Thursday, August 10, 2017

Jen Hyde, HUA SHI HUA [Drawings and Poems from China]


Grey sky in particle matter
press starlight back into stars

but color in trinkets, blue
in the tarp we walk beneath

and listen to, breathing
between double-wide lanes.

The public bus brought me here.
A man with a bled eye searches

for stain-free t-shirts. I sift
through his cart alongside him

for a white size while in the galaxy
meteors drift across our backs. Bird

of light, pushing through fire,
meet the earth in his slender hand

breaking change. He returns
home with something for dinner.

To open the “author note” included with her first full-length poetry collection, HUA SHI HUA [Drawings and Poems from China] (Boise ID: Ahsahta Press, 2017), Brooklyn, New York poet Jen Hyde writes:

At the end of 2013 I moved to Shanghai. I wanted to teach myself how to read a language of my heritage and to understand my Chinese identity. In Mandarin I am called a huaren, an ethnically Chinese person who was not born in China; in English I am a person of the Chinese diaspora by way of my mother, who moved to the United States from Indonesia. As a biracial American poet and book artist, I have felt illiterate in the language of my own culture—a language that, nevertheless, belongs to me.

In Shanghai, I audited a book arts class taught by Marianne Petit at NYU Shanghai, and I assisted with the launch of the university’s first student-run news publication. While I experimented with book forms and storytelling, I was learning about free speech in China, a concept more complex than is (or can be) depicted by English-language media. Those complexities shaped the way I began writing about the Shanghai landscape; I became invested in depicting the liminal life moments and interactions and stillness between me and the people I encountered in the city, and how such encounters enabled me to think about my own family and cultural history. I began to think about freedom of speech as not just the right to discuss, critique, and advocate for a variety of human voices in a political conversation, but also as one’s personal right to her own experience.

The poems in HUA SHI HUA [Drawings and Poemsfrom China], clearly, work to explore a discovery as self-discovery, attempting to fully immerse in a culture that is both familiar and foreign, and attempting to reduce, and even reconcile, that distance. Set in four sections—“Speaking,” “China,” “Transform” and “Flowers”—the poems explore an enormously large space, including what she refers to as “generative translations” of poems by Chinese poets, through a sequence of small sketches, meditations and thinking. As she writes in the poem “A CATALOGUE OF THINGS I KNOW, / A JIAN”: “I am a woman / announcing her / own form [.]” I very much like the pacing of these poems, and this is clearly a collection built through listening and measured breathing, working to remain attentive to even the smallest detail.

Utilizing the crane as her token bird (much in the way Phil Hall writes the killdeer), she plays with meaning, sound and image, writing tower, bird and machine, writing her series of cranes that are always present, even if sometimes above or outside the action, as both sentry and scenery. As she writes to open the poem “TO LI BAI:,” in her sequence “CORRESPONDENCE FROM / THE YELLOW CRANE TOWER”: “Be careful when you tell the doctor / the yellow crane tower cries.” The first poem in the sequence, “TO CUI HAO:” reads:

Their people mounted the yellow crane
but who is freer at the top? The yellow crane
has been moving for a while, or is already
gone by the time my word arrives
that white clouds have emptied the air

forever. Finally, the clear day appears
over a clear crater lake.
            Hello Cui Hao,
from this world where the tree of life
is a fragrant Bizarro of your life.

Tell me where the sun sets over your mountains.
From the crane I am saying goodnight, day
falling over the water
the worry are drops, like Visine
lightening the dust from your eyes.

As she writes in her notes, this is very much the opening of what could be a lifelong exploration into identity, and one that I very much look forward to seeing more of.

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