I Love a Broad Margin to My Life

In I Love a Broad Margin to My Life, a captivating memoir written in verse, Maxine Hong Kingston summarizes her experience of aging as she turns 65: "Old people suffer,/ too much feeling, shaking with feeling,/ love and grief over too many dear ones,/ and rage at all who would harm them and the hurting world." Indeed, life seems almost too much for the gentle Kingston, the National Book Award-winning author of The Woman Warrior and China Men. A glimpse of a headline about Dick Cheney has her weeping openly in the street because "the stupid, the greedy, the cruel, the unfair have taken/ over the world." At the end of the book, she lists the 50-odd friends and relatives who died during the four years she took to write it, saying, "Each one who dies, I want to go with you./ I feel your pull into death./ I want to join my dead."

But Kingston's disillusionment and despair are no match for her fierce longing to change the world, and she presses on. She describes her 2003 arrest for demonstrating against the war in Iraq in front of the White House. (She and Alice Walker were briefly jailed together.) "We staged/ a theater of peace, recited poems—and did not/ stop our country from war." While she seems almost surprised that her modest protest didn't halt the war machine, she stubbornly, against all evidence, retains her faith in the efficacy of her activism. "I believe: because of constant/ protests, the tonnage of bombs was not as massive/ as planned. And we hit fewer civilian areas./ The peace we have made shall have consequences."

Sections of the book focus on the Chinese-American author's relationship with China. In dreamlike passages she imagines her Tripmaster Monkey character, Wittman Ah Sing, experiencing the country for the first time. "Make up your mind, Monkey, get off the train,/ see the rivertown, enter its symmetry./ Paddle the river straight down the valley;/ stream with the sun's long rays," she writes, directing his journey. She combines these with recollections of her own travels there. Her sense of responsibility, both personal and political, extends to her parents' homeland, as she promises distant relatives, "I won't forget. I shall/ send you money forever," but, ever human, she admits to forgetting them occasionally nonetheless.

Early in the book Kingston reveals that her writing is driven by anxiety: "I am afraid, and need to write./ Save this moment./ Save each scrap of moment; write it down." But she draws the title of this latest work from a line from Thoreau, and like Thoreau, she resolves to live simply and deliberately; perhaps the rhythm of the book, whose plain language carries surprising force, is entwined with that goal. She reveals that the desire to write is leaving her. She's said all she has to say and wants to "become reader/ of the world, no more writer of it." It is a conclusion that is sure to dismay her readers.

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