» Book Review
’50s Movie Stars and Hong Kong Metro Stations
Attack of the Fifty-Foot Centerfold by Dorothy Chan
Spork Press, 2018
Paperback, 103 pages, $18
Everyone deals with their own sense of identity. We’ve all experienced our own unique moments, and presenting these moments in a way that conveys the inherent emotions that lie therein can be a personal, soul-bearing thing. In Attack of the Fifty-Foot Centerfold, Dorothy Chan’s poetic protagonist talks about her life in snippets. Through tales of men the speaker has dated and meals she’s cooked with her family, we see how a Chinese-American identity was shaped, and how that affects the speaker’s everyday life in blunt, humorous poems that involve ’50s movie stars and Hong Kong metro stations.
The three sections in this book are divided by subject matter. Though everything connects because it all relates back to the narrator’s persona, the sections are split between overarching themes of family, culture, and experiences with dating and men in general. The reader is walked through these sections with a tone that feels half-sarcastic until it doesn’t. We get long lines, pop culture references in tow, that give the reader a chance to understand the speaker on a personal level. For example, when talking about attractive men, Chan writes, “… O, I don’t get wet for / the Hot Dads of US Weekly or the dad / bods of Star, but give me Frank Sinatra’s / voice crooning in a Hong Kong cab.”
The poems switch between multiple poetic forms that lean to the side of the traditional, including odes and sonnets, and yet use blunt language and modern-day references, producing a delightful whiplash in the reader. The easy way in which these verses connect with a contemporary reader makes this book a pleasure, and the book holds a similar range emotionally as well. Despite the fun nature of a lot of these poems, Chan doesn’t shy away from presenting the reader with poignant moments, such as one in which the narrator notes, “my mom tells me spirits never leave / their homes, and that we believe our loved ones / visit us in dreams about a week after they pass away, to say I love you.” Chan simultaneously opens up to the reader without presenting her cultural identity as something grim, sorrowful, or alien.
This is Chan’s second book. Her first, Chinatown Sonnets, also tackles some of the same overarching themes. What comes through most is the consideration of belonging as a concept. Chan’s narrator speaks to her parents in a mix of Cantonese and English, both languages belonging to vastly different countries and cultures. The speaker eats traditional Chinese meals with her father, but is attracted to bleached-blonde, lithe, toned surfer boys. There is a feeling of belonging to each place, but that is juxtaposed with a feeling of otherness. What exactly dictates the need to belong—or do you ever really need to belong? Chan tackles these questions by presenting her unyielding and unapologetic opinion on the subject, while also showing a complex identity can be exactly what makes a person belong. Her speaker is a loving daughter. She feels a certain sense of kinship with movie stars and musicians of the ’50s and ’60s. She still misses her childhood dog. All of these things make her unique, and she is confident in that—she belongs within herself. This exploration of the concept speaks of a time when she was not confident in this. We can all fall short—we can all question our place in society, at home and among friends. She has ruminated on this topic, and presented in a style that makes this book not only a beautiful read, but an enlightening one.
Chan accomplishes the feat of speaking about identity and belonging, and how they relate to the place one feels like they’re from—and she more than succeeded. This quick read is a gorgeous display of experimentation with poetic form and voice. The message it sends—though the words are personal to Chinese-American life—leaves the reader feeling just a little more confident about themselves, justified in the individuality and peculiarity of their own experiences, too.