In Dorothy Chan’s poetry collection, Babe (Diode Editions 2021), readers are transported into a vibrant and alluring world where pleasure reigns supreme. Through her masterful use of language and vivid imagery, Chan invites the audience to indulge in her inner world, one filled with movie star glamour, iconic beauty marks reminiscent of Marilyn Monroe, and a faux blue fur coat that serves as a shield against exploitation while radiating both excess and fun. In this realm, the senses are tantalized by the allure of delicious food, evoking nostalgia and delight in the present moment—a mouthwatering burger with a caramel shake, kimchi pancakes, and egg-shaped jello—each culinary creation a testament to the pleasures of the senses.
At its core, Babe searches for connection through pleasure while delving into Chan’s complex identity as a Chinese woman subjected to fetishization. The collection unearths the predatory relationships she has experienced with older men in her past, shedding light on the intricacies of power, desire, and vulnerability.
Another major theme within the collection is the resistance of queerphobia; Chan details her reality as a bisexual woman navigating her queerphobic family. Chan is a larger-than-life movie star outright denying the script of heteronormatity, the primetime TV reality show of life has laid before her. In “Triple Sonnet, Because You Are Not My Home, You Are Not My Home, You Are Not My Family,” Chan writes: “Hello, Primetime, your formula’s / so straight, it’s stale, but what would you know? / Basic cable you have no idea what you’re missing” (22). Throughout the collection, Chan skillfully intertwines themes of pleasure and identity with her exploration of family dynamics. Babe exposes the queerphobia and misogyny present within her familial relationships, adding depth to her narrative. The raw and candid portrayal of these experiences lends authenticity to the poems, allowing readers to empathize with Chan’s journey of self-discovery and acceptance.
In “Dear Lady Stop Gifting Me Lip Balm and Handcream,” Chan recounts a time an in-law speculates on her sexuality:
“Lady it none of your business
what I do in my spare time
and my sexuality is not yours to dissect
not yours to straighten up…
But I’ll gladly build a rocketship
ride a rocketship orgasm a rocketship
if that will shut you up and fly you out of here.” (27)
Chan at no point denies herself within the text, yet queerphobia constantly pushes back against her expression; forcing conflict over and over. She reminds the reader that to be authentically yourself is the ultimate freedom, but social structures in place, especially those within the most intimate spaces, mean that the battle to find and maintain your authentic self is lifelong.
Chan’s poetic prowess shines through not only in her exploration of pleasure and identity but also in her innovative use of form. She introduces readers to her invented Triple Sonnet, showcasing her technical brilliance. The line breaks of these three connected sonnets are built around the sawtooth margin, with indents for every other line. These indentations build the tension in the reading of the poem. If the words of the poem are the food, the sawtooth margin is how your teeth should chew over them. It slows you down, makes you chew a little longer so the taste of the words linger over your tongue. This form becomes a vessel for her lyrical expressions, allowing her words to flow seamlessly and captivating readers with their rhythm and cadence.
In addition to her captivating descriptions of sex and pleasure, Chan creates an intimate connection with her readers through the lens of food. Food becomes a symbol of love and acceptance, fostering a sense of comfort and belonging. We see this on full display in her poem, “Love Letter to Jello Salad, Time Travel. And My Mother:” “ .. oh so colorful, and isn’t it such a wonder / how different shapes can enhance the taste of food, like / the flower-shaped donuts in Japan, preferably in / matcha or strawberry, or how the heart-shaped / chocolates in the Valentines Day selection always / taste the best” (12). The rich imagery of culinary delights further enhances the sensory experience of the collection, evoking a profound emotional response from the readers.
Babe challenges societal norms and celebrates the complexities of identity, pleasure, and love. Dorothy Chan’s poetic voice is unapologetic, bold, and empowering. Her exploration of the human experience, intertwined with themes of pleasure, desire, and acceptance, resonates deeply with readers, leaving a lasting impression. Through her eloquent verses and inventive form, Chan invites readers to embrace their desires, confront societal barriers, and revel in the freedom of being true to oneself. “Babe” is a testament to the transformative power of poetry, reminding us of the importance of embracing our authentic selves and finding joy in the pleasures of life.
Zora Satchel (she/they) is a Black and Chinese American queer poet and cinephile who writes about mental illness, film, family, and friendship. She holds a degree in Ethnic Studies from Colorado State University and was awarded the Brooklyn Poets fellowship for winter/spring 2021. She lives on the border of Brooklyn and Queens