Book Review: A Week with Beijing (Meg Eden)
Reviewed by Jill Khoury
Just looking at the cover of Meg Eden's third chapbook gives one an idea of what might be coming. It shows a portrait of a young woman's head and shoulders in traditional Chinese garments, her face partially obscured by a fan—but the cliché is shattered with the thick black marker of redaction drawn across the woman's eyes and mouth, essentially obscuring all the personal details of her face. A Week with Beijing (Neon, 2015) is about erasure: of ideas, feelings, workers, and women.
The conceit of the book is that the speaker has come to China to "get away from [her] home," but the reader gets the feeling that the speaker may not have understood exactly how far away she would be going. Upon scanning the first few lines of the first poem, the Western reader realizes they have entered another world altogether.
"A List of Banned Chinese Social Media Search Terms"
And yet this is the world Beijing-the-woman exists in every day. The pressure upon Beijing as a modern Chinese woman is damaging, but she greets the speaker, whom she is hosting for a week, with an attitude that varies between coy neuroticism and frantic redirection.
"Beijing and I Meet for the First Time"
The speaker's eager questions have been crushed, and this disconcerting move impels the reader to discover why.
The reasons are complicated, uncomfortable, and compelling. Through the sequence of twenty-one tightly focused poems, Eden uses the personification of Beijing to zoom in and pull back her lens, revealing tragedies on an individual and systemic level. One of the poems that best illustrates repression —both intimate and ingrained— is "Beijing Goes to the Doctor."
Beijing was diagnosed
Beijing has completely effaced herself in accordance with the cultural doctrine of Progress—the same doctrine of Progress that dates back to the building of the Wall, and calls for continual sacrifice as factory-borne pollution in the cities becomes dangerously high.
Forfeiting the needs of one life to suit the needs of the country is a theme that arises again and again during the speaker's stay with Beijing, as well as Beijing's somewhat obsessive need to cover up flaws for tourists. Poems such as "Beijing and I Eat Duck," "Beijing Burns CD's," and "Beijing Hosts an Olympics Party" show the speaker relentlessly encountering an ideological roadblock that is perhaps as extreme in its own way as the "cowboy" philosophy appearing in aspects of United States culture and policy.
However, the poems that move me the most are the ones where this struggle is taken to a personal level. In "Beijing Explains Her Twelve-Year-Old Gymnast," the poem touches on the age controversy surrounding He Kexin, but is really about Beijing's own aspirations for her nonexistent daughter. Beijing tells the narrator, "I have no daughter, but if I did / she would fly like He." The double meaning of He / he is not lost here. "She would be afraid of no men, / and no men would enter her." Beijing's fictional daughter would live in complete freedom, "without fathers / to condemn and harness her wildness."
It's intimate moments like these that kept me reading when the tone of the poems veered into the didactic. For as many times as I had to look up facts and names to get the full impact of the references, I was rewarded with a more rich understanding of Beijing's story. As a female reader considering the plight of Beijing-the-woman, I was, and remain, deeply unsettled.
If you like your poetry straightforward and narrative, and you are interested in what a contemporary feminist struggle looks like from a place so very disparate from the West, read Meg Eden's A Week with Beijing.