Mary Jean Chan Poetry
How Meaning, Hostility, and Identity Are Presented in The Window by Mary Jean Chan
In The Window, Chan presents a speaker responding to her mother’s disrespect for her sexual queerness not with anger but with an admirable grace. Through the metaphor of a ‘window’, Chan reveals a realm of concepts that the mother- and by extension, all those homophobic- might open their mind to. Nonetheless, despite her efforts to encourage her mother to envisage such ideals, it becomes clear that the speaker’s identity is irrevocably harmed by her mother’s hostile attitudes.
The poem’s subject of sexual queerness- and the hostile attitudes attached to it- is handled with a tentative and often gentle voice that urges the reader to re-consider outdated views concerning sexuality and gender. The poem is written in a free-verse form, used to represent the flexibility of gender identity in the modern age, and this, paired with Chun’s constant application of enjambment, encourages the reader to open their mind to concepts unfamiliar and alien. The poem is closeted by reference to the setting detail of an ‘open window’ in both the opening and closing lines, which offers hope for a future in which the mother can escape her resentment of her daughter’s sexuality and ‘open’ her mind to collude with, or at least emphasise with, her daughter’s liberal attitudes concerning sexuality. Chan claims that the daughter will declare herself ‘genderless as hawk or sparrow’, and here the traditional animalistic emblem of liberty is used perhaps to highlight the daughters desires to escape her mother’s outdated ideals into a world shaped by her own views. The image of a ‘sparrow’ may bring to mind the traditional folk rhyme concerning the capacity of sparrows to evoke certain changes in fortune (‘…one for sorrow, two for joy…’) which might suggest that the daughter’s freedom in her sexual identity has the capacity to cause both joys or deep pain.
Nonetheless, the powerful image of a ‘hawk’ used to emphasise strength and potency is testament to the daughter’s strength of will in that the ways in which her sexuality affects her personal life will be utterly within her powers to alter and control. The strength of the ‘hawk’ is perhaps counteracted by the strength of ‘the heaviest of stones.’, used as a simile to describe the mother’s tongue that speaks with firm discontent concerning the sexual orientation of her child. This, especially when reinforced through use of caesura is indicative of the mother’s willpower in suppressing her daughter’s sexuality, with the reformulation of adjective ‘heavy’ in diction ‘heaviest’ highlighting the mother’s unwillingness to alter her pejorative perspective concerning queerness. Nonetheless, the frequent stream of narrative distinguished by the enjambments that characterise every line of the poem suggest that the daughter will be able to prosper with liberty in spite of her mother’s attempts to extinguish her sexual flourishing. The poem closes in suggestion that the mother may ‘reconsider at the slightest touch of grace’. The sharp narrative transition from descriptions of ‘rage’ and ‘anger’ to that of ‘grace’ structurally mirrors the ways in which simple acts of kindness can cure and quell personal histories of oppression and extreme negative emotion. Highlighting this is Chan’s decision to finalise the poem with use of an end-stop, which elevates the poem into a tone of firm solidarity, offering hope for a future in which the daughter, and by extension all those suffering sexual oppression, will be able to bask in their queerness without fear of scorn or restraint.
Despite the eventual tone of hope created by the verse, it is clear that the mother’s scorn of sexual queerness has lead to a damage in her daughter’s mentality that is perhaps irrevocable. Such is demonstrated by the declarative ‘dead daughters do not disappoint’, with the use of italicised lettering marking the daughter’s trauma as leading her unable to live a normal life due to her differences. Indeed, the patterning of plosive ‘d’ in this line create a harsh and relentless tone, reflecting the ways in which the daughter feels she has been emotionally abused for her sexual preferences. There is a second person voice that is maintained throughout the pronoun in the repeated use of personal pronoun ‘you’, which both dares the audience to share the speaker’s emotional pain, whilst also suggests that the speaker must split her sexual identity from her core identity in order to come to terms with her mother’s attitudes. Furthermore, the selection of declaratives which largely shape the mid-section of the stanza suggest that the speaker’s rebuttal of her mother’s harshness does not come naturally, and that she must force herself to defend her own ideals, thus revealing the extent to which the daughter has been at her mother’s mercy for so long. When the speaker describes her ‘sore knees’, the message of emotional distraught is concreted as it becomes evident that the mother’s harshness has become so extreme as to affect both the speaker’s mental and physical wellbeing.
In The Window, Chan aptly explores both the mental damage yet emotional resilience shaped by years of oppression on a woman’s sexual identity. The poem explores the conflict between a daughter’s liberal views and a mother’s steely scepticism concerning sexual queerness, and ends urging the younger generation to fight outdated ideals with grace and a gentle compassion rather than rekindle the violence of their predecessors.