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Monday’s Poems: From Ye Chun’s ‘Map’

Painting by Ye Chun

from Map

2. Gushui, Luoyang

Green tea for night, red for day.
The sun presses my temples as my father’s high bike
draws another street to the east.
The sparrow I caught with a basket, twig, rope and wheat
shoots arrows at me with a slant eye.
A tadpole between my sole and sandal.
I’ve learned to hold a brush tight
so the teacher behind my back can’t snatch it.
The ink splashes on my stiff white shirt.

 

White goat’s hair

black rabbit’s hair

yellow weasel’s hair

Master Fu Shan

says: better ugly

than charming

better broken

than sleek

better natural

than arranged

This is a brush

or a cut-off finger

That is a character

or a pried-out eye

 

8. Aransas Pass, Texas

Your hair veins the setting sun. Love slashes
in my body. If the world is a crystal glass
and the dolphin its humming, why so much red?
Shall we close our eyes and walk
into the water of red swords? Shall we hold
a green flame between our eyes to see,
burn our hands into each other’s back
to push, to reach? Shall we say
loneliness
as the dolphin curves its echo
above the water and the water drinks us?

 

This mantle

dazzles the eye

with train tracks

water wakes

game boards

letters

numbers

tortoise shells

and men in hunting

sports

business

war

A shaman’s cloth

priest’s vest

royal garment

an offering

Such warmth

inside the body

 

9. Guangzhou

In the bus jam, you lean against a smog-dyed building,
your body shrunk, bare gums grinding, eyes darting as people
in their own restlessness float by. If only I could lead you,
hold onto the next morning and hold you
with the other hand, if only I knew the safe land—
the world terrifies me too, the world that is no
stranger than before. Tonight my nine-year-old niece wonders
if the sun will eat the earth. Will the moon
shake off the dust and shine for us.

 

the bud

and its masks—

Typhoon, bug

mushroom bark…

How many

shades of black

can you see

How many

mildew lines

used to be rain

The cat

they are eating

has one big eye

one small

A heart waits

on a doorway

and expands

 

 

© by Ye Chun.  Printed by permission of the author.

 

Ye Chun is the author of a book of poetry, Travel Over Water (Bitter Oleander Press, 2005), and a novel in Chinese, Peach Tree in The Sea (People’s Literature Publishing House, 2011). Her second collection of poetry, Lantern Puzzle, received Tupelo Press’s 2011 First/Second Book Award and is forthcoming in 2013. Her translation of Hai Zi’s poetry, Wheat Has Ripened, is also due out from Tupelo Press in 2013. She is currently a Ph.D. candidate at the University of Missouri.

Lisa Russ Spaar notes:  In Bento’s Sketchbook:  (How does the impulse to draw something begin?), English art critic, author, and artist John Berger writes that “we who draw do so not only to make something visible to others, but also to accompany something invisible to its incalculable destination.”  He goes on to point out drawing’s shared impulses with map-making:  “Drawing is a form of proving.  And the first generic impulse to draw derives from the human need to search, to plot points, to place things and to place oneself.”

The three lyrics by visual artist, poet, translator, and novelist Ye Chun featured here come from a nine-part series called “Map,” which will appear in Ye’s forthcoming book Lantern Puzzle.  In an interview with Cerise Press, Ye explains that the sequence was inspired by an assignment in an art class for which students were asked to draw a map of their hometown:  “After I finished the assignment, I thought of other places I’d lived. What if I made a map for each of them, with words instead of pencil and paint? I started to write a poem sequence titled “Map,” in which each poem is a place and consists of two stanzas—the one on the left pockets traces of experience; the one on the right serves as notes on the experience. Together they work like lines of latitude and longitude to locate the experience.” (The illustration that accompanies this commentary is the drawing Ye made of her hometown for that art course, and is printed here by permission of the artist.)

Studded with precise, sensory detail, leavened by wunderkammer cataloguing, and animated by subtle syntactic shuttling and haunted, moving shifts in scale and perspective, Ye’s ideogrammatic “maps” render their various places in a way that, as Berger suggests, not only evokes literal, remembered locations but also partakes in the mysteries of habitation, of what shelters, moors, and moves us to our “incalculable destination.”  These are landscapes of the heart and mind, akin to W.G. Sebald’s dérive psycho-geographical forays in works like The Emigrants.  In “Gushui, Luoyang,” an early poem in the sequence, for example, Ye’s child-speaker, like the “tadpole between my sole and sandal,” is caught between worlds, part natal water, part terra firm—the liminal space between early childhood and an incipient awareness of the speaker’s life as a calligrapher (“beautiful writer”):

I’ve learned to hold a brush tight
so the teacher behind my back can’t snatch it.
The ink splashes on my stiff white shirt.

As Ye gently shakes the gold-pan of memory, luminous relics flicker, each establishing emotional terrain through the diction of situation and the coordinates of time and space—the diurnal/nocturnal evocations of “Green tea for night, red for day,” for instance, and the compass points suggested by “The sun presses my temples as my father’s high bike / draws another street to the east.”  A sparrow the speaker has captured “with a basket, twig, rope and wheat” sends out centrifugal “arrows at me with a slant eye.”  Significant is the way Ye makes the drawing out of these recollections inseparable from literal drawing/writing.  Moving fluidly between panoramic and close-up, unfettered, and claustral imagery, Ye registers the world in her body, the “stiff white shirt” of the page.  The longitudinal “notes” that accompany the rhapsodic latitudinal reverie of this poem follow a catalog of the speaker’s calligraphy brush hair types with an ars poetica:

 

Master Fu Shan

says: better ugly

than charming

better broken

than sleek

better natural

than arranged

This is a brush

or a cut-off finger

That is a character

or a pried-out eye

 

By this verbal, imaginative magic, Ye inhabits other touchstone places, unfurling clews and webs and mazes to conjure landscapes that are lost and found, bodily and mysterious.  The ecstasies of a devotional Eros enter the sequence in part 8, “Aransas Pass, Texas”:  “Your hair veins the setting sun.  Love slashes / in my body.”  In the poem’s gorgeous latitudinal invitation,

 

Shall we close our eyes and walk
into the water of red swords? Shall we hold
a green flame between our eyes to see,
burn our hands into each other’s back
to push, to reach?

Ye makes the reader feel the “word” embedded in her “sword.”  “Guangzhou,” which closes Ye’s nine-part “Map,” takes up the rhetorical invocations and pantheistic bliss of “Aransas Pass” (“the dolphin curves its echo / above the water and the water drinks us”) and extends them into a post-Lapsarian realm, an urban world tempered by awarenesses of terrors and “shades of black,” but one Ye finds beautiful, nonetheless:

If only I could lead you,
hold onto the next morning and hold you
with the other hand, if only I knew the safe land—
the world terrifies me too, the world that is no
stranger than before. Tonight my nine-year-old niece wonders
if the sun will eat the earth. Will the moon
shake off the dust and shine for us.

In Bento’s Sketchbook, Berger writes:  “When I’m drawing I feel a little closer to the way birds navigate when flying, or to hares finding shelter if pursued, or to fish knowing where to spawn, or trees finding a way to the light, or bees constructing their cells.  .  .  .  [Drawing is the] disturbance of distances.  A disturbance that can only be accommodated if one takes an ‘aerial’ view in which kilometers become millimeters, yet in which the size of our human hearts is not reduced.”  Through the drift of her imagination,

 

The cat

they are eating

has one big eye

one small

A heart waits

on a doorway

and expands

 

Ye draws her protean map, whose interior delvings are as rich as her perceptions of the physical world, a realm whose immensities and minutiae, terrors and beauties, intensifications and dilations make their incalculable, wondrous, and destined way.

 

 

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