Thursday, June 27, 2013

Review: Contents of a Mermaid’s Purse, by Phoebe Tsang

Sensuality and fairy tales abound in this 2009 debut poetry collection by Hong Kong-born, Canadian-based violinist Phoebe Tsang. There is a rich (some might say overtired) tradition in our literature of firing the tropes of classic fairy tales through the lens of contemporary living; but Tsang breathes new life into the genre by focusing her verse on an oft-overlooked aspect of those traditional yarns for kids: the erotic.

Indeed, in poem after poem, Tsang peels back our expectations of what can be conveyed through a traditional image for kids—a mermaid, a black cat, a pig with an apple in its mouth—to reveal a visceral world of lust, desire and even violence underneath. Take, for example, her poem “With Cherries for Eyes.” Even the most prudish schoolmarm would notice the steamy flush that accompanies the following lines:

My suckling piglet, my prize.
You have come here through fire, red and well-oiled.

You lie there, legs sprawled wide as a treat—a sweetmeat—
with your glazed maraschino-eyes.

And the telltale apple between your lips
as if yours was a death by choking—burning—unsatisfied—

Or take the piece “Golden Goose Pie”. Here the bodily desires go airbourne, climbing the proverbial beanstalk toward some elusive crescendo, a passionate peak. Tsang writes: “You carry me on your back like Hercules/ and I wonder: Is there a giant in you/who eats girls for breakfast?” Her climatic stanza begins, “If it’s true we are/ what we eat, I have swallowed/ a sapling whole and now/ must rise each day entwined/ in tendrils …”

These preoccupations culminate in what I felt was the best and most explosive poem in the book, “His Mistress the Witch.” Lured in like Hansel and Gretel, we cannot escape the immediate eroticism of the poem’s opening salvo, “She tastes like gingerbread—/ fresh from the oven/after the icing’s licked off—”? The candied carnality continues with lines like:

When your tongue finally
reached her nectar
all you could do was lap faster
greedy as a kitten
for the sweet cream
liquid sugar ebbing    

But what really brought me home, so to speak, in this small masterpiece was the linguistic volleys that Tsang deploys. Gently jarring rhymes—often enacted mid-line—occur throughout the poem (“And how could you forget the thirsty/ miles alone in the desert before/ the woods were grown”); and an understated use of alliteration and assonance provide the piece with much of its propulsion. Yet what made me want to read “His Mistress the Witch” over and over (and over, and over) again was its searing climax, which seems to coalesce all of Tsang’s preoccupations into one concentrated thatch of verse:

… her nutmeg and cinnamon skin,
and as the glucose high
kicked in, it seemed
all of life’s questions
had simmered
to one longing distilled:

what would you give
to sleep with a witch—
inside a witch’s bed,
under a witch’s candied canopy
(that melts peppermint relief
onto your raw red face),
while heat rises
from the oven, where
your own children are being fed
like kindling, daily bread
to keep your home fires burning.

If the hornier side of fairy tales is not your thing, then Contents of a Mermaid’s Purse offers other delights. Tsang has a real knack for verbal illustration—she describes a medicine cabinet as “flat-chested”; she describes an orchestra as “attentive as wait staff/ at an upscale restaurant”—and there is, not surprisingly for a professional violinist, a certain musicality to much of her writing. This little book is definitely worth picking up.    

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