Some Say The Lark, Jennifer Chang’s award-winning second collection of poetry, takes its title from a poignant passage in Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet. It evokes the conflict present in a speaker who remains hesitant to transfer from one emotional state to another. In the play, Juliet urges Romeo to remain in her bed when morning comes, at first convincing him that it is still night so they’ll have more time together.
As Romeo reminds her that he could be killed if it’s revealed that he has stayed the night (yet eagerly remains there), she swiftly changes her mind. Yes, it is the lark, she tells him, so that he can leave in safety. But she goes on to say, “Some say the lark makes sweet division/This doth not so, for she divideth us/Some say the lark and loathed toad change eyes/Oh, now I would they had changed voices too/Since arm from arm that voice doth us affray/Hunting thee hence with hunt’s-up to the day.”
As Juliet understands that the lark signals a welcome renewal for some, for Romeo and her, the lark signals the need for their separation. Juliet expresses her distaste with the lark’s message that it is time to move forward, just as Chang’s poems deal with sorrow, grief and longing, yet her speakers feel compelled to stay in that emotionally challenging space.
In “Terra Incognita”, Chang writes, “A door/falls out of frame, and you’re more/open than you’d like,” and “Mostly I stayed home, attendant to a weight/I still can’t name.” Our speaker is certainly in unknown territory, feeling displaced and lost, yet she doesn’t express a desire to leave. Some sort of comfort lies in that unknown space, perhaps even salvation.
The poem ends with, “Our/ancient tree, struck by storm, splintered at roadside./Please note: its destruction spared the house.”
Within this precarious haven, Chang employs much of the natural world to keep us uneasy: fields that don’t flourish, clouds that remain unreadable, impenetrable cold, ducks accustomed to swimming in a polluted river, birds who bear witness only to take flight without revealing what they know and a spring that comes without thaw.
This is the scenery in which Chang deals with loss, inviting noted names such as Mary Wollstonecraft, Patsy Cline, Dorothy Wordsworth and Frank O’Hara into her reverie. In Dorothy Wordsworth, Chang adeptly shifts the reverence for William Wordsworth’s “I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud” to a criticism of sexual inequality. After (literally) cursing daffodils, she writes, “O, Flower, one said, why aren’t you/meat? But I won’t be another bashful shank./The tulips have their nervous joie de vivre,/the lilacs their taunt. Fractious petals, stop/interrupting me with your boring beauty.”
In addition to writing a response to Wordsworth, Chang is inspired to borrow quotes from Wollstonecraft, Cline and O’Hara (among others in this collection) to weave into her own narratives.
Crafted expertly, Chang utilizes phrases and words that one might recognize, but take a singular, vital place in her retelling. Many of these poems are influenced by current events, classic poems and journals.
The final poems of the collection focus on parenting. Avoiding sentimentality, Chang captures many small, meditative moments that both instruct and inform ‘the son’ in the poems.
Whether she’s describing a trip down the aisles of Petco or a ride in a Metro car, Chang’s descriptions of their encounters juxtaposed against the speaker’s thought processes is a journey in itself. She expresses a deep connection to the art of observation, both of the world around her and the world of knowledge within.
The questions she develops through these observations add layers to her memories, which she reveals to us such as in Envoi, a section of About Trees, the last poem of the book: “I’m struck dumb by knowing/that until recently you did not exist,/and that’s a kind of prayer/I don’t have words for.” She goes on to say, “I never thought there’d be a you:/fact or poem, you’re child to a thought/we once had.”
Each poem in this collection is a well-developed, heart wrenching thought that will keep readers in this space where we, too will lament the sound of the lark’s song.