To read Jenny Zhang is to embrace primal states: pleasure, hunger, longing and rage. In her second book of poetry, My Baby First Birthday, Zhang glories in the messiness of living while probing how the instinct to nurture can sometimes be matched by the impulse to destroy.
In 97 poems, Zhang covers everything from the broadly political, like the #MeToo movement and white saviors, to the intimately personal, such as kink and giving birth, in graphic and physical verse. The collection is fascinated with both motherhood and new life—the fierce giving and taking of unconditional love and the traumas that can result from this exchange. “There are too many centuries of mothers loving their mothers/ I will be the first to love myself more than I love my mother,” Zhang muses in “The Universal Energy Is About to Intervene in Your Life.”
Divided into four sections named for the seasons, the collection also confronts the injustices of a world whose structures are cruel to those they weren’t built to protect. Zhang is at her sharpest when she leans into the specificity and brutal humor of this. “When did I agree to be a textbook/ for you and your whole dumb family,” she asks. “My people make history if they just stay alive/ well anything is easy if yr existence is wanted.”
Zhang’s observations, peppered cheekily with Internet shorthand, are flanked by graphic and often gross imagery—something readers of her past books, the short-story collection Sour Heart and her poetry debut Dear Jenny, We Are All Find will recognize. Raw, and sometimes violent, feelings are depicted in visceral descriptions of bodily fluids and functions—as well as frequent usage of Zhang’s apparent favorite expletive, the C word.
Reading these poems, one gets the sense that Zhang wants to overwhelm readers— not to hold them in her thrall, although she could easily do so, but to fulfill an earnest wish for them to feel the richness of everything that they can, emotionally and physically, even if that complicates their reality. It’s something she knows well from personal experience. “I’m not an easy woman,” she declares. “And why would you want to be?”