“The Ink Cloud Reader” by Kit Fan

Kit Fan Kit Fan

Kit Fan’s latest poetry collection, The Ink Cloud Reader, hinges on anticipation of change. In “Cumulonimbus,” which opens the main section of the book, Fan compares the current state of his writing career to the moments before a thunderstorm breaks.


Halfway through my life
the reeds by Meguro River
where the ducks made love
stop whistling. I fear I’ve over-
inked, or the linseed oil
soured the sky. The wind
tastes of oysters grilled
over autumn soil.
A fish draws a ripple,
or did a raindrop win?
My papers will topple
the house before the tin
roof falls. I’d better make haste
and find a new address.
A long-legged fly by the watercress
skates upstream, brazen-faced.
What I need now, to change
the half-course of my life,
is to be struck by lightning
and survive it, like Hokusai.


It would seem that Fan was struck more than once by that elusive bolt of inspiration, for The Ink Cloud Reader is a bold and mature collection—his third—that offers something new with each turn of the page. Lucidly and elegantly, Fan uses metaphors of reading and writing to explore some of the most elemental themes of the human condition: love, loss, politics, place, and literature itself.


The Ink Cloud Reader, Kit Fan (Carcanet Press, April 2023)
The Ink Cloud Reader, Kit Fan (Carcanet Press, April 2023)

As suggested by its title, The Ink Cloud Reader centers on the object of the book and its constituent parts and processes. Ink, pen, paper, and the acts of reading and writing are the materials and modes through which the Hong-Kong born writer processes the events of his own life—and also confronts its unknowns, as in the poem “Delphi”:


in the end
there is
not even
the ink
and the clouds
would nothing
then be left
of me
What would
to the books
I read
and the books
I wrote
the memory
of the pages
I loved and
the memory
of my pages
loved by
fade away
in the light-
years of


The importance of materiality comes through even in the overall structure of The Ink Cloud Reader. Inserted between the book’s sections are images of murky, black-and-white patterns that look like close-up photographs of granite striations. An untitled poem at the beginning of the book offers an interpretation of these images. The poem tells a story about a Chinese calligrapher named Wang Xizhi, who, with each mistake he made during his training, had to wash his brush in a pond. Fan wonders what “Wang Xizhi would have seen / in his ink pond,” and those questions turn in on himself as he considers his own “inking” practice throughout the book:


Would he have seen
the towering storm clouds
we now call cumulonimbus?
Would he have seen the trees
fidgeting in the wind?
Would he have seen the inky
goldfishes in the pond?
Would he have seen himself
in the ink-surface that had turned into
a mirror?


Fan’s attention to the physical properties of ink and the book is reflected in his virtuosity in form; no two poems look the same. For instance, “Broken Nosed Jizō” tells two stories simultaneously, one in the main body of the poem and the other in the margins. It is followed by “From the Yemen Data Project,” a precise, dark, and political piece taking the form of a numbered list. Other poems draw on the symbolic resonances of specific visual elements: “Mnemosyne” plays with the opacity of each line of text to visualize memories fading away; symbols shaped like phases of the moon in “A Long Story of Moon” create an elongated sense of the passage of time; and horizontal lines in “A Story of a Labyrinth” represent elisions from the text as well as passageways through it.


Beyond visual forms, Fan’s incorporation of various literary genres and styles is what produces some of the strangest and most remarkable pieces in The Ink Cloud Reader. The poem “Glück” is as much a poem as it is a short play, featuring a dialogue between the characters “Sun” and “Shade.” They bicker with each other and discuss the fate of a sick man reading a book beneath a tree.


SUN: (turning bright electric blue) Are you afraid?
(The shade jumps and transforms into a seagull
landing on a terracotta chimney. It’s the Eighth of 
June. Everywhere speaks Being and Cloudlessness. 
The pair argue in sunlight and shadow, mostly 
subdued, while a white ambulance pulls into a 
parking bay unloading a man onto a metal frame 
that moves and shines like the sun.)


SHADE: I’m sick of your ubiquitous tentacles of selves!


SUN: (laughing) You and I are cut from the same
cloth. (Teasing a cloud, the sun swallows the sick 
man whole. Another man in his early forties drags 
himself and a wooden bench into the shadow.)


SUN: No need to fret, my tinted friend. See, your
food is served. (Shade hesitates.)


Through the rest of the poem, what starts as a surreal concept turns into a poignant reflection on illness and death, and the role literature can play in processing that stage of life.


Another literary pastiche, “2047: A Hong Kong Space Odyssey,” imagines a dystopian future society in which reflection—personal or historical—is forbidden. In the first part of the poem, Fan starts to read a digital copy of Walt Whitman’s “Leaves of Grass” only to be warned against it by his sister: “‘Don’t hyper-process the past,’ she says, ‘they can detect / nostalgia, even the literary kind.’” After the “Intermission” at the poem’s halfway point, Fan bursts into a flood of reminiscences:


Do you remember you stole Mum’s lipstick?
Do you remember the red spread like a virus
on your three-year-old mouth? Do you remember
next to the lipstick a small thing sealed in paper?
Do you remember I asked you not to open it?
Do you remember those bright, shiny things
inside the wrapping paper and how I screamed?
Do you remember the blades? The blood
coating your mouth, slightly scented by the red
pigment only found in Chanel lipstick?
Do you remember I sat you by the window
to show you the clouds over Victoria Harbour
in the distance?
Do you remember how to remember
and disremember? Do you remember me?


While this long stanza carries an overwhelming sense of mourning, it is also an act of defiance in its even being spoken, a challenge to those who dismiss the value of constant reflection and questioning—and not just in a speculative future. Indeed, beneath all the virtuosic flourish of this book lies Fan’s restlessness in the face of potential conformity. As Fan expands the poem’s formal and imaginative capabilities, he is searching for new ways to express uncertainty. He is also, simply, refusing to be stagnant.

Lily Nilipour is Digital Marketing Assistant at Harvard University Press and an Associate Poetry Editor for Narrative.