Myna Wallin on Ann Shin’s The Family China

The Family China, Ann Shin. Brick Books, 2013.
Reviewed by Myna Wallin

On the cover of Ann Shin’s second collection of poetry, The Family China, a photograph shows the female head of a porcelain figurine being decapitated by the large swing of a hammer in mid-blow. This cleverly arresting image foreshadows what’s to come: fragility will be tested, home life will be displaced, relationships will disintegrate and heads will surely roll.

Shin’s family saga in five suites covers a lot of territory in its seventy-seven pages. The book has an expansive wingspan, soaring to dazzling heights. As readers we are swept along from childhood to old age, from the idyll of cherry and apple trees and a farmhouse so welcoming “infinity bloomed as wind lifted the curtains,” to sterile rows of “beige houses” where progress is suspect, and even frightening—a kind of “eugenic success” (3). Just in case the reader suspects s/he is in for a smooth flight, there is more than a hint of darkness in store:

Fingers flutter over the barbed-wire fence

where he fell. Black stitches on cold white skin. (3)

Shin’s speaker occasionally balances the dark with self-aware humour, even commenting on her own propensity to nostalgic sentiments at the end of suite one, “Forgotten Fields:”

All this

pathos and pastoral imagery ain’t

getting me nowhere. (15)

Plenty of verbal flair is on display in these poems, along with wordplay and word invention. In the suite “Loveshorn,” she uses “lovelorn” and “love of the shorn.” In “The Speed of Now,” where new hope glistens promisingly, the speaker suggests, like an author commenting on her work with her whole writing team:

Let’s bluesky it, talk plot shifts,

pen entirely different endings,

who says we’re locked into anything. (45)

At the end of “Loveshorn” the speaker’s mom “sleeps as moths flutter from her lips” (58).

The most affecting poetic device is Shin’s use of parenthetical asides found in the margins, usually referencing one word per page. What is especially inventive is the choice of word; for example, “slapdaggling” is not footnoted but “yes” is given further explication. It’s the smallest and most prosaic of words that are unpacked for us with exquisite tenderness: the meaning of “tuck” or “fork” or “human.” She presents us with micro-vignettes that inform the story, semantic signposts specific to the speaker growing up in a particular family in a particular time. Stories of mom or dad or yaiyai frequently appear in these notes. “Hands,” for example, is defined thusly: “your father greets me with his big hand fanned out, deep grooves, orange calluses at the base of each finger/when he hugs me I am solid, entitled to my place on earth”(32). These plainspoken nuggets of clarity add an additional perspective to her family relationships. The book’s title appears in one of these asides, a poignant and funny story of breaking “the family china” at her wedding.

The long gestation period between The Last Thing Standing, Shin’s first collection, and this family saga has produced a beautifully written and impressively layered work, palpably rich in emotion and displaying remarkable technical skill. Through the joys of childhood and motherhood to the keenly felt loss of loved ones, Shin is note-perfect. Whatever losses the speaker experiences, hope remains a constant: “now is not too late at all,/ just heavier, enriched with grace” (64).

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Reviewed by Toronto writer and editor, Myna Wallin, author of A Thousand Profane Pieces (poetry, Tightrope Books, 2006) and Confessions of a Reluctant Cougar (novel, Tightrope Books, 2010). She is at work on her next collection of poetry, tentatively titled, “Death, Wildlife and Taxes.”

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