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Review of Past Lives, Future Bodies by Kristin Chang

Updated: Jun 13, 2022

Past Lives, Future Bodies by Kristin Chang is a sharp and vivid poetry collection. Each poem feels like a fish flowing through brightly colored, corral-speckled waters, sunken ships of family relationships rusting in the distant sandy depths, plunges into the inky waters of family relationships, sexuality, and race lurking just around dark seaweed bends.

These inky sea metaphors are even employed by Chang herself; in the poem “Anchor Baby,” the narrator charges us through rocky coasts of conformation, of racism and force: an outside force tries to smuggle them into bodies of water compared to “mass graves,” ones in which, as the narrator aptly points out, the opposer’s own face “slurs the surface.”

Throughout the poem, our protagonist is constantly beaten by the waves, but always fights against the current like that: they boil the sea, swill salt to stone in their mouth, and at the end, they choose to sink the proverbial ship rather than anchor it. This strength and active resistance muscles through all Chang’s poems in this collection, and through this we realize that these narrators aren’t fish swimming through the waters waiting to be eaten, but are rather sharks, predators in their environments.

On the other hand, the language and form she uses is comparable to the teeth of those predators, or perhaps a knife held in the hand of a master chef as they fillet lesser fish—her words are honed to razer-edges that guide you quickly through the swift chops and swings of the narrative’s pointed paths toward the meat of her history, her experiences, her life. The emotion in them is cold, yet warm—a perfect blend of heated knife and cool flesh, and at times, all of it reaches up and slits you open when you’re least expecting it.

This is a collection we highly recommend, and is especially relevant right now considering the Black Lives Matter movement’s importance and necessity in current culture, and how much Chang explores race and racism and resistance as motifs in its content.

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