Time Extends Life To Those Who Survive

feast

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Review by Thaddeus Rutkowski

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These poems, written by Jim Feast and addressed to his wife Nhi Chung, are full of passion, sensuality and physicality. Feast and Chung might be in many ways ordinary people, but the poems bring out a side that is extraordinary.
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Feast, a professor and member of the Unbearables group of writers in New York, tells us in his preface that he met Chung at New York City Technical College, where they both were working (she as a secretary, he as a tutor). On one occasion, she asked him to read a paper she wrote. It was the story of her escape from Vietnam by water. Her ability to swim saved her. Not surprisingly, the story caught Feast’s attention; he found Nhi “fascinating, charming and sexy.” Complicating matters, however, was the fact that Feast was engaged at the time and Chung was married (and pregnant). The book takes off from there.
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The first section covers the early days of Feast and Chung’s relationship, as seen in this poem, “Nhi and Patty (or Vice Versa)”:
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A brief, stringy cup of coffee
            tawny, ruddy at points, whitish, brackish
            a kind of orange, inside the peel.
            all those colors
            are in her skin
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brown eyes with a trace of green like a fir in the dark
            the whites, straight across, but a little narrower at the pointed end
            wearing a coat too long in the sleeves, and cheap, a grainy fabric, mica
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the way she comes up the street, let’s describe that.
            her legs are striding but the actual step is not long, feet planted as firmly
                        as the expression on her mouth.
            Patty waits for her.
            “It’s good to see you,” she says,
            then hesitates over whether to kiss her on the cheek.
            “And how are you?” Nhi says. “How are you,
            Peggy”?
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I like the way the poem moves from a description of coffee—and secondarily an orange peel—to a description of skin. Similarly, the image of “a fir (tree) in the dark” works as metaphor for a woman’s eyes. Then, in the third stanza, the poem becomes a story. The woman the poet has been observing walks up the street and meets another woman. We learn their names and discover that the poet is describing his new flame, Nhi, as she meets his fiancée, Patty. The punchline is that when they greet each other, Nhi gets Patty’s name wrong. It could be a typical language-barrier lapse—or a signal that these two will never be friends.
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            Later in the book, the poems become more philosophical, confirming that the poet’s understanding and appreciation of his partner have deepened.
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Here is a later poem, titled “Gum Sik,” which means “Golden.”
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You’re like a tiger on a burning bridge.
You’re like an eagle landing on a ledge,
the eagle of truth that never breaks her pledge.
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You’re like a teacup that is filled with rice.
You’re like a goddess that averts her eyes.
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How much the future involves the past.
How much the first time involves the last.
It may be painful but it is our task.
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First, I notice the rhymes, which appear (uncharacteristically here) at the ends of lines, instead of internally. They are interesting rhymes, imperfect in places, as with “bridge” and “ledge,” “rice” and “eyes,” and “last” and “task.” They pull the reader through the poem, just as a catchy song pulls the listener along to the next verse.
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But what is important is the meaning. The poet evokes powerful images or, more accurately, images filled with power. A tiger, an eagle and a goddess all have great, non-human strength. Yet the person addressed in this miniature ode is, I’m guessing, just a person, made mythic in the poet’s eyes. The imagery is not all large; there is also the humble teacup.
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The third and last stanza transitions into a meditation on time (the theme of the book’s title) and how we experience it. To Feast, points in time exist almost simultaneously (“the first time involves the last”). And “our task,” which I read as “anyone’s task,” can be difficult, yet it is there, immovable and un-ignorable.
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Throughout the book, I was taken with the poet’s use of sharp, playful, suggestive language, as well as his focus on his own experience. Feast has been lucky to be part of a love relationship that joins two complex people, from separate but long-established cultures.
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You can find the book here: Time Extends Life to Those Who Survive
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Thaddeus Rutkowski grew up in central Pennsylvania and is a graduate of Cornell University and the Johns Hopkins University. He is the author of the fiction collectionViolent Outbursts (Spuyten Duyvil) and the novels Haywire (Starcherone/Dzanc), Tetched(Behler Publications) and Roughhouse (Kaya Press). All three novels were finalists for an Asian American Literary Award, and Haywire won the Members’ Choice Award, given by members of the Asian American Writers Workshop in New York. Haywire reached No. 1 on Small Press Distribution’s fiction best-seller list. Tetched was chosen as one of the best books reviewed in 2006 by Chronogram magazine. Thaddeus Rutkowski

 

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