Each Crumbling House by Melody S. Gee at times feels like an apology for being born a woman. Chinese and Chinese-American culture prefer boys to girls, men to women, and Gee demonstrates the struggle for self-acceptance in the face of a society that deems her as less than. The “Paper Son” poems reveal a deep yearning to belong to a male-driven society, while at the same time they are acutely aware of female oppression. In the third “Paper Son,” Gee asks, “What I would give to rewrite/ your despair. But what history are daughters given?” (ln. 11-12). The rest of the book before and after this moment are a bitter and somewhat sarcastic response to that question.
Gee speaks about her relationship with her mother extensively throughout the collection. Each reference to her mother is either a story told, a lesson learned, or a fight for appreciation. Gee’s struggle to receive loving affection culminates in the poem “Eating Bitter.” The mother takes her own bitterness and soaks it into the food that she feeds to her daughter:
My stomach filled with my
and forgetting. And I took in bitter
from the food and her hands
that moved inside my mouth. (“Eating Bitter” ln. 20-24)
“Eating Bitter” is the most developed and realized of Gee’s poems that deal directly with food and maternity. It is sparing in diction and terse in line length. Gee’s use of the winter melon as an image for family and heritage appears in several other poems, but it is strongest here. The poet’s connection to China is present in this poem, but not overpowering, allowing for both culturally sensitive and universal readings and interpretations of the poem.
Other strong poems in the collection include “Migration,” “Fear,” “Where I Lie,” “A Line of Skin,” and they eponymous “Each Crumbling House.” Each of these particular poems builds on Gee’s themes of ethnicity and the female experience. “Migration,” “Where I Lie,” and “Each Crumbling House” all speak openly to the immigrant and first-generation American experience, and n “Fear,” Gee explores the confusion of early sexuality by means of a spider; the question of intimacy and sexuality carries through “A Line of Skin.”
However, despite the strength and poignancy of her images throughout Each Crumbling House, something about this poetry collection still falls a bit lackluster. The handful of poems already mentioned are the only ones to stand out separately from the rest; in general, the book works better as a whole than as individual poems. For readers who are not interested in “ethnic literature,” the continual hearkening back to Chinese-American themes and dialogue may feel tedious and nonessential. Similarly, a reader who is uninterested in femininity and womanhood will be easily bored by Gee’s constant referral to her relationship with her mother.
If the reader is interested in these two themes, then Each Crumbling House is a good choice for a book of poetry to read. Because the poems tend to work better as a whole collection than as individual works, this book is approachable to a reader who may be unfamiliar with poetry, as its inter-reliance reflects the construction of a piece of prose while still being distinctively poetry. Each Crumbling House is a subtly bittersweet portrait of the female Chinese-American experience, and a good addition to the Chinese-American literary canon.