The Shadow List by Jen Sookfong Lee

Jen Sookfong Lee is a seasoned writer with several notable books, but The Shadow List forthcoming this Spring from Wolsak & Wynn is her first poetry collection. It is so refreshing to see a poet embrace the personal lyric, the confessional mode, so freely and expertly. Like desire itself, the language of these poems is raw, unadorned, and yet powerfully attractive. Lee tosses off lines that on first blush seem commonplace— lines like “If a man touches you, he leaves a mark” or “the pretty poems are dead inside” or “Protect your child, even though you know you can’t”— but then they get their little hooks into you.

In one poem about grade nine, Lee writes about her nascent self’s choice of wardrobe, “you were burying yourself, / the not-yet-pretty version, hoping she / would suffocate, shrink under the weight and die”, but in this collection, it is as if Lee is allowing her reader’s full access to her now fully emerged self. Desire especially is placed under a microscope. The men who people her poems are the shadowy “other”, aloof creatures with bearded jawlines, distant unknowable figures full of pheromones and dirty talk, looking for sex at 3 am, and who just might or might not text back the next day. 

At one point, the poet claims the heart is “unreliable”, and that suspicion permeates this collection. The male characters really only orbit these poems, and if they are invited into the poet’s life or her queen-sized bed, their presence is never really permanent.

In her long poem “A Scientific Treatise”, the poet examines her feelings and wishes they would just melt away because what you are left with is an overwhelming fear: the fear of being alone. 

If the half-life of uranium is 4.5 billion years, how long 
does it take for feelings to divide in half and then half again, 
reduced to nano-dust that you feel only if you stand 
alone, eyes closed, in the smallest room, breath paused?
Everything else changes. Paint on the walls fade.
The dog hops, tentative and arthritic, down the stairs, 
her body newly angled to the right. Even you.
The synovium in your feet swell in the shower. When you slip 
on black ice, you scream and this fear is the final way you will age.

In another poem “Yesterday, You Had The Best of Intentions”, a lover sleeps over-night, but the narrator stays up obsessing over their separateness that their coupling only seems to have intensified:

A glass of water, tepid and undrunk, in the bedroom air. 
A body beside you whose movements are so small 
and so slow you cannot measure them.
Muddy, thick hours spent listening to the night pass.
This is the long rolling of time, that liquid dim 
that breaks over the neighbours’ rooftops and leaks 
through a crack in those curtains you have never hemmed. 
The broken lamp beside the garage buzzing, a raccoon
walking upside down, claws tapping and tapping 
on the gutter it clings to. You squint, the continued 
watch in the night. The black hurts your eyes.
Do you know what you’re watching for?
There are secrets, indecent and jagged like a stranger’s teeth 
biting the thin line of your clavicle. You could whisper 
them now and he would not hear you. But no.
You should wait. Nighttime lulls. That soft, enabling dark.
Outside, the first chickadee sings.
You have twenty minutes, maybe thirty, 
before the sky lifts, burning, and kills 
what you have been staring at all night long.

I really love this poem, especially the lines “there are secrets, indecent and jagged like a stranger’s teeth / biting the thin line of your clavicle. You could whisper / them now and he would not hear you” which emphasizes that the tether of desire connects these two individuals, but it is not nearly enough. Not by a long shot.

The poet’s hard exterior is the subject of another poem in “But It Protects You From The Fire” as the narrator, on yet another sleepless night, cops to her difficulties with being vulnerable:

In the night, you listen to the same 
song on repeat, the one with a beat 
that feels like a kitten heart, nested 
in your pocket, small but insistent. 
It’s an illusion, the softness 
of that beat, the fluidity of the bass, 
as if your inner softness is visible
and maybe even touchable 
by the right person if he asks nicely. 
The man rapping says he wants a wife. 
He says it so easily and you believe, 
for three minutes, that this is the wish 
of every man, or at least the one 
who hasn’t come back to you yet.

The speaker in these poems does not seek comfort; in fact, she is suspicious of comfort, especially the kind of comfort offered by the opposite sex, even if, at times, she “itches with loneliness”. What the speaker seeks most in the absence of comfort is understanding.

This is perhaps best communicated in the poem “Chiaroscuro” where the poet writes:

Tonight, her knees are drawn up to her chest 
and she lowers her head until you can’t see her face, 
just her hair, her body caved in on itself. Her shoulders 
shake, rising and falling under her pilly grey sweatshirt.
You do not touch her. She isn’t 
that kind of friend. But you say, in a hush, I know. I know.

And after reading this poetry collection with its shivering raccoons walking through a courtyard at dawn, its chain-link fences with human-sized holes torn through their middles, its naked little boys running across a yard and tumbling into a trampoline, we do know how the poet feels as she wanders through city streets full of empties, and sits up all night thinking will he text back?

Desire runs like an underground river through Jen Sookfong Lee’s The Shadow List. The narrator says at one point “I bruise easily”, but it is us who come away from this poetry collection with the bruise of knowing, the mark of understanding that life is made of hard choices and even more difficult feelings, and we do not get everything we want, but it is enough if we wish it to be. These poems burn deep into your sinews so they become part of you. They go where you go. Now read this book!

Jen Sookfong Lee was born and raised in Vancouver’s East Side, and she now lives with her son in North Burnaby. Her books include The Conjoined, nominated for International Dublin Literary Award and a finalist for the Ethel Wilson Fiction Prize; The Better Mother, a finalist for the City of Vancouver Book Award; The End of EastGentlemen of the Shade; and Chinese New Year. Jen teaches at The Writers’ Studio Online with Simon Fraser University, edits fiction for Wolsak & Wynn and co-hosts the literary podcast Can’t Lit.

  • Publisher : Buckrider Books (April 6 2021)
  • Language : English
  • Paperback : 96 pages
  • ISBN-10 : 1989496288
  • ISBN-13 : 978-1989496282

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Chris Banks is a Canadian poet and author of six collections of poems with Deepfake Serenade from Nightwood Editions forthcoming in Fall 2021. His first full-length collection, Bonfires, was awarded the Jack Chalmers Award for poetry by the Canadian Authors’ Association in 2004. Bonfires was also a finalist for the Gerald Lampert Award for best first book of poetry in Canada. His poetry has appeared in The New Quarterly, Arc Magazine, The Antigonish Review, Event, The Malahat Review, GRIFFEL, American Poetry Journal, Prism International, among other publications. He lives and writes in Waterloo, Ontario.