Selected by Jos Charles as the winner of the 2021 Ballard Spahr Prize for Poetry, Return Flight is a lush reckoning: with inheritance, with body, with trauma, with desire—and with the many tendons in between.
When Return Flight asks “what name / do you crown yourself,” Jennifer Huang answers with many. Textured with mountains—a folkloric goddess-prison, Yushan, mother, men, self—and peppered with shapeshifting creatures, spirits, and gods, the landscape of Huang’s poems is at once mystical and fleshy, a “myth a mess of myself.” Sensuously, Huang depicts each of these not as things to claim but as topographies to behold and hold.
Here, too, is another kind of mythology. Set to the music of “beating hearts / through objects passed down,” the poems travel through generations—among Taiwan, China, and America—cataloging familial wounds and beloved stories. A grandfather’s smile shining through rain, baby bok choy in a child’s bowl, a slap felt decades later—the result is a map of a present-day life, reflected through the past.
Return Flight is a thrumming debut that teaches us how history harrows and heals, often with the same hand; how touch can mean “purple” and “blue” as much as it means intimacy; and how one might find a path toward joy not by leaving the past in the past, but by “[keeping a] hand on these memories, / to feel them to their ends.”
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Praise and Prizes
“There is such a thing as a vulnerability, not of the personal, but of the unsaid: a strength in testifying to contradiction, overflowing occurrence, like saying something that surprises even yourself or a fleeing that returns. Return Flight is an attentive but effulgent but joyously aching book. Its lines dig inward and cling even as they unfold outward in excess and surprise. ‘What pain is the desire for pain?’ one poem asks. ‘Many visitors lately, another begins, I wake to an ache in my sternum.’ Huang’s lines can move like that, with, sonically, crystalline compactness, while directing the reader with cinematic clarity of scene and the delights of recontextualization. ‘I wanted this poem to be about dropping textbooks on my arm to get out of practicing violin’ is an actual—how carefully it discloses!—opening line. And while there is much to mourn, and Return Flight does mourn, it never gives into despair, the unsaid of parting, things never touching—but offers in its place a poetics of gentle, real, expansive touching. It comes back around and leads us out: like a ‘window you turn to and notice outside two papayas touching.’ Return Flight is a book that aligns itself with pleasure. Burrow inside.”
“Jennifer Huang’s compelling poems arise from the mutable realm between speaking and flying, touching and breaking, absence and forgiveness, numbness and desire, everywhere and nowhere, the home of the body—and home. Here, the poem abides even through gradations of silence—the bone in the throat, the tongue both captive and captivated, and love, too, abides, despite striations and separations, even dissolving the veil between the living and the dead. Huang writes, “what I know is what I imagine,” and it is imagination, made manifest in poems that map a blooming selfhood, that fuels the concentric energy of Return Flight.”
“Jennifer Huang’s Return Flight feels like a conversation and journey at once. It is a charismatic debut collection, one of whose many feats is its meditation on lineage. The poet asks: How does pain suture and puncture a family through generations? What language gives what body to that pain? Whose languages and forms have I inherited? Whose literary lineages am I writing in? Deeply introspective, Huang also contemplates the ‘distance between me and I,’ the distance between themselves and their body, and how love can turn the self into a stranger as well as an opening for others. I marvel at the intimacy and wonder with which Huang treats and transforms their figures––many of whom are shape-shifting, mythical, or part-human––to render their themes into rich imagery. At the end of this conversation, this journey, I also emerge a different animal, vigilant and curious about my own body and its place in this strange, cruel, and miraculous world.”
“How delighted I am by these poems that praise ‘the holy scent of ripe mud’ and the ‘joyful stench’ of chou doufu. How moved I am by this poet who understands that beauty can stink, desire can suffocate as much as illuminate, and becoming is an endless looking back while dreaming into. And family is never simple, always ample with history, lilies, seas, such fissure alongside tenderness. Jennifer Huang is more than an undeniably talented poet—they are an uncompromising truth-teller.”