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‘Organs of Little Importance’ Review: Everything Matters in Adrienne Chung’s Poetry

5 Stars

Cover of Adrienne Chung's "Organs of Little Importance."
Cover of Adrienne Chung's "Organs of Little Importance." By Courtesy of Penguin Random House
By Daniel T. Liu, Contributing Writer

The narrator of Adrienne Chung’s poetry collection “Organs of Little Importance” has a perfect SAT math score. They are a “Valentine’s baby,” a “purebred powerbottom,” and a “moonfaced cowgirl,” and they consider it as obvious as “the sky is blue” that they have mommy issues. These seemingly disparate oddities come together to define a witty and humorous, yet deeply psychoanalytical guide to the absurdities of contemporary life. Chosen by author Solmaz Sharif as the winner of the 2022 National Poetry Series, Chung’s collection of twenty-two poems excavates memory and meaning from the outwardly trivial.

The central logic of the collection calls on Jungian psychology, where “dreams are meticulously recounted and / dissected” into meaningful truths about one’s life. Instead of dreams, Chung’s concentration on the strangeness of 21st century life fuels the collection’s greater truths. The speaker of the poems navigates a life where every seemingly insignificant memory matters. In the poem, “21st Century Pizza,” the speaker remembers the balls of pizza dough in a local shop. Ever since that day, the speaker has looked for “how it yearned / for the empty spaces / between my fingers,” only to discover when returning home that no one can recall such a place.

The dough’s imagined desire for the speaker mimics a greater desire for others to want them, to also yearn for the spaces between their fingers — yet this memory no longer exists in the hometown’s eyes. This oddity explains a greater truth about the speaker’s unconscious desires to be perceived, which spin themselves throughout the entire collection. This small memory is both tragic yet highly relevant, demonstrating Chung’s ability to decipher purpose from the absurd.

This purpose, however, isn’t always actionable. Chung acknowledges that the intricacies of contemporary life don’t always explain themselves as directly as people want. “Arrangements” tells of how the speaker and an unnamed character moved in together and tried arranging their furniture in many different ways, but how “all the base configurations [they] attempted” generated such an uncertainty that “neither of [them] knew what to do.” Instead of an answer, the poem ends with the image of an open book, “the pages sailing out like moths / in the dark.” Chung’s interrogation of memories qualifies itself, a search for endings in an absurd existence that is simultaneously purposeful and impossible, demonstrating the collection’s skill in nurturing both complexity and important revelations.

The same interrogation of memories and small details occurs in the poem “Problem.” The poem is written with structure and academic rigor as it footnotes scholarly papers, and the speaker tries to procedurally and logically deduce an explanation from the unexplainable: “When you / say I am beautiful, you are killing me. Yet when you are killing / me, you are remembering me because the nature of beauty is that it asks to be reproduced.”

Chung asserts words to try to define these apparent contradictions. Her skill lies in this dissection, where she carefully and intimately considers language’s ability to both seek and reject significance, paying deliberate attention to the tiny facts of people’s memories. Chung’s writing is simultaneously refined and intelligent while considering the beauty of mystery. This effort to witness the world and try to derive meaning from it defines her work as a poet. Yet she implies that this effort is only half-complete. Poets, then, are like “moths / in the dark.”

In this intuitive and intellectual discovery of the absurd, Chung finds her poetic power. Her surgical precision in craft is razor-sharp, and her interest in the vestiges of human memory steers her work into the in-between of contemporary life. At times, the collection feels almost random, puzzling, and inexplicable. Nevertheless, Chung finds hope in the mysterious. The perspective of her poetry holds multiple truths at once, fostering a ruthlessly keen eye in an endlessly odd contemporary world.

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