Jen Sookfong Lee is a novelist and with this first book of her poetry, I got the sense of reading a novel. There is a flow to the narrative that kept me engaged as if listening to revelations that could not be interrupted. The content is disturbing, which is one of the layers of complexity in the collection.
We learn something about the narrator right away in the opening poem, “Introduction,” when she writes: “A dog is the love of your life.” And we know not to expect comforting poems when she says: “The pretty poems are dead inside.” I took that to mean that the sweet poems don’t tell all there is to be told. Something is being covered over or kept in the shadow.
In “Third Person Intimate,” Lee refers to writing novels and a psychologist who “would say, You write / the choices you’re afraid to make.” Those are lines that give pause, as writers do have the ability to create characters that dare to take risks, who stand up for themselves.
While poetry can be like opening a door, the poems in The Shadow List are the ones usually kept behind the door. In an interview about her poetry collection, Lee said: “I also wanted to explore, for Asian women in particular, the idea that rarely have Asian women allowed to be as messy or as desirous as white women in literature, particularly in Canadian literature. Could I try to write something that exposes all of those things that people often keep in the shadows? That’s how The Shadow List was born.”
“A shadow list” is noted in “Wishes” following the narrator’s wish list. “No, of course not. There is a shadow list, one saved / in your head where its grime is obscured by work / and sandwiches and the weather tomorrow.”
“Dog Years” is a poem dedicated to the poet’s dog Molly, her “most loving life partner.” In her poems, relationships with men are not so loving, such as described in “Five Breakups with the Same Man.”
The poems refer to being a mother to a son, being a daughter, In “Anatomy,” the narrator recounts times (both in childhood and as an adult) of being bruised at the hands of others with an apology: “Don’t worry, you say again, I bruise / easily.”
In “Chiaroscuro,” a woman has black eyes—or rather, “purple, fading to yellow / at the edges.” The narrator thinks of “chiaroscuro,” as she looks at her friend’s face: “planes of light and dark.”
There is a contrast in the language, too, as the narrator hopes that “Maybe the cat is with her, warm / and furry, grey on her pink patchwork quilt.”
The poems in The Shadow List can be jarring. Reading what is uncomfortable can lead to a pushing beyond shame into acceptance, or at least a making of room for what has long been in the shadows.