Published on June 21st, 2024 | by Sharline Chiang


Waxing and Waning: An Essay Review of WOMEN ON THE MOON

Unabashed and unapologetic, Debora Kuan’s third collection of poems, Women on the Moon, takes us through the vertiginous journey of womanhood in reverse. Like a racecar driver gunning backwards, she seems to deftly hold the wheel with one hand and hit the gas, barely feeling the need to check the rearview mirror or turn her head to see what might be worth swerving around, worth avoiding.

Traversing from motherhood to marriage to domestic coupling to campus life to adolescence—from kissing the top of a child’s head with its “sweet biscuit scent” to the precipice of a collegiate walk of shame to idolizing Freddie Mercury, with his knee “unlocking to punch”—Kuan’s narrator is achingly mortal and relatable, especially on motherhood. From “Magic Lesson”:

This is my face,
a spinning plate.
I’m unraveling
as a mother does
a knot from a bow/to astonish you.

On giving birth, she is straightforward and wry:

My hand to God, you will not care if you shit the table.

She also offers this hard kernel of truth:

You will not get a weekend anymore.

Reading through the collection, I found myself losing track of time, burrowing myself into one poem after another, rereading lines full of evocative imagery and tension that often echoed what I was feeling in real time.

In these 43—yes, 43—poems, grouped according to phases of the moon, weighing in throughout is Kuan’s re-imagined version of the legendary Chinese moon goddess Chang-E. Unlike the much-objectified deity (who undoubtedly sprung from the imaginations of men), renowned primarily for her beauty and grace, long flowing robes, and wifely loyalty (more on this later), Kuan’s Chang-E is by contrast pyretic, brooding, and cautionary.

From “Moon Goddess as Imaginary Matriarch”:

Don’t you understand?
every mother builds her      miracle
in proximity    to hell.

Within these poems, Chang-E, a celestial being visiting the moral realm, experiences what the rest of us she-mortals experience. Thanks to Kuan giving her such brilliant and rich interiority, we are reminded through the goddess’ keen observations that the veil between our waking plate-spinning selves and our subconscious, alter egos of pantheon-filled goddesses is thinner than we realize. That is, Kuan reminds us that we are more divine than we remember.

For those unfamiliar with Chang-E: in the more common version of her story, the one Kuan cites, Chang-E was the wife of Hou Yi, a legendary archer who shot down nine of ten suns and was rewarded with two portions of the elixir of immortality by the Emperor.Hou Yi wanted to wait to consume the elixir so he could take it with Chang-E, and left it with her until the time was right. While Hou Yi went hunting, his apprentice broke into their house and tried to steal the elixir. Rather than give the elixir up to the crooked apprentice, Chang-E, being the good woman that she was, took both portions herself. She then flew upward past the heavens, choosing the Moon to be her immortal residence because she loved her husband so much and wished to live near him. According to legend, when the moon is full, especially during Mid-Autumn Moon Festival, you can see her up there with her rabbit, her only companion.

I read these poems at the kitchen table after my daughter had gone to bed, listening to her hacking cough, waiting for her fever to break after five straight days. I read them at my desk between Zoom meetings and between doing the dishes and sweeping. And let’s face it, I read many of these poems in the bathroom, a mother’s true reading room, the last frontier. I’d read whenever I had the chance. Inevitably at some point I’d become aware of the many minutes that had passed by and think: What am I doing? I have a million things to do. More laundry, more dishes, birthday planning, appointment-making, food prepping, invoicing, email responding…I don’t have time to just sit here and read a book of poetry on motherhood during motherhood. Yet I found myself returning to it even if weeks went by.

Photo by Richard Gatley on Unsplash

Kuan has an uncanny ability for language and nailing the universal in specific imagery. In “Intentions” the narrator is six months pregnant and myopic without her glasses. She is making her way through a crowded restaurant:

Fledgling slow, a glass piano
on the floor of the sea

That line took me back to the singular, strange sensation of vulnerability of existing with and within a pregnant body.

In “On Studying Your IKEA Rug While You’re Asleep With Fever,” the narrator reflects on internal shifts since her child was born:

I could begin to abandon
reason since now I loved beyond it.

The prose poem “Blood of the Rainbow” struck me in particular. It’s about Kuan’s/the narrator’s grandmother, whose name is Hong, the Chinese word for rainbow. Hong is also a homophone for the word red.

When my grandmother was a young communist activist in her rural village in China, she was captured by the Kuomintang and thrown into jail. There she was tortured on a stretching rack—

This piece reminded me of how many of us are descended from women who were never able to tell their own stories. Those women are/were in fact far more resilient and powerful than the mythological goddesses we learn about through oral traditions and books (again, most of whom were invented by men). What they endured, often in silence, was far more real and harrowing and awe-inspiring than fiction.

Kuan’s collection is a skilled poet’s playground (she’s the current poet laureate of Wallingford, CT) as she moves effortlessly through forms, from tercets and quatrains to prose poems and even a Mad Lib and word find.

Did I “get” all of the poems? No. Do I appreciate the existence of all of them? Definitely.

With a collection of this strength and size, it’s hard to quibble. But if I had to nitpick, I’d say I wish the writer had included some poems where we could have seen the narrator’s own mother as a mirror to understand how one learns to become either a mother in a similar mold, or unlearns and escapes what forms us.

Regarding Chang-E, and this is less a quibble than things-that-make-you-go-hmm, what if we read Chang-E in this collection as the “bad” version of the goddess?

In another version, it’s Chang-E who stole the elixir from Hou Yi, drank it by her own damn self, and then flew to the Moon so that her husband could not go after her. In this version, there’s no Chang-E who self-sacrificed for a man but there is a woman who made a bold choice for herself, put her own wishes first. In yet another version, she was punished for being greedy and selfish so she was banished to live on the moon eternally alone. (From a busy mom’s perspective, that doesn’t actually sound that bad. One could get a lot of reading done on the moon. Plus, I like rabbits.)

Women on the Moon is a kaleidoscopic meditation on womanhood and all the multitudes of mortal and heavenly nested selves within each of us. It challenged me to confront my own attitudes toward what I had clearly consciously or subconsciously deemed content worthy of my precious downtime during this Tetris-esque, sword-juggling chapter of life. I apparently have been a hard yes for auto-scrolling through news and social media and too many TikTok videos of people dancing and makeup tutorials, and the occasional memoir or novel (which I’ve only lately found the time and bandwidth for as my kid has gotten older). Often up for hours in the quiet of the night after a long day, I want what I want. Poetry on motherhood, on the other hand, apparently not so much. This, on the surface, seems to make sense. Mental escapism in this chapter can often feel second best to actual ability to escape. I have tended to steer away from motherhood poems for fear of A) cloying overpraise of how great it is, and how great one’s spawn are, B) the opposite, which while better than the former would still be antithetical to my yen for escapism.  

Photo by Patrick McManaman on Unsplash

But in moving through Kuan’s poems, something shifted. I recognized in certain pieces and lines a complex vibrato that reminded me: there is something between A and B, and it’s possible to hold and behold both. Also, even though words fail, here is someone trying and often nailing those complex feelings and liminal spaces, with economy, precision, and metaphor. Poetry on motherhood can be irresistible. (I know what you’re thinking: of course it can! As I admitted, I was biased!)

As a mother these poems helped me feel less alone. As a mother who writes—often about motherhood—it reminded me that I should make more time to seek out and read poems on motherhood that speak to me.

What’s the saying about Punch Buggies? Once you start playing the game you start seeing them everywhere. Well, once I finished Kuan’s collection, poems on motherhood mysteriously started crossing my path, including this heart-stopping one I rabbit-holed upon the other day, “Advice to Myself” by Louise Erdrich, which starts with these lines:

Leave the dishes. Let the celery rot in the bottom drawer of the refrigerator

and ends with:

Recycle the mail, don’t read it, don’t read anything except what destroys the insulation between yourself and your experience or what pulls down or what strikes at or what shatters this ruse you call necessity.

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About the Author

Sharline Chiang is a Berkeley-based writer, editor, book coach, and publicist originally from New Jersey. Her writings have appeared in BuzzFeed, Rumpus, OZY, Hyphen, and CAAM. She is a Glimmer Train fiction contest finalist, a former VONA fellow; and co-host of the podcast “Democracy in Color with Steve Phillips.” She is an advocate for maternal mental health and wellness.

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