Substances and Their Deceptive Instability: Travel Over Water by Ye Chun
Travel Over Water is both painful and confronting; it exposes a reader to the fragile nature of hopes, and the inadequacy of his ability in reaching out towards others. Are we more alone in this world than we might imagine? Delicately, these poems lay bare the pains of existence, while their soft rhythms sway us in their tenuous hold.
The cover image, fading from black and white to sepia, seems to have been half-dipped in a leafy pond. This ink drawing seems to be of a cave with massive stalagtites and a deep pool, on the edge of which a pod has opened. The title invites, or tells, the reader to escape from this stifling interior; it is an attractive invitation. We are asked to be a soaring spirit.
Words spread across the two Contents pages like petals on a pond, suggesting something Cartesian: the four categories appear as quadrants, warning the reader against caprice. One is easily attracted to the particular architecture of the book: the lines of poetry are at times spaced like ripples, at times a flat surface of words. Its poems are interspersed with black-ink drawings.
These ink-on-rice paper drawings — which is what they seem; we are not told specifically of their substance — appear soaked. The featureless human figure in the first drawing is insubstantial, translucent, floating, melting, like a decaying leaf on a pond. If we identify with that figure, we embody a contradiction: we are that figure, but we are about to fly.
We soar above the water, skimming the boundary between humankind and nature. What part of me is human, or of Nature? Only the first group of works evoke people in some of its titles (including “Student,” “Goodfellas Bar,” and “The Monster’s Wife”); the rest concern mostly nature (such as “Ice Storm” and “Peony”) or diverse objects and episodes from ordinary lives (from “Bed” to “Red Clock” to “Plague Zone”).
Rhythms in these poems, reminiscent of the Tang Dynasty works such as “Mooring at Night by Maple Bridge” by Zhang Ji (618-907 A.D.) — “The moon goes down; crows cry under the frosty sky”— lull the reader with soft assonances, while penetrating his heart with implied pain. In “Ice Sculpture,” we read that “The crane on an unknown river bank / strides with its reed legs, / its nervous head carrying the withered sun” (p. 12). In “Ice Storm,” we are told of “Other trees, / skins stripped by gravity, / bare bones already wrapped by ice” (p. 47); and in “On a Greyhound to Oneona, NY,” the poet reveals that “a man down by the bus / opens his arms / reminding me of someone / who used to love me” (p. 38). The last two lines stand alone, connected but isolated, before we are once again assured that “nothing can’t be reached.”
This latter hint of optimism leads to the third part of the collection, which, on the next page, features the subtle, apt and unifying ink drawing entitled “Creation Myth.” It intertwines human and nonhuman nature in an act of birth. First lines of “Snow” (p. 41) echo our new hope, as we see snow transform into the “soft chilly fingers” of dead ancestors, which fall down upon villages, before reminding us that we, too, can expect one day to fall as snow. Nature is not restricted within its visible boundaries: a “stone cat” (p. 37), as in another poem that carries its name as title, can also come alive.
Almost every poem in this collection suggests liquid (a form of fluidity, that is), though rather than flying above, Ye seems to suffer due to the deceptive instability of substances. In “Student” (p. 9), a newly-learnt calligraphy character “slips / spreads out like water and turns into vapor.” In “For Hai Zi Who Calls Himself Son of the Sea” (p. 19), the man who “can no longer wait” for a transformation into a fish and freedom seems hopelessly snowbound with her lover, whose “breasts are like icy mountains in Tibet.” Love is transient and cold; it appears suddenly or simply slides away. In “The Scar” (p. 13), the author, her hand in her lover’s, thinks of her attempted suicide, and is conscious of her scar, imagining “blood pouring down my arm.” The dreaming poet in “The Monster’s Wife” (p. 16) finds herself “lifted up by a sunbeam,” even though she wants to set her little house of “icy hope” on fire. Fire on ice: a futile attempt at suicide, or freedom. Attracted, in “Dipping” (p. 28), by another woman whose “smile is like a rosebud whose petals I want to taste”, she is, again, suffering unrequited love. Her body “dipping in” the woman’s voice as if “in a hot bath,” the poet wishes all these while that she were the woman’s boyfriend. Happiness, a worthwhile and enviable aim in life, is a challenge: “Happiness,” as the author muses, “comes so easily to some people.”
Alone, the poet is sensitive to the smallest indication of warmth or connection.
Alone, the poet is sensitive to the smallest indication of warmth or connection. A man in a bus stop who opens his arms, reminds her of “someone who used to love me” (p. 38). Lovers can be dangerous: “the dark”, she says in “Sunflower” (pp. 42-43), “closes me in like a lover.” Even in “Peony” (p. 62) when the “dragon and the phoenix” (the poet’s inner life force and passion) make love, it is among the “rubbish” of a “dirty city”, and the sound of [their] ecstasy / is drowned by people’s agony,” and thus is “mute.” Only alone, it seems, can the poet enjoy uninhibited sexuality. In “Stone Cat” (p. 36), she talks to the cat, her caresses bringing it alive: “your stone skin will melt / into fur, moisten my palm / your eyes slowly rising.”
Loss pervades this work. In “Sunflower” (pp. 42-43), the poet laments: “I, / a blind daughter, whisper to the dark / Are you my home? Are you my mother?” Life has an emptines that seems to be passing her by. In “Another Day” (p. 44), she notes, “In my world, there is only birth and aging;” in “Cross-Ocean Flight” (p. 53), she speaks of “homesickness” being like a “bouquet” — fraught with the inevitability of death. In “The Seventh Year” (pp. 58-59), the poet, disabled by time and distance from the “ancestors,” dreams of a “falling child”: “I say goodbye to myself, with a blind-man’s smile. / The falling child opens his eyes, / gazing at the moving fingertips on the clock.” Future harmony seems far away, even impossible. In her final piece, “Plague Zone” (p. 63), she highlights “Everyone knows that somewhere faraway lies / an expanse of clean water; no one knows / how to get there.” Ye not only seems expatriated, but stranded.
Rather than raging against a difficult existence, Ye passively endures the pain. In “Dipping” (p. 28), we are told that “Even my brain feels like its [sic.] been gently removed, / set down on some quiet water.” The beast, rather than raging against hurt, has been subdued, “imprisoned/…inside the narrow tank of the aquarium.” In “The Red Clock” (p. 30), she wants to “grab the clock / and smash it against the wall,” but doesn’t. Rather, she will “cower.” The landscape, however, can get angry. Lightning “spreads its claws” in “Tornado Warning” (p. 31). In the face of terror, we can imagine that the poet, like the car, “unnoticeably moves on a tiny spot of its inside.”
It is this tiny spot that Ye’s poems reach to in us, and cause to tremble.
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