand. I didn’t tell him / I once looked through / each character and saw the river home…” and When I was 8 in a class / of white faces, / I spoke in hushed tones to sand / down the mountains of phonemes. / I expunged allophones to become /what was expected of me. / Before 慧田 became Winnie and / 丽英 became Lily, / There was night, and a body that sought / white and christened it / A luminous flux.”
Because Ting plays so much with language, it also affords her the chance to play with imagery throughout. Cords and threads are recurring images throughout the collection, each being used in different forms and tones like “fàn” and “fán.” For example, telephone cords appear in “They Told Me A Dragon Was A Phoenix That Never Rose From Ashes” and “Wound”, with Ting writing “…thinking about telephone lines / and how some cords unravel / more quickly than others,…” in the former and “Somewhere, a cord unravels / like a foreign tongue…” in the latter, playing with an image that at both times illustrates connection and separation. Umbilical cords, a notable symbol of connection to our birth and home that provides life before being severed, also are played with. In “一 (n.):”, Ting writes separate verses like “I came to learn that our names were all expanse,/ 2718 miles and the length of an umbilical cord…” and “When I was 15, I bleached the womb / that had no memory of me…” before revisiting the image in “Ah Ma” where she writes, “watching your only grandchild / drift cordless from the motherland.
Birth also comes back through Ting’s recurring usage of water as an image throughout the collection. While many poems include the image of mudskippers, Ting also plays with how water gives life but can also take away. When describing the victim of a drowning in “Autopsy,” Ting writes, “When water leaves, it always finds first / the silent cavity of the lungs./ Did you know a person lasts 3 minutes underwater,/ in his utopia of silence,/ before he finally drowns?” She continues this in “Water Dialectics,” writing “And I’ve always wondered how could we / crave the ocean this much? / When all around us is water,/ When all around us, we’ve been / sinking like a stone.”
Bodies of Separation is a chapbook of layers and depths, from the language Ting chooses for each verse to the way each image is transcribed. It’s a collection that asks for examination in how we view the identities of those around us and the identity we ascribe to ourselves. It’s a work of incredible complexity in its brevity, and one that will remain in flux as long as we continue to develop how we read and speak.
Alex Carrigan (he/him; @carriganak) is an editor, poet, and critic from Virginia. His debut poetry chapbook, May All Our Pain Be Champagne: A Collection of Real Housewives Twitter Poetry (Alien Buddha Press, 2022), was longlisted for Perennial Press’s 2022 Chapbook Awards. He has had fiction, poetry, and literary reviews published in Quail Bell Magazine, Lambda Literary Review, Barrelhouse, Sage Cigarettes (Best of the Net Nominee, 2023), ‘Stories About Penises’ (Guts Publishing, 2019), and more.