If Grace Chia’s first collection Womango (1998) is, as its poet’s preface confides, about “the fuel which boils [the poet’s] blood and [her] womanhood,”[1] then what confronts us in Cordelia is a celebration of womanhood “gorgeous / head above water / soaring still” (“Kylie’s Encore”), guided by the acquired wisdom of someone who has travelled far, and finally returned home to herself.

Cordelia is Chia’s second collection of poems, and here she puts womanhood into the text, through what Helene Cixous calls “a passionate and precise interrogation of [woman’s] erotogeneity.”[2] The collection is driven by a dogged determination to deliver female sexuality from the masculine parameters that have historically circumscribed it, and what emerges is a decensored relation of a woman to her sexuality that is brazen, violent and troubling. Such immodesty, as Gwee Li Sui observes in the preface to the volume, is what primarily sets Chia apart from the women poets who came before her. The stubborn daughter of what might be viewed as a “history of writing […] confounded with the history of reason,”[3] Chia’s poetic movement is further underscored by a subversive discourse that speaks in an other language: the language of the mad.

Gwee identifies one of the qualities of the collection’s third section to be a “fight for sanity”[4], which, in this reader’s view, has less to do with wanting to join the ranks of the sane, and more to do with claiming legitimacy for madness. If madness, as Michel Foucault suggests, is traced to the movement of a passion that persists until it breaks and turns against itself, then Chia’s verse is the lunatic’s song. What makes this song “exuberantly immodest”[5], is the relation of madness it sketches to the very possibility of passion, which finds articulation in a delirious language. Cordelia exhausts the potentialities of such a language, offering up to the readers a “poet’s desecrated, / charred, wrecked / heart.” (“Lunacy”)

Aptly named “a nail grows through my palm,” the third section opens with “Lunacy”, where inspiration for poetry is found in the Dionysian cthonic. Assaulted by “hard version of meanings / doggedly constant, ruled by an / iron fist of immutability,” the poetic voice retaliates with “images in multiples,” “irreverent verses, cooked / from a recipe of cravings like / roots that dig inwards, / suckered into suffering.” What the poet wants is for us to “makes space for their / orphaned thoughts bleating / silently,” and to pay heed to the subterranean ideas and images that have no legitimacy in the world of Apollonian (masculine) rationality. In “Lunacy”, the very possibility of passion is grounded in what the rational mind cannot grasp, a motif that appears again in “Zing”. Here, “that part of the body” roused to life, love and sexual pleasure, defies “what is sensible – to be proper, / composed, rational, cold,” highlighting a tension that resurfaces in “Temptations”, where “[t]he Zen of my cerebrum” prays for “rapture, hopelessly.”

Despite first appearances, Dionysian excess and Apollonian rationality do not however exist in binary opposition, but as twinned opposites, resulting in a subjective experience that is both violent and familiar: “warring against my will”, “birch my back with / asps grown from my hair”, waiting for “the succor / of devilled tears.” (“Penitentiary”) In this, Chia’s writing shares a similar creative impulse with the work of the late American confessional poet Anne Sexton, for whom sexuality was one of the most normal parts of life, and who, during her confinement in a mental asylum, discovered poetry to be the language of the mad. Confiding in a friend, Sexton wrote: “I found this girl (very crazy of course) (like me I guess) who talked language.”[6] Like Sexton’s mad girl, Chia’s woman is “feverish in flight […] hovering with / the souls in purgatory, / lost in their way to delirium,” (“Djinn”), talking her way into who she wants to be: madwoman, girl, goddess, warrior, homemaker, predator, daughter, mother, survivor, guardian of cities, lover, poet and myth maker. Her identities traverse the poetic landscape of the collection; she is the lifeblood that pulsates and twists like the River Thames of “Don Lon”, sweeping through the city, having to keep on moving because stopping would mean death in “an ocean of sharks” (“Don Lon”). Most of all, she is empowered by a closeness to her body and to herself, all-consuming enough to cause a titanic upheaval in planetary movement (“Goya under the influence of a 1998 Siraz: Saturn II). Such closeness is what finally enables a generous offering up of her self to the other, evident in the last three poems about child birth and motherhood. Dedicated to her children, these poems bring the collection to a fitting end, challenging the commonly held belief that female sexual desire and maternity exist as mutually exclusive entities. If anything, Chia’s poems subscribe to the belief that a woman’s ability to nurture her child is linked directly to her sex: “the white milked from my red.” (“Daughter”)

While some of the poems in this collection have appeared in separate publications across the globe, including Australia, Serbia and the USA, this is the first time they appear in a single volume, admirably put together in a manner that gives us an insight into the growth of the poetic subject, and to keep us in anticipation of who Grace Chia is yet to be.

[1] Grace Chia, Womango, Singapore: Rank Books, pp. iii

[2] Helene Cixous, “The Laugh of the Medusa”, New French Feminisms An Anthology, eds. Elaine Marks and Isabelle de Courtivron, New York: Schocken Books, 1981. pp.246

[3] Ibid., pp. 249

[4] Gwee Li Sui, “Preface: The Cordelia Complex of Grace Chia”, Singapore: Ethos Books, pp.13.

[5] Ibid., pp. 11

[6] Anne Sexton: A Self-Portrait in Letters, ed. Linda Gray-Sexton and Lois Ames, Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1977, pp. 244-245.

Cordelia. Grace Chia. Singapore: Ethos Books, 2012.

Wernmei Yong Ade is an Assistant Professor with the Division of English at Nanyang Technological University (Singapore), where she lectures in Feminist studies and Contemporary women’s writing.

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