Invocation by Jennifer S. Cheng (Released by New Michigan Press, 2010)
Review by Greg Bem (@gregbem)
"So that afterward in the darkness as I am riding home, I am looking out the window, thinking of octopi on the ocean floor and what they see at night." (from page 7)
Jennifer S. Cheng's Invocation is the early precursor and prelude to her award-winning, mind-dropping House A from 2016. This proclaimed essay, a kite of kaleidoscopes rustling in the wind, a hum of radiant and indefatigable mystery, is genre bending and genre defying, splicing autobiographical narrative with prose poem with image cluster. At 37 pages with 23 images, this work is at least as image-based as textual, yet the work is not wholly anything specific: because it is a work of full emptiness. But it does have a foundation, and that foundation is Cheng’s uncanny and fascinating voice.
As an exploration of what it means to be vocal and what it means to be voiceless, Invocation searches Cheng’s own history. It is a short book that navigates through the density of life as part of a family and the resulting smothering. Cheng’s world is one that is fluid (see: the fully-realized presence of water in House A) and yet it is a world of core disconnection. Here we have what it is to not speak, and to thus learn the action of speech.
Ideas of noise and sound form here, in this literary uplifting, this essay of invocation. The path of one’s voice, as a proper extension of identity, is sought here. The traditions of the reserved woman in a space of domesticity and domicile history are challenged here. The weight of silence within is accommodated by the weight of silence without, and that unity is reconciled here. Cheng wastes no time or energy through her text and visuals to unravel her history and her thorough struggles and beautiful courage in such an unraveling. And yet this essay does not seek to provide significant resolutions. Instead it is a preview, an opening of a throat on the verge of a song.
Metaphorically, Cheng’s Invocation is the step forward into her own voice, the poet finding the poetics, the individual learning their limits, authority, authenticity, integrity. Cheng’s invocation has long-since found its validation, and magically, Cheng’s voice is greater, fuller, more present in 2017 than ever before. Or so it seems, while the wind howls before the silence only moments away.