invocation : an essay
By Jennifer S. Cheng
Reviewed by Marcus Banks
New Michigan Press, January 2011
perfect bound, 56 pp., $9
Jennifer S. Cheng’s invocation: an essay is a piercing but puzzling meditation on the limitations of writing as a means of self-assertion. Cheng never names her protagonist, but numerous clues (family portraits, references to her biographical history) indicate that she is writing about herself. Cheng is unconfident when speaking—”I can never predict how my voice will sound: smooth, abrupt, flat, brittle, lingering” (pg. 7)—and seemingly on the cusp of going mute. But her written words reveal a mind alive.
Cheng holds an MFA from the non-fiction writing program at the University of Iowa and is currently a Fulbright fellow in Hong Kong. She maintains a wonderfully eclectic blog at http://moon-cake2.tumblr.com/. While her blogging talents reveal comfort with Web communication, invocation demonstrates the unique properties of print. It was a finalist in the DIAGRAM/New Michigan Press 2010 chapbook contest, and as such is small enough to fit in your pocket. Cheng’s chapbook is a collage of diagrams, photos, interior monologues, and other bursts of text that are arranged at varying positions on different pages. This purposeful jumble would not convey as much angst on an e-reader (but this may change as technology and reading habits evolve.) As the work progresses we see an increasing number of blank pages, which are symbolic of Cheng’s struggle to continue speaking. The textual passages grow more bleak as invocation proceeds, as though Cheng recognizes that writing alone cannot save her. She must find her spoken voice, but maybe this is not possible. Thus her invocation is for the opportunity to become her complete self.
This is moving, even tragic. But it is also confusing, because the reader has no clear idea what brought Cheng to this pass. Is her challenge with finding her voice a function of discrimination against women or of her family background? Both of these are alluded to but not developed; “Ghostly antics: Before women were unseen, they were unheard. Children who are repeatedly forgotten by those around them soon begin to slip” (pg. 15). Or is the struggle something intrinsic to her? “There are those who are born mute and those who develop levels of silence later in life” (pg. 9). Or is it a cosmic curse? “And somewhere just outside, on the doorstep of my house, even the saints do not wait; they lurk with lips sewn shut” (pg. 33).
Cheng’s struggles are likely a combination of all of this; there is so much here. Inadvertently, then, her work reveals the limits of the chapbook form. She is trying to pack too much into a vessel that cannot contain it. There are so many unclosed loops that the reader—even a reader accustomed to avant garde, unsettling work—is likely to come away frustrated. That said, Cheng’s writing and presentation is sharp, original and compelling. She now needs to find a larger stage.
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Marcus Banks is the director of library and educational technology services at Samuel Merritt University. Previous employers include the UCSF Library, NYU Medical Center Library, and the National Library of Medicine. His writing has appeared in professional journals, the San Francisco Chronicle, and the Gotham Gazette. He blogs at http://mbanks.typepad.com.
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