I likened this collection, after an initial reading, to a canvas by Kandinsky, where broad strokes of vivid color and delicate, lyrical passages are very often underscored by an unease, a kind of muted protest. It’s a combination which proves immediately effective, and which generates real admiration for a poet confident in her art—a poet spilling ideas to the page with invention and purpose.
A second reading signaled a more detailed understanding of these poems, where context and substance are partly concealed by the generous use of elaborate and surprising imagery, and where essence is teased out in an impressive use of the telling phrase. Consider the distillation of the meaning of exile into “. . . where, on the most distant, / nameless shores, we stay waiting, patient for ourselves to arrive” or the snapshot of lovers with “. . . arms coarse with dusk around one another’s shoulders.” Consider too the sensibility of a poet expressing the savagery of hunger with the observation that:
. . . it was better when
the people you loved stopped looking
like themselves. like watching a stranger die.
Born in China, but now living on Vancouver Island, Xiao Yue Shan has known privation and upheaval, and the consequences of ideology and orthodoxy are planted in these poems with an almost restrained telling, which only reinforces the horrors. Pretty much written in lower case throughout, and sparingly punctuated, these poems have an energy about them which propels you line by line in a kind of free-flowing tour of experience and impression. Returning to my painted canvas analogy, you might find yourself taken by a particularly graceful passage here, distracted by an oddly discordant perspective there, or stopped in your tracks by touches of light accentuating and elevating the whole. Take, for instance, a poem entitled “rises in the urban population determining that each resident be allotted 1.6 square meters of personal space,” which, while not exactly snappy, illustrates nicely the prosaic and deadening nature of totalitarian rule. It’s a beautifully evocative piece laying out a domestic scene in remarkable detail and perhaps one of the finest in this collection. Read these few lines to get some idea of what I’m driving at:
. . . twenty minutes west
of the yangtze, we drank black tea spun with the thin
pink arms of chrysanthemum flowers. and when
the rains came, we looked around, bewildered and
reaching for one another, waiting for it to stop.
There is a real feeling of claustrophobia and vague anxiety here, a feeling seemingly compounded, rather than loosened, by those rose-colored petals. In the same poem, as a further example of her linguistic discrimination, the poet’s mother is reading a newspaper, “her arms ceramic in the grey arch of afternoon.” Which, interpret it as you will, is a line you’ll read twice, if only to savour it.
Within these pages are references to superstition (the unutterable number four) and to historical fact and mythology. The “restless animal of memory” is explored and utilised with elegance and feeling, while personal relationships, along with all the jumble that inevitably accompanies them, are picked over and portrayed with a disarming honesty and with a good deal of perceptiveness. There is even room here for a gentle breeze of a poem called “some days come in like a bird through an open window.” Part love song, part simple celebration, it might, in lesser hands, have melted into whimsy; but Xiao is too alert, too sharp for that, I can assure you. She writes pleasingly of the sort of day where “a body is barely more than steam that drowns the glass . . . ,” the sort of day which she hopes, on leaving the house, “. . . would be perched / on the sill when I got back. a day with you in it.” At the risk of over-quotation, I think the final lines, in their curious but plausible expression, are deserving of an airing too:
. . .these days come in
with you clipped to their mouths, and I watch them flutter against
the stucco ceiling, hung with leaden late glow, flying into rooms
attempting to go eastward, the entire world filling with their arrival.
I have to mention a series of five poems under the umbrella heading of “montreal.” It’s an accomplished piece of work, highly original and wonderfully descriptive, with the feel of Eliot’s detached watchfulness about it, especially in the opening verses, but entirely of Xiao’s own making. Equally impressive—quietly, un-showily impressive—is a picture of poverty in a city where get-rich-quick schemes are hatched over “an oil-slick of a tablecloth,” and where delusional men insist that they are “… this close to cottoning the quilts / for winter and tangerines every summer night.” Titled, stubbornly, “wealth distribution will not be considered in the economic reform,” it’s a nicely atmospheric poem brimming with hope and defiance.
Then Telling Be the Antidote is held out to us like an offering, asking us to make what we will of this liberal flow of incident and reflection made real by penetrating, lively imagery. Xiao Yue Shan has demonstrated here that she is no safe poet, drawing on an ever-diminishing well of self, but one whose eyes are wide open. She is aware, aware and skilful enough to paint what she sees, to transcribe what she knows with sincerity and no small measure of flair. I was tempted to add something about an old head on young shoulders, but that cliché does little justice to someone who can come up with a line like “. . . each night we soothed time as if it were newborn,” someone whose work is, to this reviewer, the happiest of discoveries.
About the Reviewer
Robert Dunsdon lives near Oxford in the UK. His poetry has been published in Ambit, Allegro, The Crank, Candelabrum, The Cannon’s Mouth, Decanto, Pennine Platform, Picaroon, Purple Patch and others. His book reviews have featured in Tupelo Quarterly, Heavy Feather Review, The Lit Pub, Sugar House Review, Colorado Review and Poetry International.