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Sunday, Sept. 22, 2002


Hsia Yu: modern, universal and refreshing

FUSION KITSCH: Poetry by Hsia Yu, Translated by Steve Bradbury. Zephyr Press, Massachusetts, 2001, 131 pp., $13 (paper)

The title of this book, the first bilingual collection of work by Taiwanese poet Hsia Yu, is apt. In fact, translator Steve Bradbury, a professor at National Central University in Taiwan, says that what first drew him to Yu's poetry was that it was both "very Chinese and refreshingly cosmopolitan." For most poets writing in Chinese, these are necessarily contradictory conditions. The desire to affirm a cultural or national identity in the face of increasing Western influence is strong. But Yu, who lives in France, apparently doesn't grapple too hard with this problem. One of the first woman poets writing in Chinese to have broken dramatically from the conventions and constraints of traditional Chinese poetry, she's just as happy among the mysteries of Paris as in the warrens of her native Taipei.

A popular lyricist and author of four books of poetry, Yu's musical, cosmopolitan poetry is hard to pigeonhole. She avoids a lyric or elegiac poetic voice, and has refused to cultivate a signature style, preferring instead the eclectic use of various postmodern techniques, such as pastiche, montage and repetition, and the quirky fusion of high philosophy and low culture/kitsch. Sometimes she seems to be flying in the face of convention, flaunting her wit and tossing a philosophical wink out to the universe, mocking the seriousness of the enterprise of life. Other times, she's dead serious and probing. It's all material for art. It's all a game, it's all laughable, she seems to say. Here, she takes a traditional marriage poem and serenades sardines in rhyme, perhaps offering a whimsical allegory, perhaps not.

Lying in its bed of tomato sauce (or is it catsup?) Our fish may not quite relish its position; But what does the sea know of this, in its deep abyss? Or the shore, for that matter, no less the sea, as they say. 'Tis a tale told in scarlet (or is it cherry red?); Whatever -- a little silly this matchup; Which is to say it is, in point of fact, A saucy tale about catsup.

According to Bradbury, Yu's "Chinese-ness" lies in her preoccupation with the poetic resources of the Chinese language, which she explores with "breathtaking sensuousness."

"Nearly everyone who has written about Hsia Yu's poetry has described her as a feminist poet, a label that has infuriated the author, partly because she chafes at being reduced to an 'ism' but also because her feminism is problematic at best," he writes. "She's more concerned with the intersection of flesh/text than with gender or culture."

Indeed, Yu's poems are often deliberately spicy and provocative, like salsa -- the title of one of her collections. You can almost taste the vibrancy and piquancy of the language on the page, aided by the subversive freshness of what she picks and chooses as her subjects and concerns. She draws not so much from the basket of traditional cultural motifs -- seasons, nature -- but from universal themes -- love, sex, life, death -- and how they are captured in language:

When did it all begin This bucolic and pan-incestuous atmosphere Was it not always there in the selfsame family album Lovers fallen to the status of kin Animals fallen to the condition of lovers Nor let us forget the repressive inclinations In the animistic discourse to which All romances arrive in the end

"While it is true that some of her early poems have lent themselves to a critique of gender relations, what has made her poetry such a challenge to the tradition of women's writing in Chinese was her boldness in exploring the pleasures of the flesh and of the text, which places her 'feminism' more in the vein of a writer like [French novelist Sidonie] Colette," Bradbury comments.

Thus, the title. Rather than being pureblooded high art, Yu's poetry is a blend of postmodern elements, making art and a kind of poetic travelogue from global discards. That's what makes it modern, universal and refreshing. Though it's hard to get a sense the full impact of this poetry in Chinese, in English, it's lively, original, intelligent and sensual. Yu's is a vibrant voice from the edge of the new world, where East and West no longer matter as poetic distinctions.

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