Reviewed by Christina Cook
Yu Xiang’s I Can Almost See the Clouds of Dust opens with an almost Whitman-like assertion of selfhood that makes a definitive break from the Chinese literary tradition out of which it came. Like the poems that follow, “My House” is constructed from deceivingly simple assertions spoken in plain language with unadorned syntax, as shown below:
I have a door, a reminder: Be careful! You might lose your way. This is my house, a long narrow hallway, a table with a view. A tangerine tree. A piece of coal. Stacked books form one side of the hallway. Some of their authors are dead, some too old, no longer exposing us to danger.
These lines are neatly swept in a poetic house that has no cobwebs and does not pretend to be something it isn’t. The poem neither bears an underlying political agenda, as did the socialist, realist poetry of the mid-20th century; nor does it express a reaction against it, as did the Misty poetry of the late 20th century. It does not even hint at the anti-hero, anti-allegory, anti-image leanings of her New Generation contemporaries. This is the house that Yu built, where the books of the past are no longer threatening or even relevant, aside from the presence of the stacked physical forms. They have become as benign as the tangerine tree or the piece of coal beside them.
The clarity of the speaker’s vision is unassailable—affected neither by past authors nor by future readers of the poem, whom she directly addresses in the following excerpt:
This is my house. If you happen to walk in, it’s certainly not for my rambling notes. You and my house are unrelated, you’re simply chez moi.
One of the greatest challenges in translating poetry, especially Eastern poetry into a Western language, is the absence of exact linguistic equivalents. In the face of this challenge, translator Fiona Sze-Lorrain draws on the French language from time to time throughout the book, when she feels it can provide a closer translation than the English. She does so here in the final line of the poem. English would only provide two options for this last line: “at my house,” which would negate the line’s distinction from the meaning of “house” elsewhere in the poem, and “in my home,” which is cozier than the source text. “Chez moi,” however, connotes a sense of personal—but not intimate—space in a way that encompasses the act of being in that space. This effectively likens the reader to a passing thought in the mind of a meditator: the meditator acknowledges its presence, is unaffected by it, and lets it slip away, true to the original poem.
The speaker’s house, we are told, is “a long narrow hallway,” a space designed for the very purpose of being passed through, which is a useful metaphor in many of the poems in this collection. The next poem, “Street,” exudes a similar sense of movement—one that is effected by Sze-Lorrain’s mellifluous translation:
Like luscious fruit, it ripens overnight and rots. In summer peel open the past tagging behind and those dark readings A simple love We dress simply, love simply so simply that we fall in love once we meet
The alliteration throughout the poem makes it move smoothly, and this gracefulness, combined with the abundance of liquid and fricative sounds suggesting flow and speed, together create a poem that connotes movement over stasis.
The same can be said of the poem “Distracted,” but in this poem the idea of a fluid passing-through is conveyed through the meanings rather than the sounds of the words:
I keep staring at one thing I drink beer with acquaintances and strangers I am staring and drinking this enchanting beer How I wish I could become beer, flow into others’ bodies I like staring at one thing and watching I like staring at fleeting things unaware that someone else is staring at me in this way.
The speaker experiences the flow of the present moment through time, all while in a daze. It is in fact the reverie that allows her to enter the flow of fleeting things, and as the poem closes she becomes one of those very things in the eyes of another daydreamer. This kind of mental freedom and openness is critical to Yu’s writing process. In an interview Sze-Lorrain conducted with her for Cerise Press in 2012, she explained that, “when not writing, I maintain a state of awareness, practice ‘non-slackness’: daydreaming, contemplation, distraction, tolerance, as well as read texts, images, music, and intricate details from daily life… they all constitute the long process of a poem.”
Nowhere in the book is this process more evident than in the ten-page, section-long “To the One Who Writes Poetry Tonight,” which conveys the reader as if by flickering candlelight through the interior passageways of the speaker’s mind. It is a real-time stream-of-consciousness poem, with few commas and no periods, much repetition, clipped lines, and little-to-no narrative thread. The poem enacts the creative reverie introduced in “Distracted,” such as collaging images, musical phrasing, and words that appear elsewhere throughout the book into a free-flowing amalgam of creative thought that finds shape in its utterance. As Yu told Sze-Lorrain in the same interview, “The complexity of an inner world signifies capacity, speed and vivacity. It is also comprised of disorderliness. For me, what’s most important when expressing something is to arrange an order; an order of freedom, a poetic logic.”
While “To the One Who Writes Poetry Tonight” imposes a linguistic order to the disorderliness of the speaker’s inner world, “A Painting Life” imposes a physical order to the disorderliness of the speakers personal and inherited past. This in turn finds its ultimate expression in a series of “still-life” paintings:
I want to paint some still lifes sell them cheap to get by I take down my forefathers’ awards and medals stained with glorious corrosion dig out a pile of red leather diplomas from the bottom of a box then unscrew the beacon lights in the living room For a lyrical feel, I arrange them again and again these still lifes, like the last nobles
The speaker rearranges heavily weighted, symbolically-loaded articles from the past together with living room lights, effectively shining light on these corroded, dug-up items by objectifying them and painting them in the manner she wants them to be seen. In so doing, she appropriates the figures that once appropriated Chinese writers’ freedoms in a series of very simple, matter-of-fact gestures conveyed by Sze-Lorrain’s simple syntax and plain word choices.
In her forward to the collection, Sze-Lorrain explains that “most of the translated syntax and word choices are intuitive: they have more to do with the eyes and ear, imagination and emotional histories, and cannot afford linguistic justification or reasoning” (xii). This is not a translator seeking a carte blanche for her work—quite the opposite. In order to rewrite Yu’s Chinese poems in English (with a smattering of French) in a way that best expresses the real poems—that is, the poems that are not in themselves made up of language but can only be expressed through language. The translator must start where Yu herself started, before ever touching pen to paper, which is in daydreams, imagination, intuition, and sensory experiences. All of these practices constitute the long process of an exquisite translation that gives English language readers the opportunity to read the work of this important contemporary Chinese poet.
A key figure of the post-70s Chinese poets, Yu Xiang began writing poetry in 2000. Her honors include the Rougang Poetry Prize (2002), the Yulong Poetry Prize (2006) and the Cultural China Annual Poetry Award (2007). Enigmatic and sensual, Yu Xiang’s writings are immensely popular. Her work includes a volume of poetry, Exhale (2006), and two chapbooks, Sorceress (2009) and Low Key (2011). As a visual artist, she has also exhibited oil paintings at various venues. Yu Xiang currently lives in Ji’nan, the capital city of Shandong province.
Author of two books of poetry, My Funeral Gondola (Mānoa Books/El León, 2013) and Water the Moon (Marick, 2010), as well as several volumes of translation of contemporary Chinese, American, and French poets, Fiona Sze-Lorrain co-edited the Mānoa anthologies, Sky Lanterns (2012) and On Freedom: Spirit, Art, and State (2013), both from the University of Hawai’i Press. She lives in France where she is an editor at Vif Éditions and Cerise Press. She is also a zheng harpist and orchid healer.
Christina Cook is the author of Lake Effect (Finishing Line Press, 2012). Her most recent work has appeared in New Ohio Review, Crab Orchard Review, Hayden’s Ferry Review, and Cimarron Review. Also an essayist, book critic, and translator, Christina teaches poetry at Colby-Sawyer College and works as a writer at the University of Pennsylvania.