Reviewed by Naomi Long Eagleson
Yu Xiang’s poems are the poetic equivalent of shoegazer rock. She takes the mundane—a whiff of cigarette smoke, a falling leaf, a housefly—and stares at it so intently that it splits open to reveal something unexpected. In the introduction to I Can Almost See the Clouds of Dust, the translator Fiona Sze-Lorrain writes that Yu “is adamant that a mundane life does not lack poetry. Rather, it lacks being discovered.” And indeed, throughout this bilingual collection the everydayness of life is keenly observed, giving rise to poems that reveal as much about the self as they do the world. In “Holy Front,” the speaker sits on a sofa and admires a flood of sunlight pouring through a glass pane she has just cleaned. But as she does, flies, mistaking the glass for air, hurl themselves into it and fall, cataleptic, on the windowsill:
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’
And in “Distracted,” the speaker confides about a peculiar habit of hers: “I like to stare at one thing for a long time.” In stillness, objects (soap bubbles, beer) and phenomena (cigarette smoke) come into focus until they burst or disappear:
I always stare at one thing for a long time
For instance, I am smoking this cigarette
I see green gray smoke waft upwards
and eventually disappear
. . .
I like staring at fleeting things
unaware that someone else is staring at me in this way
Even the simple act of stirring a pot of porridge can elicit a poem, as it does in “Other Things”:
if you stop, cornflour will stick to the bottom
other sounds will reach your ears
other things will emerge
No corner of life, however obscure or unremarkable, is unworthy of observation and consideration. Living rooms, bars, and city streets are alive with presence and activity. Everything is vibrating with reality (if not always significance)—and the buzz invites, even commands, our attention. All that’s required is patience, and perhaps humility, to see the poem hidden in the everyday, in “the Clouds of Dust,” to quote the title of the book.
Born in 1970 in the city of Ji’nan, in Shandong Province, China, Yu Xiang published her first book of poems, Exhale, in 2006. She is also the author of a chapbook, Sorceress, published in 2009. She holds a regular job at an office and writes during her spare time. As Sze-Lorrain writes, “the art [of poetry] is a privilege, the word a spiritual nourishment that helps her survive the tedium of life, and find meaning or beauty in an otherwise pessimistic and difficult society.” At once accessible and intimate, Yu’s poems are earthbound and familiar, like the voice of a friend—“I have a lonely yet / stable life” (“My House”), and syntactically arresting—“No light, no light / colors like a dialogue in sleep” (“A Painting Life”). Yu refracts everyday language to tell slanted truths about her world.
As the reader progresses through I Can Almost See the Clouds of Dust, poems move from the individual sphere (of self and home) to encompass larger, more populated realms that foist themselves onto our awareness by tragic events. Those who died in the 2005 Shalan Town flood in Heilongjiang and the 2008 Sichuan earthquake, many of them children, are evoked in incantatory meditations on disaster and ruin, where events cannot be contained by language or by “stubborn life”:
please believe in an
incorrigibly stubborn life
believe in a severed finger that performs for dead spirits
please leave behind the earth that keeps shattering
ruins that keep shattering
leave behind the mudslide that blocks forklifts and cranes
please leave behind, leave behind
the right not to die
Yu Xiang, using simple language, striking syntax, and hypnotic refrains, keeps her poet’s eye and mind attentive to the not-so-hidden heart of quotidian life. And what does she find there? People, including herself, confronted with the beautiful and terrifying fact of their lives, wanting to “Love someone / anyone” (“Street”), before it ends. To Yu, life is far from humdrum. Like a photographer who photographs his feet as he walks, each step points to a larger movement—too large to capture as a totality. Yu focuses her attention on the smaller details—these tiny, shimmering essences. And with language that helps us train our gaze, the poet reveals that the ordinary can be spellbinding.
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