Fiona Sze-Lorrain translates: “Karma: Poems” by Yin Lichuan and “Moonlight Rests on My Left Palm: Poems and Essays” by Yu Xiuhua

Karma: poems, Yin Lichuan, Fiona Sze-Lorrain (trans), (Tolsun Books, June 2020); Moonlight Rests on My Left Palm: Poems and Essays, Yu Xiuhua. Fiona Sze-Lorrain (trans) (Astra House, September 2021) Karma: poems, Yin Lichuan, Fiona Sze-Lorrain (trans), (Tolsun Books, June 2020); Moonlight Rests on My Left Palm: Poems and Essays, Yu Xiuhua. Fiona Sze-Lorrain (trans) (Astra House, September 2021)

Fiona Sze-Lorrain, a distinguished poet herself, is also a busy and prolific translator of Chinese poetry, which is very fortunate both for the poets themselves, who get exposure to a readership outside China, and for readers, whose literary horizons are expanded thanks to her sensitive and careful work. Here are two volumes of poetry written by people whose backgrounds and experiences are completely different; Yu Xiuhua (b 1976) is a single mother with cerebral palsy, and Yin Lichuan (b 1973) a Beijing-based multi-disciplinary artist and founder-member of what Chinese critics call the Lower Body Movement of poetry, of which more later.

The former lived in relative rural obscurity until 2014, when she achieved attention nationwide with a short poem entitled “Crossing Half of China to Fuck You”, which led to her winning two literary prizes and becoming a celebrity. The latter is a well-known award-winning filmmaker who has published short stories in addition to several volumes of poetry. Both poets focus on subjects not often found in traditional Chinese poetry; Yin Lichuan, as Carolyn Kuebler states in The New England Review, produces “poetry of deep irreverence and relentless questioning”, while Yu Xiuhua writes in an engagingly direct manner about sexuality and the natural world. “I have never been a calm person,” she says, “I have no desire to resign myself to fate.” Both poets may be thought of as “fresh and fearless”, words used by Kuebler to characterise Yin Lichuan’s work.


I’ll let Shen Haobo (b 1976), who wrote their manifesto, explain what the Lower Body Poets are about. “Only those who can’t find joy,” he proclaimed boldly in the first issue of the Lower Body Magazine, “go looking for thought,” and went on to ask, “Don’t tell me you didn’t know that abstruse poets are frauds.”

The Lower Body poets provoke, shock, irritate other, more conventional poets and satirise society; they write about sex, they profess anti-intellectualism and thumb their noses at the Chinese establishment. For western equivalents, if there are such, think the Earl of Rochester in the 17th century or Charles Bukowsky in the 20th. I am also reminded of Alfred Jarry’s hilariously grotesque Ubu plays. But, like the writings of these other writers, there is nevertheless food for thought in the productions of the Lower Body poets, nicely paired with an awareness on their parts that their posturing might be seen as self-parody. In other words, they get joy out of what they write, and this includes laughing at themselves as part of it, but readers, who sometimes overlook the hidden seriousness, do so at their peril. In the poetry of Yin Lichuan there are many references to such “shocking” things as masturbation, adultery, menstruation and starving children; there are even poems about public toilets, buses and cat neutering. There’s nothing “abstruse” about those! As Sze-Lorrain perceptively puts it:


Yin Lichuan’s shift to the concrete, the grimy, the sexual, and the uninhibited—without hasty appropriation of the vulgar was considered a radical departure from “poetry correctness,” a challenge to edgy issues such as self-censorship and old guard silence.


Readers can see this illustrated in poems such as “Shenzhen: Street Scene”, where


breasts droop to the floor like winter gourds
yet butts fly high into the sky
the degree of their tilt dictates their future
after a decade of wet dreams
five years in masturbation


The language itself is not “vulgar”, but it’s certainly sexualized and the imagery is direct, concrete; for example, in “Inspiration from a Public Toilet in the Suburbs”, where the narrator sees:


… an old woman
lift fat pants
look impressive, make a hiccup
calmly put on her belt
she sighs lightly with satisfaction


This mundane yet striking image is startlingly offset in the last lines by:


calmly she puts on her belt
slow, familiar moves
can accompany a tragic symphony
or a silent film.


The effect of this is a kind of discordia concors, combining conflicting elements together into a kind of unity, in this case dressing after a bowel movement and a tragic symphony! The only other similar poem I remember that’s quite so direct about toilet activity is Jonathan Swift’s 1732 satirical diatribe “The Lady’s Dressing Room”, which contains the self-censored exclamation “Oh Celia, Celia, Celia sh-ts,” but, unlike Swift, Yin allows her subject a modicum of dignity and there are no bed smells. Both of Yin’s poems keep the focus firmly on the lower body and far away from “poetry correctness”.


Yu Xiuhua can be shocking, too; in her debut poem she opens with the lines


Fucking you and being fucked by you are quite the same, no more
than the force of two colliding bodies, a flower coaxed into blossom


It may well be that her poetry is often informed by her disability and her former isolation, but don’t look for “disability” in this writer. John Donne wrote in Meditation 17, “Affliction is a treasure, and scarce any man hath enough of it;” Yu Xiuha says in an essay that “Yes, life is bitter and has its challenges, but it isn’t disastrous,” and she goes on to declare that “The fact that suffering can be transformed into poetry is itself a feat,” concluding that “All I want to do is live on with a fiery gaze and my teeth clenched.”

Affliction, as Donne well knew, can make people stronger, and Yu Xiuha’s poetry illustrates this very well. “In my dumb life,” she says in her deceptively simple voice, “I draw water from a well, cook, take/ my medicine regularly,” and in an essay she addresses questions about her disability, strongly denying being or wishing to be a role-model (how refreshing!), and saying firmly that she has “no advice … Regardless of our unbearable bodies or lives, we are each unique in this world. We ought to cherish ourselves.” Her strength, she says, is in labour, which, she says. “sums up my outlook on life.”

Her affliction is what drives her to do what she does, and she has indeed made it into a treasure. Her poems are often erotic, which might surprise some readers who wonder how people with severe disabilities manage in that area; the answer is, of course, just like anyone else manages. There is pain and suffering and there is joy, there is emotional frustration and there is fulfilment. Yu’s “treasure” is her capacity to experience all these, and in the end her disability doesn’t much matter. “I too have desires in my prime years,” she writes,


nights with a shattered body-mind
but never have I banished myself.


In “Marvels” she celebrates love: “No matter what, I want to hug you, to leap and kiss you,” but at the same time, as she wryly puts it, “Bedroom matters are not always a bed of roses.” In “Those Secrets Suddenly Dignified” she addresses a lover on his birthday, a day which she says is “like an apple’s secret,” commending him for his consideration and understanding of her independence and her capacity for emotional expression:


I hand my destiny over to the night wind and you
Days are long, I become whiny when I talk about despair
O you’ve given me the slenderest wings
Let me fly like a bee—how exhausting—or die en route
with a sweet stomach


Yin however has a rather different view:


stabbing an orange
how I long to stab you
long that you are an orange
like this orange I stab


Both poets have a capacity to take everyday, almost banal, phenomena and elevate them as symbols of something outside themselves, higher and more profound than the merely physical. Yin Lichuan writes of ordinary family activities, beggars, wet paint, workers, peasants, airports and surgery; Yu Xiuhua about wheat, rain, dust, water and snow, and, above all, love, how she experiences it through her disability and poverty; one could say, perhaps, that linking love with the mundane helps universalize the experience.

As clichéd as it might sound,  for these poets the ordinary becomes the extraordinary and the expected becomes the unexpected. Yin Lichuan can startle with her imagery and leave a lasting impression on the reader; writing on the back cover, Jennifer Barber, the editor of Salamander, was struck by “a pink plastic sandal buried in soil”, but there is also “a toy crawls from the edge of a carpet”, or “the most insane people grow up in Japan.” Yu Xiuhua engages readers with her courage and humour, firmly rooted in the material world. As she says in an essay,


Undeniably, a disabled body is a great inconvenience in life, and leaves no room for all kinds of possibilities. But it is also fair to say that the disabled body’s soul does not feel about the external world any less than others. This is what counts most. True joys come from the depths of one’s soul, not the external environment.


Later on, she says,


I write poetry simply because I enjoy writing poems. Why write? Enjoyment is the reason and purpose.


 Shen Haobo would certainly agree with that.

John Butler recently retired as Associate Professor of Humanities at the University College of the North in The Pas, Manitoba, Canada, and has taught at universities in Canada, Nigeria and Japan. He specializes in early modern travel-literature (especially Asian travel) and seventeenth-century intellectual history. His books include an edition of Sir Thomas Herbert’s Travels in Africa, Persia and Asia the Great (2012) and most recently an edition of Sir Paul Rycaut's Present State of the Ottoman Empire (1667) and a book of essays, Off the Beaten Track: Essays on Unknown Travel Writers.