Dreams and beyond

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
hum and cry of this brief world, and
bare, and cold

‘sea oath, mountain treaty: till the end of time (海誓山盟)’

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.
i think
my blueness is a shade of red
like a baby bleeds

‘drunk on life, dreaming of death: living life as if befuddled (醉生夢死)’

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.

Knees and never-endings

P.B. Hughes, Girl, falling (Gatehouse Press, 2019)


Girl, falling is a powerful collection of small moments and monumental thoughts. Varied and vivifying, the poems are fresh and innovative. The pamphlet inhabits a fragmentary space, aware of its own limitations but never ceasing to fight. The voice is vulnerable but assured, well-humoured yet urgent.

Hughes writes about writing with great sensitivity. In ‘The Writing Project’, she sets herself a Borgesian task: ‘You resolved to write and write until you’d written every word in the dictionary at least once’. The challenge highlights a desire for completeness which is never quite fulfilled. Indeed, the poet’s exuberance for words breaks down entirely in ‘Distance to the Ground’: ‘on my knee/ at the computer you wrote the letter K over and over’.

The language is at times haunting, at times beautiful, but never static. The poet describes herself and her surroundings with flare and relish: the tree ‘wore apples like smiles’ (‘Tree’) and ‘my arms are the plane’s wings’ (‘things i give my lover’). Sound is navigated with nuance. In ‘Diaspora’ we are encouraged not to take sound for granted: ‘Listening is more than inhabiting sound’. In a poem about refugees, such imagery of domestic instability hits the reader hard.

Like an escalator that goes round and round, the linguistic games repeat and accumulate. Sound is intrusive and hard to block out; similarly, the reader is urged not to ignore the plight of refugees. Loss and isolation recur, but so do knees and water, testament to Hughes’ careful balancing of mind and body, personal and political. Personality crashes into obligation in ‘Falling’, where a girl teeters on the edge of a swimming pool ‘in a body she was required/ to hate’.

The poem is an ever-evolving space, both welcoming and worrying. A balanced and skilful pamphlet, Girl, falling is an agglomeration of language and change. Each poem is confined but dynamic, fixed yet fleeting, like ‘snowflakes shaken in/ a snow globe’ (‘escalator’).


P.B. Hughes, Girl, falling (Gatehouse Press, 2019). Available here.