Sediment by Sandy Tseng
Sandy Tseng’s first collection, Sediment, makes much of the world left behind by disaster, immigration, and desire. Divided into four sections—Ocean Perimeter, Dust, The Decades Between, Ash—the collection as a whole attempts to understand the detritus of cities, landscapes, and familial bonds. The opening poem, “East Window,” for example, introduces a speaker whose “name evolves from characters to letters” in a new country. Much in the way that the sun rises in the East, so does Sediment’s speaker, who takes the reader along with her in this journey from East to West, from a land where “laundry dries in the aroma of fried fish” (“The Merchants Have Said It”) to a land where “we leave the poor behind” (“Sediment”).
“For each new word, we lose one from the past,” Tseng writes in “Songs of Barnacles.” It is in this losing that Sediment takes its shape. Throughout the collection, the speaker struggles with identity and heritage, the residue of the ancestral past. In the aptly titled “Genealogy,” Tseng writes:
These poems, however, are not merely satisfied with a banal discussion of cultural identification, but with the strangeness that ensues when one is out of place in a country not entirely their own, the “round peg in a round hole” (“Genealogy.”) Tseng writes:
(“From the First Generation”)
In the new world Sediment presents, even a stuffed turkey is grotesque. However, the speaker notes that once a person becomes acclimated to the new world’s large glasses of milk and forty dollar sweaters “[w]e can never go back. I’ve wanted to pack everything into a box, ship it / back overseas with a note explaining” (“From the First Generation”).
Tseng’s lyric narrative voice gives each poem a prayer-like quality. No poem is overtly flourished, preachy, gimmicky, or indulgent. At times, the poems appear to close abruptly, but then several pages later, the conversation is picked up again, as in the poems “From the First Generation” and “Trespasses of the City.” The latter poem continues the thought of the speaker’s inability to return to things (to a country, a lover), noting:
Sediment embraces the world and its ruin of “bloated bodies. A submerged tree. A boat” sunk with its “cargo containing rice, soap, and stretchers” (“Sediment”) through sensual imagery and diction and attention to craft precision and detail. Tseng’s Sediment, for all of its descriptions of destruction, taps into the humanity of wanting to look back at the ruin and make something bloom from it. “At some point our loss is almost fatal” (“Before”), Tseng writes, but “[t]his is the way we start over” (“A State of Drowning”). It is rare that a collection’s title works so fundamentally well within its narrative arch. Each poem functions as a delicate remain of something—a bit of garlic, a foreign name, a city swept away by flood water—to remind us that these losses are a “confirmation of our inadequacy” (“The Bypass”) as humans to control the world we inhabit. “The dust shakes,” Tseng writes in the collection’s title poem, “We are the dust shaking.”