In Praise Of: Kayleigh Jayshree Reviews Bright Fear by Mary Jean Chan


The title of this collection has never felt so poignant. As the years get more and more sweltering, and queer people’s rights become discussed as if it’s a matter of opinion, I feel bright and afraid most of the time.

Before reading Bright Fear, I was acquainted with Mary Jean Chan’s work. Chan, as a poet, means a lot, to a lot of people. To gender non-conformists, to lesbians and bisexuals, to anyone who has to come out to whoever they meet, again and again. Most of my family probably suspect I’m a bit fruity, but outside of my mum and brother, I’ve never formally come out. It doesn’t feel like deception, but more that I have a frumpy, hand-made hat that I only wear around friends. My queerness is one of my life’s great joys; I’ve made friendships that feel like sisterhoods, I’ve zipped my friends into their first dresses, bleached my friend’s hair before she came out, helped people affirm and learn their identity, while feeling more solidified in my own.

I read this collection when visiting a close friend. She has a sticker label machine, and wrote my name with little hearts on the cover, and it makes me smile whenever I look at it. I read ‘Love is for the Living’ to her in the car, on the way to pick pumpkins, driven in the rain by her flatmate, ‘Out of the Woods’ by Taylor Swift echoing tinnily through the car speakers:

To refuse to be a bomb shelter for your mother’s
fears. What is it like to believe the years are not
a life sentence for bodies like yours? Like this:
a spiral of rainbow bunting sprung like relief
across a lit sky. The ache when your father
mentions your partner’s name.

We were all struck, in this car, by the words and how they could apply to each of us. The tones of destruction and rebuilding, quiet joy of surviving. How it is much harder to hide than to be open, but being open is still hard.

There are some of us who are queer in plain sight, and to me, this feels very vulnerable. Reading Mary Jean Chan’s Bright Fear, which explores and unravels shame in a delicate, raw way, began a bit of a healing process for me. My favourite section of Bright Fear was the part named II. Ars Poetica, especially ‘XII’:

my poetry students don’t know
they’ve saved me, the lecturer
who is supposed to talk about
grief and mothers and queer
joy or shame with a sense of
critical distance, except I am
nearly moved to display deep
emotion when they read their
poems aloud

Mary Jean Chan’s sense of proximity and how that corresponds with claustrophobia, closeting and the release of it shows how much charge and style Mary Jean Chan places in phrasing and lineation that feels effortless. Bright Fear is less of an improvement (but that is difficult to quantify) on Flèche than a continuation of the themes, without feeling as esoteric or distanced. Mary Jean Chan steps into joy and a wider spectrum of emotions in Bright Fear, openly stating how the brightness of love and self acceptance can be so dizzying, so disorienting that it can make you deeply afraid.

Overall, Bright Fear is less searching and self assured than Flèche, and more open to the vulnerable tone of its speakers, offering stellar and spectacular insights into life during the pandemic, academic distance, translation, grief, and language, which, for a less agile poet, would feel stretched or overwhelming. It’s perhaps because Mary Jean Chan leans into the dizziness and doesn’t shy away from its brightness, that I was dizzied, swept away, while reading.

Bright Fear is available with Faber books or most independent bookshops.



Kayleigh Jayshree is a poet and short story writer. She was IS&T’s July 2021 Pick of the Month and her poem was commended in the Young Poets Network ‘When a Friend Calls’ challenge. Kayleigh was a Member of the Roundhouse Collective, mentored by Cecilia Knapp and a 2021-2022 Apples & Snakes Writing Room Alumni taught by Dfiza Benson.

She is Ink Sweat & Tears‘ Editing Intern.