The book intersperses a selection of Yu’s poems with her essays, arranged in an associative flow that shifts back and forth in time. The ruminative essays, rendered in elegant but somewhat mannered prose, offer context and insight on her life and poetry, but their meanderings can sap the energy of the collection. The poems, which compress her thoughts into daring and disconcerting forms, are another matter.
“Crossing Half of China,” which opens this book, remains the finest introduction to Yu’s work. “F---ing you and being f----d by you are quite the same,” she writes, refusing all notions of passivity. Instead, Yu is interested in the paradox that passion brings: She finds agency as she surrenders to her desire. Fantasies of love or lust open her up to violent visions of volcanoes, unrest and a hail of bullets, but all these disasters are outstripped by her longing. Then, at its climax, the poem abruptly drops its ecstatic focus, with a wry, disarming admission — “Of course butterflies can lead me astray.”
Yu is fascinated by these interruptions: Moments of reverie give way to self-loathing; painful accidents suddenly turn transcendent. Her style mixes straightforward language and confessional frankness with sudden disjunctures and imagines mundane scenes into which strange images intercede. Autobiographical intimacy is something Yu invites and resists. “One can never tell his or her truth. Truth once spoken tends to be false,” she observes, and in a reflection on disability, writes that the body “provides us with multiple versions and aspects of a soul.” The multiplicity, therefore, becomes essential, as the poems are rarely frozen in a single feeling. Yu renders her life in a way that is irreducible.
To read the book is to grow acutely familiar with the landscape of Hubei, even if Yu offers no illusions about farming life. “The ‘exquisite bridges and flowing water’ one finds in poetry are not written by real farmers,” she writes, “but those who claim to love rural life when they most fear it.” Idealizing the beauty of the bucolic landscape often minimizes the labor tied to it, and so Yu disrupts any sense of the natural world as mute and pleasant. In “Gardenias in Bloom,” the scent of the flowers is a “disaster,” and the blossom unfurls in agony.
Two questions Yu raises thread through this remarkable collection: How can she make sense of her town when she has never lived outside it? How can she make sense of her own body when she has never left it? Yu imagines herself as a shadow, and her favorite time, she writes, is dusk, when, in the uncertainty of darkness, she can take on expansive new forms. Love, one of Yu’s central themes, is never a question of fulfillment. The heart grows as it takes in the world.
Chris Littlewood lives in New York.
Moonlight Rests on My Left Palm
Poems and Essays
By Yu Xiuhua; Translated by Fiona Sze-Lorrain
Astra House. 160 pp. $21
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