Shiny Prize Season – Bright Fear by Mary Jean Chan – Dylan Thomas Prize shortlist & Jhalak Prize longlist

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Reviewed by Rebecca Foster

I knew from the Costa Award-winning debut collection Flèche (2019) that Mary Jean Chan writes exquisite poems of love and longing. Their follow-up, Bright Fear, has been shortlisted for the Dylan Thomas Prize and longlisted for the Jhalak Prize. It shares with Flèche many of the same central topics and relationships. Family, language, race, and sexuality are key. Throughout, Chan navigates a difficult relationship with their mother, as well as with the mother tongue (Chinese) and motherland (Hong Kong).

This time, the pandemic is the lens through which all is filtered. “London, 2020” and “Hong Kong, 2003,” which appear on facing pages, contrast Covid-19 with SARS, the major threat when the poet was a teenager. People have always made assumptions about them based on appearance and speech. At a time when Asian heritage merited extra suspicion, English was both a means of frank expression and a source of ambivalence:

“At times, English feels like the best kind of evening light. On other days, English becomes something harder, like a white shield.” (from “In the Beginning Was the Word”)

“my Chinese / face struck like the glow of a torch on a white question: / why is your English so good, the compliment uncertain / of itself.” (from “Sestina”)

At the centre of the book, “Ars Poetica” – a multi-part collage incorporating lines from other poets – forms a kind of autobiography in verse. Chan also questions the lines between genres, wondering whether to label their work poetry, nonfiction, or fiction (“The novel feels like a springer spaniel running off-/leash the poem a warm basket it returns to always”).

The poems’ structure varies, with paragraphs and stanzas of different lengths and placement on the page (including, in one instance, a goblet shape). The enjambment, as in lines I’ve quoted above and below, is noteworthy. Part III, “Field Notes on a Family,” reflects on the pressures of being an only child whose mother would prefer to pretend lives alone rather than with a female partner. Chan generously imagines themself into their mother’s experience

The book ends on a note of hope that Chan might be able to be open about their identity. The title refers to the paradoxical nature of the sublime, captured beautifully via the alliteration that closes “Circles”: “a commotion of coots convincing / me to withstand the quotidian tug-/of-war between terror and love.” Although Flèche still has the edge for me, this is another excellent work I would recommend even to readers wary of poetry. 

My other favourite lines come from “Ars Poetica”:

“What my mother taught me was how
to revere the light language emitted.”

“Home, my therapist suggests, is where
you don’t have to explain yourself.”

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Rebecca Foster is a freelance proofreader and book reviewer who often writes about poetry for Shelf Awareness and at her blog, Bookish Beck.

Mary Jean Chan, Bright Fear (Faber, 2023). 978-0571378906, 72 pp., paperback.

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