It’s not necessary to be a connoisseur of German philosophy in order to fall in love with Wendy Chin-Tanner’s Turn, but if you know something about Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel’s theory of revolution, you might enjoy seeing the layers of the book through that lens. Chin-Tanner, who has a background in sociology, learned Hegel’s theory of thesis, anti-thesis, and synthesis, and she considered the way Hegel’s ideas also applied to our emotional lives.
Here’s my somewhat reductive explanation of Hegel’s theory, in case you need a refresher: We have an idea (thesis); we have new ideas that oppose our original idea (anti-thesis); and eventually we bring those opposing ideas together in a way that works for us (synthesis). Another piece of Hegel’s theory is about totality. “For Hegel, only the whole is true,” write Lloyd Spencer and Andrzej Krauze in Hegel for Beginners. Totality, they write, “preserves within it each of the ideas or stages that it has overcome or subsumed.”
“It is a book with a lot of ideas in it,” Chin-Tanner said in a phone conversation. “I want it to resonate on more that just one level, but I tried not to allow academic language to seep into the poetry.”
While Turn does illustrate Hegel’s academic ideas, it also remains intimate and accessible for the reader. For example, the book as a whole reads as an autobiography of Chin-Tanner’s life as a young girl, as an adult, and as a mother, while each of its three sections reflect the ideas of thesis, anti-thesis, and synthesis within Chin-Tanner’s personal narrative:
Thesis: “I am her creature. Her / Caliban. Or am I Miranda / with my thin winter skin?” (from “Tempest”)
Anti-thesis: “I returned from that / ruinless war victorious by// surrendering, having given over / to myself as some do to God” (from “Veteran”)
Synthesis: “And out my bedroom window, the strange bright chirps // of the birds building a nest in the blind winter night.” (from “Signs and Symbols”)
Turn illustrates Hegel’s ideas of totality in the way the speaker’s vision of herself and her family evolves in each section, but at the same time the poems build on their foundation and continue to preserve within in them Chin Tanner’s earlier ideas. “Alzheimer’s” from the last section of the book, is an example of this totality:
as if childhood had not
if the intervening
not passed you by
is peeking at
lacuna signaling ship
to shore unmoored
but restored to
your own private
time her face the
face of your waking
sour if you let it
as it was between
you then what
would happen to
to what was
would you do?
The result of this effort to demonstrate totality is that Chin-Tanner was very conscientious about the order of the poems, so that each poem builds or reflects upon the poem that came before it, and the book, as a whole, becomes a poem in itself.
But forget about Hegel and totality if you like. Choose to read the poetry layer you prefer; each one is as finely-crafted as the next. I prefer the layer in which the book is an autobiography of a strong woman who has overcome family abuse, and is working toward forgiveness. “Abuse happens in more than 30 percent of all households globally,” Chin-Tanner said. “It’s important to me on a personal level that readers not forget that people are multi-faceted. The bad stuff that happens to us is not all that we are.”
And the water / sits still, unburdened, // unbroken by light. (from “Genjokoan”)
Wendy Chin-Tanner is the author of Turn (Sibling Rivalry Press, 2014). Her poems have appeared in such journals as The Mays Anthology of Oxford and Cambridge, The Saint Ann’s Review, The Raintown Review, Praxilla, Melusine, Mascara Literary Review, Umbrella, Softblow, and Lantern Review. Chin-Tanner is a founding editor at Kin Poetry Journal, poetry editor at The Nervous Breakdown, staff interviewer at Lantern Review, and online sociology instructor at Cambridge University, UK. She lives in Portland, Oregon, with her husband and daughters. Turn is a finalist for the 2015 Oregon Book Awards.