‘I Nearly Faint From the Love I Was Nearly Capable of’: On Jenny Zhang’s Dear Jenny, We Are All Find
Jenny Zhang traffics in the tropes of that amorphous genre variously called “alt lit,” “Internet poetry,” and “hipster poetry.” To wit: obvious provocation (there are poems here called “Comefarts” and “Seriously, Unless You’re Chinese, I Want You to Fuck”), text-message lingo (the title of the collection seems like it could be an autocorrect mistake), and a form of highly specific lyric poetry driven by a self-mocking tone of disenchantment bordering on outright contempt (to a “questionable youth” who is “tired of the way society treated her like cattle,” the speaker of “I Saw a Skulk” replies, “Mooo.”)
There is a problem with categorizing Zhang this way. It’s not that the labels are inaccurate, but that they tend to conjure up some nasty sentiments in the minds of many readers, especially in the wake of alt lit’s highly publicized “death” in 2014 That’s unfair to Zhang, whose work deserves at least a second look. Her bracing, disorienting poems do a lot to separate themselves from Tao Lin’s narcissistic posturing and Steve Roggenbuck’s YouTube screeching about Justin Bieber.
Start with the title, which turns out to be much more than a joke about spellcheck. In the context of the poems within the book, “Dear Jenny, we are all find” acts as a linguistic matrix in which two of Zhang’s major themes – her Asian-American identity and that brain-frying anxiety which, according to The Atlantic, typifies life in contemporary America – meet, ring against one another, and emerge opened up in some way.
The title comes from “My Mother Leaves Me a Message Where She Pronounces All Romance Languages in a Deep Voice,” the final poem in the book:
We are all find she says
bonjour well because
well she is Chinese and anyway
we don’t use R’s
So, the title’s not even from a text message – it’s quoted verbatim from Zhang’s mother. (I feel comfortable assuming that Zhang is our speaker in most, if not all, of these poems, based on the way the collection frequently namechecks and addresses recurring friends and family members. That being said, it’s less likely that the speaker Zhang is a perfect replica of the poet Zhang and more likely that Zhang is speaking to us through some stylized half-version of herself. The whole vibe is sort of New York School meets Confessionalism, though that doesn’t quite do the book justice.)
The flippant remark about how Chinese people “don’t use R’s” begins to get at Zhang’s complicated relationship with her heritage.
During “A Science,” Zhang declares, “We do not eat at Chinese restaurants unless owned by first or second wave Orientalists sure of their own past.” There’s a lot going on in this sentence, as is typical of Zhang’s work. The rigid dining criteria, which depend on intimate knowledge of the restaurant’s proprietors, suggest a measure of community. But this sense of connection is troubled by the use of the word “Orientalist,” which implies a fetishization of the East, and the fact that the past is “their own,” not “ours.”
It matters that “fine” is garbled into “find.” Zhang clearly isn’t “fine” with her heritage, though she repeatedly attempts to be (see “Founder”: “I wait for my people to seize me”). In her struggle to fit herself into her family’s history and the social landscape of her nations (America, China), she often finds herself isolated (“no one person has learned my language / I continue to learn everyone’s language.”) On occasion, though, something hopeful is discovered, even if it can’t be caught and kept, as in this stanza from “My Mother…”:
I might as well have been out there
which is where I am
out here and the deepness of my mother’s thoughts
so weighty and impressive
I nearly faint from the love I was nearly capable of.
I’ve taken to calling Zhang an “anxiety poet” because of how deftly she handles the manifold forms of this psychosomatic terror. Sometimes, Zhang’s difficult identity is the cause of her anxiety; other times, however, it’s a lover who may be leaving, or something someone may not have actually said, or any of the other innumerable things that can trigger at least a mild panic attack in even the most well-adjusted.
In “The Most Boring People Who Think They Are the Most Important People,” Zhang paints social anxiety with nauseating strokes:
this semen balloon floats
above your head
because you seem boring
and others critique you
Earlier in the same poem, someone correctly guesses that Zhang is menstruating, and the whole situation becomes something out of a self-conscious C- or D-level horror flick:
you are right
to notice the bad smell
was my period
I fling blood clots from my vagina
“I’M BAAAAAD” ends with the failure of Zhang’s efforts to tame unstable world, and the poem itself falls apart along with everything around her:
my whole existence prone
to proving things
for the sake of knowing
for the sake of aaa
for the sake of aaaa aaaaa
for the sake of aaaaaa aaaaaaa
for aaaaaaaa aaaaaaaaa ahwei.
Once again, we’re left to countenance the fact that Zhang is not fine. At this moment especially, she seems far from it. However, she does seem to have found something: the limits of language, which is exactly the kind of place you want your poets hanging out, in my opinion.