Jennifer Tseng’s Not so dear Jenny (Bateau Press, 2017), the winner of the 2016 Boom Chapbook Contest, is born from a 30-year correspondence with her father. In her words, “The italicized phrases and sentences come from my father’s letters, written to me between 1984 and 2007.” And in responding to those words from her father, she carefully illuminates double meaning. (Who hasn’t misinterpreted a written message, finding that, devoid of inflection or facial expressions, the words can be understood in completely different ways?) Even in the title of the collection itself, “Not so” could be interpreted as an instruction – as in, this is not true, think on it again. Or it could be a stinging criticism: “You are not so dear,” a colloquial phrase of affection turned into one of dismissal or contempt.
In an author’s note printed in Poetry Northwest in March 2017, Tseng wrote about the genesis of this collection: “…these poems come from…a collection I made with my Chinese father’s English letters. He wrote them in English so that I could understand them…they are a portrait of an immigrant, the history of a family. A letter to a dead father and to death itself.” These poems are intimate missives on parenting, longing, and heartbreak.
Tseng’s ability to layer meaning shines early on in “Why should we blame others for forgetting me?”:
Like you, I died and became
And in the first poem “But we two can never divorce each other,” we see how Tseng builds her world of words. Pay special attention to how she describes longing:
The longing to marry your father,
Expressed in two languages,
Doubles the feeling.
The ocean between you
Elongates the longing…
Without knowing I was waiting,
I waited and waited.
There was no proposal.
He married someone else.
This is one of the longest poems in the collection. Not only does Tseng play with the idea of the reader experiencing visual length. An ocean of time could pass between letters, between greetings from a father.
Consider another meditation on longing and desire in the poem “I sincerely hope it was not a decision derived from the physiological desire of your body”:
…It was not a decision.
It was not derived.
It was not riven from desire.
Tireless, your letters arrived
With their body of logic.
You de-siring yourself
A little more each time.
Here, we see the word desire deconstructed: “de-sire” – to take away the “sire,” to strip away the masculine component, to dethrone the father figure. It’s a reminder that the father is not physically present – he can only parent through words, and the alienation that could bear shows its teeth.
There are several poems where the father attempts to instruct via letter. Here is one example in “Do NOT try any sleeping pills under any circumstances”:
Strategic use of capital letters.
Tendency to command.
Fondness for warning.
Aversion to affirmation…
Fear of loss of control.
Fear of addiction.
Fear of overdose.
Fear of death…
Most parents want to protect their children, but as children get older and more mature, it becomes harder to parent. The use of litany reflects how the speaker perceives these messages: parents will always worry.
We see another attempt to parent in “We sincerely hope that you’d make the right decision all the time in the future”:
The we weighed on me.
More than the sincerity
Or the hope
Or the conditional…
the we weighed on me
More than the future…
Creating a “united front” to parent is a common one, but given the dynamics of this relationship, it’s not surprising the “we” would haunt the speaker. In a relationship full of longing and unknowns, this is yet another quantity that can’t be specified.
Tseng plays with the past and the future through these poems, bridging the speaker’s memories with the father’s eternal quotes and phrases. Perhaps all letters are really ghosts. They do have a way of outliving us.
Jennifer MacBain-Stephens lives in Midwest and is the author of three full-length poetry collections: Your Best Asset is a White Lace Dress (Yellow Chair Press, 2016), The Messenger is Already Dead (Stalking Horse Press, March 2017), and We’re Going to Need a Higher Fence, tied for first place in the 2017 Lit Fest Book Competition. Her work has been nominated for Best of the Net and the Pushcart Prize. She is also the author of nine chapbooks. Her chapbook She Came Out From Under the Bed (Poems Inspired by the Films of Guillermo del Toro) recently came out from Dancing Girl Press. Recent work can be seen at or is forthcoming from Prelude, Cleaver, Kestrel, Yalobusha Review, decomp, and Inter/rupture. Learn more here.