Review by Aaron Krol
I Can Almost See the Clouds of Dust
by Yu Xiang
translated by Fiona Sze-Lorrain
Zephyr Press, 2013
Yu Xiang is apparently a pretty big deal in China, so I should get out of the way right off the bat that I am no expert in Chinese poetry. Like a lot of Americans, I’ve read scattered poems of the biggest classical Chinese poets – Tu Fu, Li Po – but so little contemporary Chinese poetry that (I’m embarrassed to say) it’s a little startling to open up I Can Almost See the Clouds of Dust and find things like birth control pills, Trainspotting, and, in one memorable passage, “filthy drains, refinery tailings, / cramped bedrooms, cloned beings, nuclear weapons, oxygen bars / for post-post-post-modernity, for gender reassignment clinics, for the masses.”
So if you’re looking for a well-informed analysis of how Yu Xiang’s first full-length work translated into English fits into the body of post-war Chinese poetry, or the unique position she occupies in Chinese society as a young female artist from the dialectically distinct city of Jinan, well, I’m sorry. I’m just here to recommend a book I liked.
I Can Almost See the Clouds of Dust is a low-key, undemanding, open-ended sequence of delights. Many of the poems are just tiny snippets of experience, so with a few exceptions (the series “The Painting Life,” the long poem “To the One Who Writes Poetry Tonight”), I tended to absorb the book more as a single entity than as a series of separate poems. That’s not to say the poems aren’t fully realized as independent pieces, or can’t be very different from each other in tone and approach. There’s just something about Yu’s ego-free observational style, and her tendency to pull a single kernel of knowledge from each experience, that makes it very easy to glide from one page to the next uninterrupted.
I’ll quote one poem in full to give you a taste.
To let in more sunlight
I’ve been cleaning a glass pane all morning
I wipe it clean
so clean it seems there’s no glass, just air
Then I slump onto a sofa
admiring the square of abundant sunlight
A housefly buzzes out, smacks into it
A housefly wants to buzz in, smacks into it
Several houseflies want to buzz in and out, they smack into it
On the windowsill a few flies
twitch their bodies, struggling blindly in the sun
I guess my life is no different from these flies’
I always imagine facing a holy front
It’s a little like some of Frank O’Hara’s poetry (I’m thinking of “Les Étiquettes Jaunes,” which sadly I can’t find a good link for – “Leaf! You are so big!”). The style is so sweet and unassuming that it almost obscures the poem’s thoughtfulness. The inward turn at the end isn’t profound, exactly, but it does feel genuine in a way that more elaborate moments of epiphany rarely do. I’m happy to bask in the strangely beautiful layering of imagery, the “square of abundant sunlight” set against the twitching flies, and don’t get too wrapped up in the idea that this scene is representative of greater things. That offhand little phrase “I guess” is a nice moderation of the more perplexing power of “holy front,” a way to lighten the mood and lower the stakes even as the poem plunges deeper.
This is how a lot of Yu’s poetry works, glimmers of brilliance treated like simple observations. In one poem, the moon’s “surroundings exude a furry light / like a ring of helpless baby hands.” In another, she proclaims, “I’m indeed / authentic, shaving fur from mice / with ancient craftsmanship.”
Which is, I think, a good description of her style – her vision may be strange, but it isn’t so tortured with meaning as to be quite surrealist or symbolist. It’s indeed authentic. Even when she’s shaving mice, Yu isn’t trying to conjure up more than the world as it is.
Her great skill is in her light touch. She can open a poem (“Letter”) like this:
every day some letters are lost on the way
it has to do with nonbelief
blown by wind into the trees, blown into
the woods, their cemeteries, their tombs…
I love the way “it has to do with nonbelief” is quickly slid in there and then passed blithely over. We’re not pressured to think too hard about how nonbelief governs this image, but its influence is now there.
And even when her larger themes are center stage, they don’t feel heavy-handed. In one of my favorite pieces, “Roll, Sun,” Yu has a blind person tell her, “you’re someone who can see / but you don’t know the sun anymore than me.” The intellectual part of this poem is unignorable – the old Tiresias trope of the blind man who sees more than anyone, calling out what we take for granted, how we don’t make the effort to understand events. Yet Yu mainly takes it as an occasion to have enormous fun with the blind man’s experience of the sun. “the sun surrounds me / it’s not just my surroundings / the sun rolls over me up and down left to right.” “the sun I know is a skinless egg.”
And she’s a little mischievous, too; her poems don’t sit still and do what they’re told. Her old man isn’t quite a font of wisdom. He’s a little confused, a little out of his depth.
“roll sun,” he commands, “in the soles of every man who humiliates me.”
* * *
Finally, a whiskey book! Down to earth, straight to the point, utterly authentic – Yu makes it easy to pull out one of my favorite recipes. My first instinct was a Manhattan, but there’s something too serious and brooding about a Manhattan for this book. So I’m going with a somewhat sweeter variation, using Benedictine, which is just faintly herbal; the spice of a rye whiskey sets it off wonderfully.
2 oz. rye whiskey
1/2 oz. Benedictine
2 dashes Angostura bitters
Combine all ingredients in a shaker with ice. Stir (don’t shake!) until chilled, then strain into a cocktail glass. It’s traditional to garnish a Monte Carlo with lemon zest, but in light of Yu’s winning unpretentiousness, let’s have a Maraschino cherry instead. I’m a big rye whiskey fan, and I can’t recommend Rittenhouse 100 highly enough. Old Overholt is another nice inexpensive brand. (Yes, it’s also fine to just make it with bourbon.)
Go ahead and take your time making this cocktail. Concentrate on it, the way it frosts up the glass. Let it be an experience. If you stop, as Yu says in “Other Things,”
other sounds will reach your ears
other things will emerge