The History of Anonymity
by Jennifer Chang
University of Georgia Press, $16.95 (paper)
The plaintive, beautifully cadenced poems in Jennifer Chang’s first book range from psalms and essays to endnotes and excerpts from an imagined text. While formally diverse, the collection is unified by an ongoing engagement with the natural world, with Chang often presenting forests, rivers, and vast seaside landscapes as loci for her speakers’ search for self-knowledge and authenticity. The poems frequently conflate the internal with the external, the one with the many (“Each thing I saw: a seed to a self”; “every I // is a we”), a motif Chang establishes in the collection’s long title piece: “voice / is always becoming another voice. / There were nights of evaporation: the ocean made a fog, fixed above, / and yet drifting . . .” This poem, like many in the book, makes much of the interplay between a speaker’s surroundings and her identity, which sometimes proves as nebulous and ethereal as mist itself. As the book progresses, the evocation of the natural world as a medium through which to shape and examine selfhood and poetic voice assumes a variety of forms, often suggesting, like the shoreline at the book’s beginning, that the process of individuation implies not only anchorage, but conflict. In “Sea Psalm,” Chang writes: “I want to call you love, as I want / to call the driftwood house. Daily, / we age into erosion’s remnants, / carving our lines / out of the coast, / and I am learning to forgive / my longing to make strangeness / unstrange.” The speaker questions the possibility of establishing a stable identity in a world that remains always in flux, invoking “driftwood” and “erosion’s remnants” as emblems of this condition, and finding in the tumultuous shore an apt correlative to her personal “longing” and time’s passage. Here and throughout The History of Anonymity, Chang offers thought-provoking and insightful investigations of the self in art and life generally, asserting a memorable, distinctive poetic voice of her own.