In “I Wore My Blackest Hair,” Carlina Duan conjures up a richly textured jewel box of poems, each one offering a glimpse into a world that is both lushly strange and heartrendingly intimate. These poems are filled with the mystical — a girl transformed into a bird, the body conceived of as an ocean or a feral animal — and the mundane — moons, rain, teeth, cups of milk. Through them, Duan wrestles brilliantly with what it means to be suspended between cultures, continents, ages and the polar forces of hope and loss.
Duan, an Ann Arbor native who received her BA from the University and is currently pursuing an MFA at Vanderbilt University, wrote most of the poems that appear in this book for her undergraduate honors thesis. The book is in many ways a coming of age narrative that examines the meaning of girlhood, the adventures and misadventures of romantic love and the attempt to understand, as Duan put it in a phone interview with The Daily, “Who your parents were before they were your parents.” Duan says that the original inspiration for the project was the idea of girlhood: “I was really interested in interrogating that idea of girlhood and seeing how it could be expanded, specifically as someone who maybe doesn’t fit this box of American girlhood. To me, coming of age felt so ripe and so essential to what a lot of the book ends up being about, because of the courage and the fear and the rage and the adrenaline and the total joy that it takes to be able to be inside a body and inhabit that space and then grow up beyond it.”
Duan is the child of Chinese immigrants, and the ambiguity of existing between cultures is a common thread through many of her poems: “I was thinking a lot about the uniqueness of being born in the United States and yet born to immigrant parents, and all of the thousand ways that my girlhood was influenced. As I got older a lot of the questions that I had about girlhood revolved around that friction of Chinese and American identity, and wondering when I looked around myself in the larger world why there were all these monolithic boxes of what identity was.” In her poems, Duan aims to break down those boxes and reclaim the liminal space between them.
Although the poems in this collection were written before the 2016 election and the subsequent upswing in public declarations of American xenophobia, “I Wore My Blackest Hair” is remarkably current in its expression of anxiety regarding what it means to belong in this country and who gets to decide. Although Duan doesn’t consider herself a political poet, she said that “all poetry is inherently political,” and believes in “The power of poetry to open up windows of conversation.” Although the incidents of blatant racism depicted in this book are largely autobiographical and indicate a bleak contemporary reality, Duan’s outlook is altogether hopeful. As much as she exposes moments of ugliness, she also revels in the beauty of connection and the power of family and culture.
“This book is definitely tapping into a longer ongoing conversation of a history of violence, but I would also say a larger history of love in this country, and the attempts and the misattempts to love through language, or when we fail to use language and language becomes violence,” Duan said. In these poems, many of which code-switch between English and Chinese, language is the most powerful force, for both harm and healing.
Duan could be considered a poet of place; much of this collection is set in Ann Arbor, and Duan considers her hometown “a part of my poetic obsession.” But her conception of home in these poems is complex, tied not only to physical land but also to webs of family and culture and language. The poems in this collection are concerned as much with place as they are with displacement, what it means to be severed from the people and places you love. In her meditations on place and displacement, Duan plays an emotional note that is at once intimately specific and surprisingly universal: the need for belonging and the longing for home. As a whole, “I Wore My Blackest Hair” speaks to what might be the most human of desires: to “love all I love / with my wide open mouth / I bite down bite down / & keep biting I don’t / spit any of it / out.”