Outside Language as We Know It

You Private Person by Richard Chiem
Sorry House Press, 2017

Reviewed by Emma Levy


You Private Person Cover

I first read Richard Chiem’s You Private Person last summer, in June of 2016. A poet friend of mine, James, told me how much he admired Richard’s writing so I decided to track down a copy of his long out-of-print book. The day that I bought it was also the day I welcomed a dingy little kitten named Frances into my life/apartment. That night, with Frances sleeping on my stomach still wet from her flea bath, I read the entirety of You Private Person with a booklight clipped to the cover so I wouldn’t wake her. There was a softness and a calmness to this night that I’ll always associate with this book. You Private Person was recently re-released by the small press Sorry House, so over the past few weeks, I’ve been re-reading it, much more slowly, and with a much larger version of that same kitten by my side.

Although it no longer features the wonderful Mark Leidner collage on the cover, the design of the new Sorry House edition of YPP is much smoother and more professional-looking. The prose is more polished and the spelling errors from the old Scrambler Books edition have been cleaned up. The new look of YPP gives it a renewed legitimization, and the reprinting gives it another much needed chance at dissemination. I hope that people are finding this strange little book in their local bookstores and taking it home.

James, the same friend who recommended Richard’s book to me, once told me that he thought good poetry comes from an interesting way of looking at the world. This, I think, is something that materializes through language. Abstractly, one could probably point to most books and say this is true, but it is profoundly so for You Private Person. One of the most compelling and simultaneously disarming things about this book is the style of the prose. Chiem uses a fairly uniform sentence structure throughout any particular section of the book, which fits well with the serial description the narrators seem to be doing. The language he uses is often abbreviated and metonymic. As all people who know each other intimately do, each set of characters in YPP seem to speak their own language to each other. Chiem’s narration does this too. He takes words, phrases, and even common cliches and destabilizes our knowledge of them…animating them with a strange, new kind of life.

“The bus hisses and Mary has to be at work for her housekeeping job in about twenty minutes. She’s worries she’s going to be late and then terminated. Sunlight can make her feel unattractive when she’s thinking about more time so I have my hand at her thigh where I calm her through soft squeezes, small reminders that she’s the shit.  

Behind her ear I am communicating to her lobes, You are the employee of the month”

There is grace to Chiem’s idiom in the way that it operates outside of language as most know it, and in the way that is calls attention to the absurdity of the words and phrases we exchange with one another. There is a cleverness to this book that is totally honest and flat on delivery. Chiem doesn’t use the word “diet” but writes, “She is trying to shrink her stomach” and without naming the holiday associated with such celebrations, he begins a paragraph with, “Glass balls are dropping everywhere in the cities of America.” At the same time that Chiem’s idiom is disarming, it invites readers into the scenes in a way that many other narratives do not. I think understanding why this is so has a lot to do with the phrase “private person” which is the title of the book and a concept explored within it in tacit, indirect ways.

There is an interesting mediation that occurs in this book through its narration. Sometimes a scene is just described, in stark detail, and other times, characters are observed and described through the idiom of other characters. Many of these exchanges seem to emphasize and draw attention to the ways in which we are all performing for each other, and even performing for ourselves. Many of the characters are overtly self-aware of the way that their bodies move about in any space, of the way others are interpreting their words, actions, and body shapes. They often imagine themselves in movies or television shows, as if the acting out of something legitimizes it, or makes it more real, in a way that unmediated reality could not.

“She speaks about romance and relationships and tells me she loves me as though quoting a movie”

It seems as though a “private person” is one unburdened by this kind of performance, self-consciousness, and incessant meta-commentary that all Chiem’s characters seem to experience, and that all young people experience as they are navigating their intoxicated bodies through awkward crowds, forcing conversation with others equally as apathetic. In Chiem’s book, being a “private person” can happen when alone with someone who somehow speaks the same language as you, it can happen as a result of a joint smoked alone in an empty hallway, or it can happen when dancing to a Broken Social Scene song that plays over and over. It’s an intimacy all on its own.

“She imagines a man who behaves in such a familiar way around her in such a casual setting, she can lose herself in being a private person, finally a private person”

“She knows how to drink wine and how to drink wine and knows how to make a linguist useless. I can speak forty different languages and yet none when she plays her dance music”

It’s hard to say if YPP is a book of short stories or not. The different sections are like vignettes; they are little detailed scenes that focus intimately on a couple characters at once, all of whom seem profoundly uncomfortable in some way or another. Many of the characters seem to live on the outskirts of each other’s lives, so the book as a whole doesn’t seem like a collection of disparate narratives, but rather, an assemblage of many interconnected ones, all different angles of an uneasy, insular milieu.

EMMA LEVY is a graduate student who lives in Bellingham, Washington.