A Review of We Were Always Eating Expired Things by Cheryl Julia Lee
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Speeding on a flat highway through sand dunes returning from Al Ain to Dubai, my family talks loudly. We pass camel farms and wonder what they are for. We marvel at skydivers floating through the vaulted sky. We doze off for half hours at a time. It is on this road that I flip through the poems of We Were Always Eating Expired Things by Cheryl Julia Lee and become conscious of our “we”.
Interspersed throughout the thin book is a poetic prose series that counts up to nine in roman numerals. I believe these nine paragraphs are the central column around which all the other poems spin, the heartbeat to which the collection palpitates, and a key that would assist me in understanding the shifting “we” within them all.
Through poems I. to IX., Lee enumerates and elaborates the unnamed poetic persona’s relationship with her immediate nuclear family, though the fact that this is indeed a family — and most likely a local one — only becomes clear around the fourth or fifth piece. The numeric series is broken by other poems about family members in outer spheres — a grandmother, a great-grandmother, a daughter, a wife — and also about lovers and friends. These members seem to be splayed out in a circular web that is woven from the fabric of the core nine poems. With this review, I wish to read Cheryl Julia Lee’s collection centrifugally through and around this series, while reflecting on my own circles, families and homes away from home.
From urban poverty, domestic abuse, to the breakdown of a marriage, the series skirts the difficult issues this family faces in circumlocutory fashion. Descriptions of unexplained, awkward situations in the appetite or the body, or the pets or even in the house give rise to an unsettling interior. There is a slow deterioration within this family that is described through the odd inclination towards decaying food in the titular phrase in I., “We were always eating expired things”. There is an uneasy note in the too many wandering, “hungry”, mewing cats of V. And like the broken, whining pipes that never are fixed in IV., the building’s condition also betrays its family’s insides.
Through these outskirts that stitch each poem piece together, I achieve clarity over the course of the series. In II. some repeated pain is inflicted by an unidentified source that first surprises the “we”, but by the third time this occurs, the group finds ways of mitigating the pain. “We knew which path to take for the fastest relief — just grit the teeth, steady breaths, and hang on to whatever is nearest.” By IV. the “we” is understood as a group of children observing the disintegration of their parents’ marriage. And by VI. I can comprehend that the aforementioned pain is probably coming from cane beatings, punishments meted out by the unforgiving mother of the family. Eerily, it is through this identification of pain that I begin to understand that the family is Singaporean. “The canes had plastic hooks at the end… They came in different colours”, and are common to the aspirational, striving middle class where tiger mothers are to be found.
The canes become a sure signifier of a family I should know. The writing on this column from I. to IX. stares back at me and rises like the radio out of the desert. The poet is reading snippets of my own childhood, the area of which was bounded by a circumference of hard discipline. Now we cruise in a different landscape, older, but these are the same people with me — the same memories.
Lee works with the past and with memory within a classical plot arch. The poems all count up to something, and expect a climactic release. By the end of the series, this is granted, but only to the “I” — the poetic persona alone manages to run away. The running away from their mother’s whippings in VI. culminates in a final escape. However, the other children, the “we” of the narrative, seem to be left to the fractured status quo, and there is a final, jarring split between the independent “I” and the “we”.
I too left a long time ago, for other deserts and peninsulas. Since then I’ve returned, to resume the normality of family road trips. Can leaving your “we” ever be final?
The writer’s prose statements are deceptively conclusive, and though the paragraphs are stylistically stable and coherent, they really leave much unanswered. Most of all, they leak at the “we”, which sometimes is exchanged with an unusual displacement, “the body”. This is most telling at the core of the abuse in II.: “We bent over in waves of oh god, not again and oh god, not again. The body prayed for the first time.” Through this dislodged mis-recognition of the “we” — from the collective soul to the exterior shell — I am able to read the surrounding poems outwards. It is like peeling back another circular layer around the hull of the “we”. This way, I could pose questions about whether the core series reflects back into the other poems’ relationships, and thus present gaps in their juxtaposition.
These windows are like the abandoned, unfinished cement homes we pass in the middle of nowhere — once a desired home, but not yet. One example of this reflective space in the margins is between Why, She Asks and the same II. In the first poem, “a breathing/body” “waiting/in bed”, and the longing for “flesh upon flesh” read like the sighs of an abandoned lover — her broken heart’s murmurs echoed in the durational beatings “the body” endures in II. The result is a shifting “we” that asks, “who are we to others?” The instances are numerous in Lee’s collection, and the question is resonant.
There is very little green in this desert, and through the white sands, I pine for home. Still, Cheryl Julia Lee reminds me that a “we” surrounds me, and her hand is extended, for as long as it — as we will last.
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ARTICLE BY CHRISTINA CHUA
Christina Chua lives out of a suitcase, her affinities divided between the urban and the islands in Singapore and Hawaii. She survives the split by reading a poem a day and cultivating a lifestyle of gratitude.
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