Emily Lee Luan is a Taiwanese American essayist, poet, and graduate of the Rutgers-Newark MFA program. Luan has earned several fellowships and prizes for her creative work, but / Return is considered her debut collection of poetry.   

As a second generation Chinese American, with roots in Hong Kong and Guangdong province, and lover of poetry and language, the title, written with the Chinese character for “return,” immediately caught my attention.

Poetry, as a form, invites and celebrates the manipulation of language and its meaning, and that is even more so the case when one must interpret ideograms, with their unique sculptural qualities. Additionally, poetry often questions the very meaning of language and makes you see words and life in a new color.

With no boundaries or rules to abide by, poetry is arguably the perfect medium to examine bilingualism and, by extension, biculturalism. With Luan’s poetry, we get the opportunity to reflect on how and why she builds on the rich tradition of bilingual poetry.

The “how” in Luan’s poetry is highlighted in her form. There is a common belief in poetry that meaning should guide the poem’s form. In other words, the form and meaning go hand-in-hand. One can quickly tell that Luan has a deep understanding of this, as there is not just one form she uses.

Some poems follow regular patterns or echo existing forms, such as the 14-line sonnet, or the traditional Chinese “reversible” poem. Many poems possess a provocatively sculptural, or visual element. Most poems take on a nonce form completely unique to the individual poem. Luan does not let the forms contain her, but instead carefully leverages each individual form to energize her verse.

The “why” in Luan’s poetry springs from her words, starting with the title, ​回 / Return​.  The question that came to mind when I first read the title was: return to what? As I began to read the collection, this question expanded.

If it is a “homeland” that one wishes to return to, how might one do so if so much of the homeland’s memory is filled with sadness?  For many immigrants, war, conflict, and survival are push factors from the homeland. Some ask their parents or grandparents about the homeland, and it might evoke fond memories and pride, but it might also generate feelings of sadness and even recollections of hardship and death.

Luan expresses this disorienting generational sadness throughout the collection, often writing directly about sorrow, tears, confusion, and anger.

Indeed, Luan immediately immerses her readers into the heavy, dynamic space of her poetry by opening with a poem, “Elision,” about the impact that the Japanese occupation had on her family in Taiwan. This poem initiates a somber, honest tone which Luan sustains throughout the book, and I appreciated her resolution to approach the topic of Japanese occupation head on.

It can be easy for people to forget injustices when they or their families were not affected. It can be even easier to forget when history is being taught less and less now, and some histories are even being rewritten or smothered.

However, for many people like Luan, whose direct family knows the brutal, unjust impact of the Japanese invasion, it is hard to ever forget it. One can see that her family’s memories have deeply moved Luan. Her poetry works to examine the confusion of these emotions, and of others like them, which she profoundly feels even though she did not directly experience them — like a “homeland” one has never visited.

You do not need to be Chinese, or be able to read Chinese, to enjoy this book — most of the book is written in English. Google can help a reader translate the literal words, but everyone will need to work to understand the spirit that moves Luan to arrange and repeat the naturally pictographic Chinese characters on her pages; everyone will find themselves returning to the poetry again and again to understand the emotion and meaning behind the literal words on the page.

Similarly, those who are not Chinese might be challenged to fully appreciate the layered cultural references in Luan’s verse, such as when, in her poem “Lunar Year​,” she refers to Teresa Teng’s 月亮代表我的心 , “the moon portrays my heart,” arguably better known as the “if-you’re -Chinese, you-know-this-song” song. ​

Ultimately, I like that Luan’s poetry does not cater to every audience. I like that non-Chinese readers may have to work to understand it, just as America expects everyone to work to understand English, even if it is not their first language.

I like how deeply you can feel Luan’s emotions in each word she writes. I like the way her writing complicates the often overly simplified narrative between Taiwan and China.

In this way, Luan’s poetry feels very intentionally crafted towards a Chinese and Taiwanese audience, and those interested in learning about this experience.

In the end, though, all of Luan’s readers who invest in reading the work will be rewarded with a substantial, figurative return to the universal human emotions she so powerfully explores.    

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