Rachel Ka Yin Leung, chengyu: chinoiserie (Hedgehog Press, 2020)
The chengyu (“idiom” in Mandarin) condenses something meaningful into four characters. In her debut collection, Leung follows a similar pattern, translating Chinese sayings into English and using the resulting amalgamation to carve out her own stories. These stories gain power through their brevity; they are fleetingly endless and endlessly fleeting.
but stirring, i return to the‘sea oath, mountain treaty: till the end of time (海誓山盟)’
hum and cry of this brief world, and
bare, and cold
The poet looks out over the immensity of the ocean and then looks at herself. Like the seemingly never-ending expanse of water, Leung’s language is a contradiction. Her descriptions are simultaneously incisive and open-ended, vivid and vague.
One highlight is ‘a long night is fraught with many a dream: before morning comes (夜長夢多)’ with its powerful focus on liminality and boundaries. Leung compels a sense of danger and transgression from the start: ‘i am crossing over / in the dark’. Through an array of transcendental images, Leung takes us “beyond”, wherever that may be. Once there, the language used to describe ‘these dream-infested waters’ is exquisite. Leung has a delicate and subtle touch for sound and its limitations. The dreamer is aware of ‘bendy silence’ and of her ‘eyes ticking, ticking like the / black time’.
i am confused.‘drunk on life, dreaming of death: living life as if befuddled (醉生夢死)’
my blueness is a shade of red
like a baby bleeds
Time and sound are inextricably linked. Both are flexible but suffocating. Similarly, the poems of chengyu: chinoiserie feel confined and freely formed, confused and lucid. Leung skilfully twists our expectations throughout the collection, showcasing the fluidity and stickiness of language. This is perfectly exemplified in Leung’s phrase, ‘syrupy noonlight’ (‘a trickle of water runs long: always (細水長流)’), one of the collection’s many beautiful and sharp observations that will stay with the reader.
Rachel Ka Yin Leung, chengyu: chinoiserie (Hedgehog Press, 2020). Available here.