Invocation: An Essay

By Jennifer S. Cheng

New Michigan Press
January 2011
56 pages


Reviewed by Lindsey Drager


In one of only two moments rendered in second person, Jennifer S. Cheng's chapbook length essay Invocation quantifies voice: "When you are a child you are instructed to speak with a six-inch voice. This is to control the projection of words—a barrier that encloses your sound." Herein lies Cheng's central contention: that speech is not the emblem of freedom, but a product of the body that must be carefully harnessed by the mind: or, in some perhaps sadder cases, a product of the mind that the body censors.

Invocation opens with a picture: the verso of a book (we can see the layers of pages to the left) with nine profiles of the head and neck, each illustrating the tongue's position and the throat's opening as the speaker produces sound. At first glance, it is the minor visual changes between the nine figures that capture the reader's attention; the nasal passage is closed in one, but open in another; the throat shows a slim chord vibrating in only five of the nine. But the most evocative feature of the picture isn't what we're shown, but what we aren't. Underneath each illustration, in the place where there should be a title or figure number, instead there is only this:

[          ]

And so, Invocation begins with voice that fails, nine attempts at sound that stand reduced to synchronized silence. In some ways, the essay ends there, too.

Cheng is interested in making voice—and subsequently muteness—visible. The essay's physical rendering reflects this; with every page we are reminded of the cleave between language as a written versus an aural production. Not unlike Jenny Boully's The Body: An Essay, this study interprets the essay as ever-shifting and shaped by the blank space it employs. The photographs which riddle nearly every spread reiterate this notion; most of the photos do not feature people but ideas, abstractions, and spaces, from a diagram naming the clouds to a loose thread uniting a button to cloth; a chart depicting visually the frequency of vowels; a close-up of the residue left in a photo album after a picture is removed; two dozen paper cranes hanging in a vertical column in front of a sheer curtain that fails to block the light.

Many of the photos are cropped. An object that stands as mere backdrop on one page is recycled as the focal point on the next. It is difficult not to draw parallels between this tactic and echo; both remind, but also reduce.

The story provided is skeletal. Although there is a reoccurring "I" character, one reads for the interplay of text, image and void, for both the layout and language on the page. The "I" that we can follow is one that seems deeply concerned with the difference between consciously practicing silence and finding oneself mute. Cheng oscillates between binarizing body and voice ("sometimes children stop speaking because, lost in a stranger's land, they are left with only their bodies"), and underscoring that they are one ("the world begins with a voice shut tightly, a closed throat"). This uncertainty proves endearing and, ultimately, quite moving; it is clear the "I" yearns to speak, but also to be heard.

In the end, though, Invocation is the script of a soliloquy, a monologue never voiced. Take for example, this scene, which is accompanied by a diagram of open vocal chords entitled "(a)Voiceless":

If it is true that the number of sentences coming out of my mouth is in direct relationship to my body in the world, then bones will become smaller, vacant. When I speak to the lady behind the counter or the person sitting next to me, I can never predict how my voice will sound: smooth, abrupt, flat, brittle, lingering. Now, it comes in tiny microscopic knots or large empty spaces, often then followed by Did you say something? or a continued conversation elsewhere around me. So that afterward in the darkness as I am riding home, I am looking out the window, thinking of octopi on the ocean floor and what they see at night.

Here we sense the longing and loneliness associated with the failure of speech, whether that is because the words don't come or can't. Her struggle to articulate her own voice is painfully brilliant; "abrupt," "flat," "lingering" all fail to reflect fully what she means. And right she is; vocabulary to describe voice is a gaping absence in the catalog of language. Consider that we have more words to explain that abstractness called taste than we do to describe the edifice through which words come.

"Sometimes the body reacts automatically and only later does the mind recognize and name what it is feeling," Cheng claims. I can reach for words to qualify Invocation; cerebral, hermetic, sad. But in the end I'm drawn to the absences, the space that is left where she would like answers to be.

Maybe the book is telling me something about how to review it. Maybe I should leave the word right where it is, there on the tip of my tongue.