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Review: Chengyu: Chinoiserie

Natalie Perman gives Cherwell a preview of Leung Rachel Ka Yin’s upcoming poetry pamphlet

In chengyu: chinoiserie, Leung Rachel Ka Yin’s upcoming pamphlet with Hedgehog Press, words refuse to be held on the page. They shimmer with a gleam of mysticism, tremble with all the power of divine revelation, dazzling and surprising at turns with the poems’ neologisms, aphorisms and breathtaking images. In Leung’s tales of adolescence, of desire and longing, loss and language, it is clear that love is the “one most/ tender, /tongueless theme”. Words “become flesh” as poems are imbued with the earnest passion of lived history. Leung recreates the world, tales of love and birth and questioning, the “and who/and where…/and why…” of beginnings and endings: the “first falling”, the afterlife, and “elysium”. 

The poems in the collection are each devoted to a separate Chinese idiom (‘chengyu’ means ‘idiom’ in Mandarin), translated in their titles to its single characters; ‘海誓山盟’, often translated to ‘to pledge everlasting love’, crystallises to ‘sea oath, mountain treaty’, as another is ‘paper drunk, gold bewitched’. Each idiom unfurls under Leung’s tender touch, with language coaxed into images that delight: a “year barefoot”, something that “sleeps glowing”, “your laughs” that “ring silvery as the morn”. 

The language of chengyu: chinoiserie inhabits the world of magic and folktale, Leung’s tales of young love evoking the mythic beauty of ancient mysticism and Biblical narrative. Whilst the collection enacts ‘Genesis/upon Genesis’, amorous tropes, clichés and English aphorisms, such as “LOVE IS NOT A VICTORY MARCH” and ‘all that glitters is not gold’, are charged with new life and meaning, idioms imagined anew, language revivified.  The poems themselves are ‘fresh and desperate’, summoning an intensity of emotion reserved for the pangs of adolescent love. However, the collection has an acute wisdom alongside its adolescent fervor, and avoids slipping sentimentality: even “lover boy,/my sharpest jealousy” will be forgotten, as “I will forget your name, too”. Leung equally maintains a constant sense of playfulness even in the poems’ darkest moments. The poem ‘a long night is fraught with many a dream: before morning comes 夜長夢多’ is set “in the dark”, in the realm of “the grave”, yet ends in a pun: the rush “before/mourning comes”. Just as Leung translates a coming-of-age, language encodes change with the metamorphic power of repetition; an isolated word or phrase in its second form alters, enhances, creates, sets the reader “spin, spin, spinning”. Form and rhythm are also deftly molded in Leung’s control: the reader traverses the nursery rhyme of ‘love, sing me a daisy’ in ‘paper drunk, gold bewitched: the new Americana 紙醉金迷, the breathless lust of ‘drunk on life, dreaming of death: living life as if befuddled 醉生夢死’ and the incantation of prayer in ‘feeling cavity opens for the first time: love awakens 情竇初開’. ‘The house of dried fish: dreaming and waterless 枯魚之肆’ is Moorian in its dreamlike iridescence, sparkling as ‘The Fish’ which brought Marianne Moore fame, its rich synesthesia a “terrible thrill”, the beautiful depiction of the desperate, primal struggle for life leaving the reader “dreaming/of quicksand”.  

The possibility of pandering to Western audiences in the translation of Chinese idioms into English is not lost on Leung. The collection is highly self-aware: the Western currency of orientalist thought behind ‘exotic’ goods and styles is wryly articulated in the title of the collection, (with European ‘chinoiserie’). However, the collection ascends a form of exotic tourism. To read chengyu: chinoiserie is to wade blissfully through “dream-infested waters”, guided by Leung’s gentle hand. 

The collection concludes in a recognition of “my voice” which is “through and through and/through”. Chengyu: chinoiserie thus perfectly finishes its coming-of-age tale in a final realization and celebration of an identity, independence and selfhood that is cross-cultural, multilingual, devoutly modern and utterly new. 

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