Chengyu Chinoiserie, Leung Rachel Ka Yin
Hedgehog Press, 2020 £7.99
The tenderness of water
The front cover of this beautifully produced pamphlet features a delicate pair of hands tying what appears to be an anatomically correct heart-shaped balloon around someone else’s wrist (artwork by Elliana Esqiuvel).
But I’d like to draw your attention to the blue disc at the back of the image, which hints deliberately, I think, at the water/sea imagery that flows through the tender love poems of this collection.
The water-based imagery may be subtly implied, as in the opening poem, ‘dead heart, prostrate’, which contains the assertion ‘i am a swimming sluice, / in a net of slender bones’.
It can also be inferred from the early lines of ‘the house of dried fish’:
the thrill, the terrible thrill
of a waterless fish
fresh and desperate
More explicit water-based references are immediately obvious in poems like ‘sea-oath, mountain treaty’:
the day you waded into the ocean,
was the day i clawed around for some vestigial
memory of fire
It is significant that all the poems have three key aspects. Firstly, there’s the idiom in Mandarin (the ‘chengyu’, from which each poem takes its inspiration); secondly there’s a literal translation of the idiom; finally there’s the poem in English, which interprets the Chinese idiom more freely. (Because of space limitations, I’ve omitted the Mandarin here.)
It seems important, however, that the literal translation for ‘sea-oath, mountain treaty’ is ‘till the end of time’. This, coupled with the use of the word ‘vestigial’ (as quoted above) and the final stanza’s mention of ‘the sea and the / mountain […] / swimming in your pocket, / awaiting creation to begin’, gives the impression of the sort of love that will endure for all time, the sort of intense love commitment you feel when you’re young (the author’s biography on the Hedgehog Press website tells us she is 21).
'sea-oath, mountain treaty' also contains the lines, ‘you make for yourself a fragility, / a soft and quivering precious’. This feeling of vulnerability and sensitivity characterises the pamphlet as a whole.