Review of Kissing the Sphinx by Chen Chen
Two of Cups Press, 2016. 30 pages. $12.00
Kissing the Sphinx, a chapbook of poems by Chen Chen, received an honorable mention in the Two of Cups Press third annual chapbook contest in 2015. Two of Cups Press began publishing poetry anthologies and chapbooks in 2012. The chapbook's perfect-bound, matte cover features the lovely artwork of Lizzy DuQuette entitled Creature.
Kissing the Sphinx pulls readers into the lush language of secrets, winter landscapes, travel, and pop culture icons. The poems seem restless on the pages in their variety of forms, from prose and free verse to sonnets and ghazals. The careful pacing urges readers from page to page to discover what follows, and the flow of topics is well controlled without seeming overtly contrived. Each poem bears a sense of confession, sensuality, and longing—rich with personal content. For example, in the poem "Antarctica," the poet addresses himself by name and the imagery is surreal, yet potent:
Have the sleepwalking deer returned?
Are those their bluish hoof-prints, their crowns
of bone? Has the lost jockey returned? I think
I can hear him, racing between
the lung-shaped trees. . . .
The poems offer such tympanic pleasure, I found myself reading the entire chapbook aloud. Poems like "vulpes vulpes" require a vocal reading, while others made me pause and reread over and over again in silent enchantment. The stunning similes in "Blue Sweaters" caused exactly that reaction. Even now, I'm having trouble selecting which stanzas to reference—the whole poem aches with such intimacy. It begins:
Today we both wore blue sweaters.
Yours was like a memory of snow,
collected in a small wood bowl,
& presented at dusk to a choir
of young, soprano cats.
My sweater was more like
hopscotch, across a field
of ripe berries. . . .
Now, whether your favorite childhood TV show was Power Rangers, Mr. Rogers, or The Reading Rainbow, this chapbook has it covered. Not to mention the poem "Medicine Ball," which combines Sarah Jessica Parker, an elbow rash, Q-Tips, and Ultimate Frisbee into a narrative. And then comes a sonnet that causes the reader to question the reality of every poem in the collection—"Long Johns" reads: ". . . To be alone with my levity / & delusion that by writing of imaginary / travels, the food & foreign men, I can go / beyond myself." Of course, by this point in my reading, I was so immersed in the words I didn't need or want to know which characters and stories were real vs. imaginary. Other pop culture references include a sorrowful poem about the Transformer. A rush of sadness is palpable in the poem aptly titled "Sorrow Song with Optimus Prime" where the poet masterfully uses a child's toy to express adult gloom:
So at last you sit, on the floor of the toy store, like the end
of an avalanche, each rock, tree, & small wish of you
crushed, heaped. & the scream of your total defeat
is the cry that brought the mountain down.
This short collection evokes tattoos and Tuesdays, cats and camels, Russian novels and postcards, muscular legs and gorgeous men, a body covered in colorful Post-it notes, and yes, kissing the Great Sphinx of Giza. There are places to visit, dreams to dream, realities to question, and sounds that whisper and boom throughout its pages. I'm tremendously pleased that these poems were not lost as secrets whispered "into the hollow of a tree."
You can purchase Kissing the Sphinx here.
Trish Hopkinson has always loved words—in fact, her mother tells everyone she was born with a pen in her hand. She has two chapbooks, Emissions and Pieced Into Treetops, and has been published in several anthologies and journals, including Stirring, Chagrin River Review, and The Found Poetry Review. Hopkinson is co-founder of a local poetry group, Rock Canyon Poets. She is a product director by profession and resides in Utah with her handsome husband and their two outstanding children. You can follow her poetry adventures at trishhopkinson.com.