Book Review

Lao Yang’s Pee Poems, translated from Chinese by Joshua Edwards and Lynn Xu, is a stunning reinvention of the mundane and visceral. Through the lens of piss and excrement, the poet examines what it means to be in a body, both individually and collectively.

Yang opens the collection by stating, “Don’t call me a poet, call me a piss person.” He invokes multiple bodies of water in “Part One: Pissing Poems,” such as rushing rivers, surging seas, even human tears, to compare and contrast with pee; the writing is both tongue-in-cheek and totally sincere. The poet seems interested in the natural world and its longstanding quarrel with humankind, as well as the quarrels within humankind. The speaker has moments of scathing, gorgeous brutality: “The universe is a pot of dumpling soup / humans are not even worth / mentioning as a filling.” And yet, the collection restores poetic value to the most primal of bodily functions, brings a “turd-mountain” into conversation with “the story of civilization” in the poem “UFO.” It is a lovely amalgamation of opposites.

“Part Two: This Person” opens with “My life is a sort of hardness.” An exploration of futility ensues; the speaker seeks harmony between a childhood and an adulthood, between a homeland and a new home. In the ultimate summarization of humanity, he seeks the freedom to make his own mark on the world; however, he accepts that “In the end, / I only made a hole in the ground / That’s the size of myself.” There is a deep, beautiful loneliness to these overlapping journeys, but Yang arrives at a place of hope: in the final lines of the section it is stated, “I discover the beauty of humans.” Thus the reader is invited to discover that as well.

The poem “Civil War of the Chinese Language” feels like a wonderful impossibility; a translated poem that opens by explicitly grappling with the structures and contradictions of its original language. It plays with conversation during a later verse:

—Mother, my world has hell inside it!
—Is there also heaven?
—You have to build it yourself.

This imagined conversation encapsulates one of the speaker’s overarching dilemmas, which enters the foreground in “Part Three: This Country”—that the world is what you make of it. The speaker recognizes this as both a curse and a blessing; a verse from “Island,” in Part One, claims that “each person lives inside the hole they dig for themselves.” Yang invites the reader to step into that responsibility, into its horror and joy. What does it mean to be at the helm of one’s own life? Especially in the modern age, where civilization is inescapable, where peace is difficult to define and even more difficult to find, where humanity’s qualms seem never-ending. This courageous, broad depiction of society brings an element of apocalyptica into the collection, such as this excerpt from the opening lines of “Part Three”:

Children walk toward dust
Dust moves in the direction of dozers
Dozers enter the gloomy door
The gloomy door
Encloses the darkness

The cyclical nature of these lines, how they slip into one another, is reminiscent of the way time marches ever forward, outside of our control—much like the inescapable facts of our society, such as living in cities, using language, eventually meeting death, and—of course—pissing.

About the Reviewer

Tashiana Seebeck is an MFA candidate at Colorado State University. Her work can be found in The Gateway Review, West 10th, and Digging Through the Fat, among others.