Critic, Book World

As a translator of Chinese verse, Marilyn Chin knows how to reach across cultures. And as a poet born in Hong Kong and raised in America, she knows how to convey the demands of that reach. In her second collection, “Rhapsody in Plain Yellow” (2002), Chin writes, “Heaven manifests its duality / My consciousness on earth is twofold.”


Poet and translator Marilyn Chin (Jon Medel)

Her first name is a remnant of that split. On the way to the United States, her father, “obsessed with a bombshell blonde / transliterated ‘Mei Ling’ to ‘Marilyn.’ / And nobody dared question / his initial impulse.”

But Chin has been daring to question that impulse — and many others — for more than 30 years in poems marked by a surprising mixture of wit and pain. She explores the challenges of assimilation, the sting of racism and the roles of women.

In the preface to her upcoming collection, she writes, “From the start of my career I waxed personal and political and have sought to be an activist-subsersive-radical-immigrant-feminist-trans-national-Buddhist-neoclassical-nerd poet who was always on her soapbox with a bag of tricks.” Her work, which displays a range of forms, has been widely anthologized and recognized by the Anisfield-Wolf Book Award, the PEN/Josephine Miles Award, five Pushcart Prizes and other honors. This year, she was elected a chancellor of the Academy of American Poets.

With the advent of fall, her poem “ Autumn Leaves ” feels especially timely:

The dead piled up, thick, fragrant, on the fire escape.

My mother ordered me again, and again, to sweep it clean.

All that blooms must fall. I learned this not from the Dao, but from high school biology.

Oh, the contradictions of having a broom and not a dustpan!

I swept the leaves down, down through the iron grille

and let the dead rain over the Wong family’s patio.

And it was Achilles Wong who completed the task.

We called her:

The-one-who-cleared-away-another-
family’s-
autumn.

She blossomed, tall, benevolent, notwithstanding.

— From “The Phoenix Gone, the Terrace Empty,” by Marilyn Chin (Milkweed Editions, 2009). © 2009 by Marilyn Chin.

Chin will be my guest for the Life of a Poet at Hill Center on Monday, Oct. 1. This series, now in its fourth year, offers a chance to consider a writer’s entire career during an hour-long conversation.

The Life of a Poet is co-sponsored by Hill Center, the Library of Congress, The Washington Post and the Capitol Hill Community Foundation. In addition to talking with Chin about her life and inspiration, I’ll invite her to read passages from her books, including her new collection, “A Portrait of the Self as Nation: New and Selected Poems” (Norton). Copies of her books will be offered for sale in the lobby, where you can talk with Chin and get your books signed.

When: Monday, Oct. 1, at 7 p.m.

Where: Hill Center at the Old Naval Hospital, 921 Pennsylvania Ave. SE (two blocks from the Eastern Market Metro stop on the Blue, Orange and Silver lines).

Cost: Free, but you can register for a seat at hillcenterdc.org.

Ron Charles writes about books for The Washington Post and hosts TotallyHipVideoBookReview.com.