Necromancy Never Pays

The Best American Poetry 2015


When The Best American Poetry 2015 came out, Sherman Alexie, guest editor, wrote an interesting piece about how he selected the poems and why he included one by a poet who was born in Indiana and submitted his poem with the pen name Yi-Fen Chou. It was a big scandal in the poetry world, for a while.

Of course Alexie, a native American himself, also selected plenty of poems written by poets of color and multilingual writers of English, including one by a poet born in Xiamen, China named Chen Chen.

In honor of “A more diverse universe,” I thought I’d talk about Chen Chen’s poem today. It’s entitled “for I will do/undo what was done/undone to me.” I picked this poem out of all the others in the volume because of the way it speaks to the way I always get to feeling about winter, trapped by the uncertainty. In his contributor’s notes to the volume, Chen Chen says that he spent three years in Syracuse, New York and “this is the Syracuse snow poem I could not help writing.”

i pledge allegiance to the already fallen snow
& to the snow now falling. to the old snow & the new.
to foot & paw & tire marks in the snow both young & aging,
the deep & shallow marks left on cold streets, our long

misbegotten manuscripts. i pledge allegiance to the weather
report that promises more snow, plus freezing rain.
though i would minus the pluvial & plus the multitude

of messages pressed muddy into the perfectly
mutable snow, i have faith in the report that goes on to read:
by the end of the week, there will be an increased storm-related
illegibility of the asphalt & concrete & brick. for i pledge

betrayal to the fantasy of ever reading anything
completely. for i will do/undo what was done/undone to me:
to be brought into a patterned world of weathers

& reports. & thus i pledge allegiance to the always
partial, the always translated, the always never
of knowing who’s walking around, what’s being left behind,
the signs, the cries, the breadcrumbs & the blood. the toe-

nails & armpit hair of our trying & failing to speak.
our specks of here to the everywhere. dirty snow of my weary
city, i ask you to tell me a story about your life

& you tell me you’ve left for another country,
but forgot your suitcase. At the airport they told you
not to worry, all your things have already been sent
to your new place by your ninth grade French teacher,

the only nice one. & the weather where your true love is
is governed by principles or persons you can’t name,

imagine. it is that good, or bad.

From the title to the last line, I like the way this poem evokes the uncertainty of living in a place where the weather interferes with your plans and where you long to be somewhere else, maybe “where your true love is.”

I especially like the stanza about how the awful and dirty “specks” in the snow could tell a story, but even the snow has grown tired of “what’s being left behind” and has gone before anyone can match up the “blood” with the “toe/-nails and armpit hair.”

I like the way that always, “by the end of the week, there will be an increasing storm-related/ illegibility of the asphalt & concrete & brick.” That a person must pledge allegiance to never knowing, knowing that the search for signs, marks, messages is a way to keep going on until the “perfectly mutable” snow has disappeared again, for a while.

Perhaps the “I pledge allegiance” in the poem is a way of showing how new the speaker of the poem feels to this place, with its “patterned world of weathers/& reports.” There’s a suggestion that this is no new land, it’s just a place created by the covering on top, almost an illusion of a land that will never be seen.

Often, it seems, it does take someone unfamiliar with a place to describe it completely, to see it as it is and reflect it back at the people so used to seeing it that they hardly ever look anymore. Think of your house as you left it this morning. Would you see it differently if you found out that your mother or your boss was coming home with you this afternoon after work?