A review of Split by Cathy Linh Che

Reviewed by Elvis Alves

by Cathy Linh Che
Alice James Books
Paperback: 80 pages, ISBN-13: 978-1938584053, May 2014

Split by Cathy Linh Che is an honest piece of literature. There is no need for Che to prove her talent as a poet. The poems in Split do this and more. Che uses the pen as a mirror. What she sees—including significant events that impact her personal and familial life—she puts on paper in ways that approach mastery of the art of poetry.

The title poem recounts the interaction between a girl, who “wears a side-part/that splits her hair/into two uneven planes,” and a group of American soldiers during the Vietnam War: “With scissor-fingers/they snip the air/point at their helmets/and then at her hair” (23). The girl escapes the village with hair intact and grows to become Che’s mother. Another female villager, and many other victims of sexual violence during the war, was not as fortunate.

…a village girl
was raped by a soldier
in a dried-out gully.

My mother doesn’t say,
It could have been me
But instead:

The girl lived
and could never
marry (My mother still dreams of the war, 47).

The loss of innocence and the futility of attempts to reclaim it in totality are poignant themes in the collection. Che laments, “We begin whole then slowly deflate” (In what way does the room map out violence, 6) and “I was a border and he crossed/I fill up with fog in the summer heat/His eyes were cool and lanced through me” (ibid 8). In the same vein, Che reminds us that art can be traumatic because some experiences that inform it are traumatic in nature.

It was winter—my cousin lay on top—
my brother would not leave, watching
even as the toaster pinged—I was four—
I was eight—I was twelve—

Then he married—and I was the flower girl
At the wedding (ibid 10).

The above scene relates that sexual consummation of marital vows is void of innocence as regard the flower girl because the choice to freely engage in sex (i.e. for the first time) was violently taken from her. The wedding is not celebratory for her but serves as reminder of the death of what it means to be a whole self, due to rape.

Che calls attention to the inherent strength of the ruptured self. In Daughter, she writes, “I am not meant to be desolate/an evening pulled apart like smoke” (51). For her, the practice of poetry is intricately linked to the art of survival. She seeks “….redemption/An arrow that joins a split heart” (Brooklyn Interior, 77) and “I want to be this simple again/A body diving under water while waves scan over” (Object Permanence: Sea, 69).

Che’s voice is audible throughout the collection, even though the poems deal with subjects, war and sexual abuse, that work to silence the voice of their victims. My Mother upon Hearing News of Her Mother’s Death is one of the hallmark poems of the collection. Che, after describing the forceful acting out of grief, including a thunderous scream, on the part of her mother in response to the news, writes:

I was drowning in it. I was swirled in. I leapt into
her mouth, her throat, her gut, and stayed inside with the
remnants of my former life. I ate the food she ate and drank
the milk she drank. I grew until I crowded the furnishings.
I edged out her organs, her swollen heart. I grew up and out
so large that I became a woman, wearing my mother’s skin (46).

Che identifies with her mother’s grief but the reader gets the sense that she is fully aware of another self that is her own and that the same is true in lieu of all that has happened to her. This doing reminds me of Lucille Clifton’s “Come celebrate with me/that every day something has tried/to kill me/and has failed” (from her Blessing of the Boats).

It is believed that reading creates empathy. This is true for certain pieces of literature and Split by Cathy Linh Che is in this category. That is why it is worth reading. It will make you a better person.

About the reviewer: Elvis Alves is the author of the poetry collection Bitter Melon (Mahaicony Books, 2013). Find out more at www.poemsbyelvis.blogspot.com