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Image: Tina Tiller
Image: Tina Tiller

BooksMay 5, 2022

Give it up for Cadence Chung

Image: Tina Tiller
Image: Tina Tiller

Cadence Chung’s first collection of poems, Anomalia, recently launched to this absolutely rapturous speech from her friend and fellow poet, Rebecca Hawkes. 

What a joy it is to be together this evening, celebrating this exquisite debut. Cadence is a poet with a strikingly vivid sensibility and Anomalia is a luscious book. 

I worked really hard on distilling my sense of this book into a blurb – and you can read it on the back of the book when you get a copy, which you all must! 

This collection is a curiosity cabinet stacked with stolen Rembrandts, dangling stamens, discontinued eyeshadows and dismembered cicada wings. 

In Cadence Chung’s bewitching museum, the poems glimmer like pinned insects ready to buzz back into frantic, glittering life. Her poetry brims with sensation – from the tenderness of mushroom gills to a specimen begging for vivisection. 

At turns self-conscious and radiantly unhinged, Chung’s Anomalia contemplates the love and loneliness of anomalous subjects, inviting her reader-creatures to examine life from the other side of the glass.

I’ve felt drawn to Cadence’s work ever since I first saw her in Starling, because I sense we share a magpie gaze – dryad and dandy, aesthetes or hoarders building curio shrines from secondhand treasures. Her poems are opulent and glittery – all opals and twinkling taxidermy eyes. The speaker in many of these poems wears a faerie-like glamour, bedecked in jewelled beetle cases and cheap makeup and portrait pendants shaped like hand grenades.

But while this speaker is magnetically attracted to the trappings of beauty, the poetry always returns to a sense of outsiderness … the loneliness of the anomaly, gathering relics from strangers’ lives or peering into other people’s homes, murmuring i want to be in their lives / in their laughter / in their lit-up windows (from Home).

Two photographs showing a book of poems in a 'shrine' of a green Tiffany lamp, crystals and a peacock feather.
Rebecca Hawkes made an insta shrine to Anomalia (Photos: Supplied)

The beating anatomical heart of this book is something at the hot sore core of so many poets’ work: a need to be seen, and known, and understood in all our oddness, even if that means submitting our vulnerabilities for dissection. The specimen begs the scientist: look at me! not at my shell of a body not at my pieces and parts but at my eyes and later in the book the scientist obligingly opens the specimen’s heart like a ripe pomegranate, knowing to the point of obliteration. How can we offer our full selves to others without inviting destruction?

How do we bring our strangeness and charm to a world that categorises unusual ways of being as deviant? Anomalies have been sideshow oddities or objects of scientific enquiry, kept behind glass to be inspected but protected from? The book gestures specifically to the oppressed queer histories of Western canon – the ancestry of today’s dominant colonial culture. 

Poems include a dedication to sepia photos of Victorian men kissing, Smiggle stationery belonging to Byron and Woolf. In the present day of these poems, hot animal breath between girls in a bed may still end up with them being separated with a scalpel and taken back to the lab or museum.

In these poems, the curiosities behind the glass stare back at the reader. Anomalia romanticises, even eroticises, the experience of the test subject’s surrender. But the poems also seek another form of connection, a full and whole understanding without invasive dismemberment, that frees the lovers from. Like in escapees: We’re two locusts, escaped from the science lab! /  We look at the world with wide bright eyes / seeing how it looks without the glass.

Anomalia celebrates the beauty in difference, and the richness of life itself, full of relics to discover and futures of love. This collection will leave you breathless, whirling, fiery as the aftertaste of a nasturtium petal on the tongue.

Here’s part of one of my favourite poems from the collection. This fragment from the poem that’s why they call me missus fahrenheit captures some of the urgency and sensory goodness of the book:

saw a mushroom today in my backyard / bet i could write about its soft / silver gills, its spores springing to my finger’s / warm touch. girl, i’m so mad i’m getting tender / about a mushroom i’m getting tender about / everything because everything’s too bitter / to not suck on the sweet bits making every lick last / like a lolly on a car trip an eyeshadow / from a discontinued line.

Cadence wrote this collection in her final year of high school. I could gush to the point of total transparent insecurity over the startling and prolific talent from such a young writer, but apart from whether people are still eligible for Starling or not it does us all a disservice to dwell on age. We emerge in our own good time, like cicadas crawling from the ground, ready for our season of screaming. And this book reveals a considered and mature craft, a writer not beyond her years but exactly and perfectly of them. The raw intensity of teen feeling spills from these unpunctuated poems in dreamy overflows like Richard Siken or Chris Tse’s best lyric cascades, unleashing the overwhelming potential of a life with magnum opuses (opii? is this an octopuses situation) yet to be written, reveling in other writers’ legacies and already dreaming up her own, hungry for all the beautiful things in the world, ready to drown in art.

It is a tremendous honour to be part of Cadence’s first launch, of what I’m sure will be many to come. Congratulations Cadence and the We Are Babies team on the launching of your gorgeous Anomalia.

Anomalia, by Cadence Chung (We Are Babies Press, $25) is available from Unity Books Auckland and Wellington. 

Keep going!