I Can Almost See the Clouds of Dust by Yu Xiang (trans. by Fiona Sze-Lorrain)

-Reviewed by Zara Raab


Named by The Asian Review of Books as one of the top women poets writing in China, Yu Xiang rarely makes historical or geographical references in I Can Almost See the Clouds of Dust. She begins her second full-length book––her first was Exhale (2006)––  with ‘My House’, where she issues not so much an invitation as a warning:

I have a door, a reminder:
Be careful
You might lose your way.
This is my house. . .

Sometimes open, sometimes shut, doors are thresholds between worlds, semi-permeable boundaries bearing all the mythology of crossings. The reminder seems to be for the householder (the poet here has a male persona) as well as his reader.  ‘My House’ is deceptively simple: a lonely man describes his dwelling: “I have a chair. Sometimes / it disappears.” The narrator claims to have a stable life, but the boundaries of the self here as in other poems are porous, flexible, easily crossed—whether by invasion or betrayal. This opening poem and others here have a fairy tale aura—without the happy endings of most such tales—in the way Yu Xiang introduces magic, and in the narrator’s struggles to negotiate external reality.

In ‘The Key Turns in the Keyhole’, for example, the poet uses a locked door to establish a credo for daily life. The poet lists her rituals:

taking out the garbage I open it
getting the milk I open it
the toilet bowl is clogged, I open the door
when someone comes I open it
when someone leaves I open it

I Can Almost See the Clouds of Dust registers the ephemerality of fluctuating fantasy. As the poet says, “I like staring at fleeting things” (‘Distracted’). “[E]very day,” she writes, “has a wonderful letter, falling on / a road in the rain / like footprints / the world afar step by step”. Yu Xiang’s poet-persona’s boundaries are thin, transparent. Confronted with dismal reality, she stands on the edge of a twinkling a half-life, about to disappear. The poet projects these qualities in dazzling array on the world. In “Distressed Person,” for example, the narrator looks in the mirror, like Snow White’s stepmother, and tries to imagine the mirror’s experience:

she is distressed that she looks exactly like me
distressed that she can’t be me

Ephemeral or non-identity leads to extreme states, like the metaphoric (rather than medical) autism described in section 2, ‘This Person is Vanishing’. Many poets have written on this theme, from Wallace Stevens, whose snowman is “nothing himself” beholding “nothing that is not there, / and the nothing that is,” to Marianne Moore, whose mule in “I Like a Horse” treads the nothing and “skirts the treeless precipice”. Unlike Moore’s mule, Yu Xiang’s treading is not done safely; the persona is troubled, even abject. Yu Xiang turns different body parts––eyes, mouth, hair, vagina—into inventive metaphors for these alienated states. Like autism in the popular imagination, this is a difficult, mysterious poem:

entranced eye for eye
then forlorn
they grow on the same face
diffusing the same illusion
but one can’t see the other

The idea that my left eye does not-–cannot—see my right eye, that I cannot in this sense “see” myself, is striking. Sight here creates illusion rather than revealing reality.  In another poem in the sequence, the persona dyes her hair over and over, and this becomes a trope on dying: disguise becomes a method of obliterating what is disguised.

Other poems here capture the liminal quality of youth, its openness and vulnerability to experience. ‘A Gust of Wind’ is a howl of loneliness:

You make me feel how empty my body is
how it needs to be filled. You can fill me
You connect the wires and let the current in
At this moment, my cry is not a scream

‘The Place I left Is Still Swaying’, captures the fugue state of emotional regression following separation from a lover:

I stand on the platform
watching the metro in motion. Watching you
leave with the metro. Watching myself
sliced by sharp car windows
thinly, slice by slice

[. . .]

You can’t see me, as if
you won’t see me in this life again
No one notices me. In the crowd
no one
notices me. I see a body
another body
each blurrier
than the other

The train windows in which the lover’s reflection is cast cut her slice by slice to vanishing. No one in the station sees this happening, not only because the experience is subjective, but also because she is no longer there, blurred to nothing by the other’s departure. She is no longer the adolescent lover who believes her own body will provide her the sustenance she requires to live; unconsciously, she may recognize the need for something more than the satisfaction of her own impulses—the need perhaps for adult cooperation with reality, but has yet to name or seek it.

The long, sequenced poem ‘A Painting Life’, concerning seeing, writing, arranging, conceiving, is one of the few here with political under tones.  The narrator plans to paint “some outdoor scenes/ like going to work every day” When black and white pigments are squeezed on a canvas, “white smudges blood / black explodes / the grey in-between like an abstract government”. She’ll paint scenes from her life, like

a beggar couple singing ‘Visit Home’
a distorted history, a dusty
fugitive, or refinery tailings, dug and re-dug
filled but never finally levelled
Culture Street, Peace Street, improvised quotes
and undefined anger. . .

There’s humor, here, too, or a kind of veiled sarcasm: “I want to paint some still lifes [sic] / sell them cheap to get by”, but the “still lifes” turn out to be collections of medals that she arranges and re-arranges, each new arrangement a fresh “still life” as if the medals were the life. In the end the paintings are the artist’s way of escaping, or trying to, a life she cannot support, each painting an “exile”. May be the poet is commemorating the thousands of Chinese who have migrated from China to the West:

I’ll send you a painting, with
no title or signature
like one exile after another

The six-line poem ‘Low Key’ compares a man’s life to a leaf, falling soundlessly, “as a man who lives alone a long time, and dies”. Sze-Lorrain’s translation emphasizes the density of the images and the poem’s aphoristic quality. One can find online a more expansive translation than Sze-Lorrain’s of this poem by David Lehman and Fan Jinghua, who translate the title as ‘One Leaf’:

One leaf falls
All night long only one leaf has fallen
A leaf falls every night of every season of every year
Leaves are falling one at a time
Without a sound
Still falling and then falling down
Reaching the ground
As one who lives alone keeps living
And then dies alone

Sze-Lorrain’s concision better captures the minute existence Yu Xiang embodies in this poem.  Her title, ‘Low Key’ seems to me to express more matter of factly the mood of Yu Xiang’s poem.

I have already mentioned how, all throughout this collection, Yu Xiang records the inconsequential with diligence and clarity, finding beauty in that which is fleeting. Not only is experience ephemeral, but human life—at least the poet’s life––inconsequential, as well. In ‘Holy Front’, Yu Xing compares human life to flies buzzing, futilely hurtling themselves against a holy front (one meaning of hold is transparent, like glass):  “I guess my life is no different from these flies”. In a later poem, Yu Xiang imagines bumblebees swarming.

In Sze-Lorrain’s translation of ‘The Rotten, the Fresh’, the stings of the bumblebees “are scaling needles heater/ by the noon sun”. It is a vivid image. Sometimes, Sze-Lorrain’s translations jettison the typical rules of syntax, as in ‘Fantasia of a Housefly’ which begins: “walking into the hotel’s backyard / black hailstones / came pounding down in clusters”. One wonders if the original contains a similar anti-grammatical thrust. Still, Sze-Lorrain’s translation of Yu Xiang’s rendering of an attack of houseflies is vivid, and conveys an eerie blurring of subject and object, of flies and person fused in proximity.

‘The One Who Writes Poetry Tonight’, inevitably evokes Adrienne Rich’s late classic ‘Tonight No Poetry Will Serve’. Yu Xiang’s poem begins at night and ends at dawn.  I was at first put off by grammatical challenges arising from my difficulty in parsing the subject of Sze-Lorrain’s verb “give.” But by substituting a directive, “take,” the poem claimed its power for me. Running eighteen pages, this is the longest poem in the book and, as the title says, is addressed to a poet (perhaps herself) writing through the night, and seems to enumerate the blessings of the poetic vocation.

you are here, the ladder you’ve used
for thirty years is here too
will give you the pleasure of coming down
if you can’t climb up
give you fine food, fitness and adult games
give you others’ lives
others’ names
others’ overcoats
others’ lovers

Following her surrealist bent, Yu Xiang includes “used furniture” and ”insanely long weeds between computer keys” among the gifts of the vocation. She ends on a sweet note of aubade: “I can go on writing a poem / which can be unfinished / but it will be dawn soon“.

Fiona Sze-Lorrain’s translations speak for themselves in a post-modern idiom, whatever their success in capturing the music of the poet. In Yu Xiang’s new work, the poem does not so much energize the poet as provide scaffolding for perception and action, a path toward meaning in an ephemeral life. Once she has exhausted the expressive potential of ennui and emptiness, the poem is reduced to an electrifying skeleton making breath and movement possible. Yu Xiang’s poems offer, not a window or even a mirror on the world, so much as a lyric keening of successive moments of the day and night. Her imaginary has a vivid, ephemeral connection to the bodied world.

Now if we could begin to hear the poet speak the poem in her native language, as I did—in Cantonese, I believe—at a panel of the 2014 AWP meeting in Seattle, where the sheer brilliance and fullness of the sound captivated the room!