“Making Music of Life”: A Review of Anna Yin’s Seven Nights with the Chinese Zodiac

by Doyali Islam

Doyali Islam’s poems have been published in Kenyon Review OnlineGrainCV2, and Arc. She is the winner of CV2’s 2015 Young Buck Poetry Prize, as well as the recipient of a 2015 Chalmers Arts Fellowship and past grants from Canada Council for the Arts, Ontario Arts Council, and Barbara Deming Memorial Fund. A Canadian poet, she lives in Toronto and will read her work at Ottawa’s VERSeFest 2016.

Seven Nights with the Chinese Zodiac
Black Moss Press
2450 Byng Rd.
Windsor, ON N8W 3E8

2015, 113 pp., $17.00, ISBN: 9780887535536


I do not know Anna Yin, but I have heard her read her work twice: first at High Park in the summer of 2015, and second at Diaspora Dialogue’s Markham roadshow in the autumn of the same year. Both times, it was a pleasure to hear her poems intoned. Both times, I was intrigued and longed to read more.

The inaugural Mississauga Poet Laureate’s third full-length poetry book, Seven Nights with the Chinese Zodiac, reveals a self-assured poet who has come to trust her voice. Yin, who immigrated to Canada from China in 1999, reveals in a short interview with The Medium that she “lacked confidence at the beginning of [her] writing career,” but that the publication of her debut poetry book—Wings Toward Sunlight (Mosaic Press, 2011)—“gave her the confidence and motivation to continue writing.” Seven Nights exhibits further maturation of this confidence, as well as a poet who is decidedly here:

I have hesitated many times
before speaking;
now [my accent] develops teeth.

Even with gaps between,
I decide
…this is my voice

This almost-square volume is part of Black Moss Press’ Palm Poets Series, and, indeed, it is lovely to hold in the hands. The table of contents appears at the back—a welcome change that supports a more organic and less didactic reading experience.

The cover, featuring a ram, swirls with the “fresh colour” and “infinite hues” found inside Yin’s poems: the red of cardinals, of moons, of pomegranate seeds, of Underworld rivers, of cancer-patient scarves, and of blood; the blue of twilight, of forget-me-nots, of passports, of summer lakes, and of our watery planet; as well as the green of firefly light. Yin creates vivid images with colour, as when she remembers hearing about a tree of life in the East, its branches home to many birds. She uses this cultural-familial story as a jumping-off point to think about her house in Mississauga, Ontario, in new terms. She dreams:

The red cardinal lives at the top.
Hopping down, he picks
a fight madly.
Shocked, the house trembles.

The black crow
aging in her own shadow,
startled, echoes each sound.
I think I am the blue one,
clasping a shawl over my head;
I flash into rains.

Another sharp—pun intended—image occurs when the speaker (who seems to be Yin herself) contemplates the approach of death and acknowledges what life remains. This speaker “walk[s] alone and recall[s]”: “last night by accident I cut my finger… / slowly, on the rice paper, red roses grew.”

This sampling of painterly images captures Yin’s sensual sensibility and her attentiveness to the concrete aspects of everyday life. The collection feels grounded in and by place and time. However, in Yin’s poems, concrete things also seem to lift off their pages. Yin transforms—even transfigures—them with her imagination, through descriptions of dreams and through allusions to myths and cultural sayings. These transformations make the formerly-concrete things no less real, as the work is careful to assert early on.

“ … in Yin’s poems, concrete things also seem to lift off their pages.”

In the titular poem “Seven Nights with the Chinese Zodiac,” which opens the collection, Yin takes us into a dream sequence in which a “police-monkey escorts a well-suited rat” whose “thin whiskers toss off a line / from a cartoon film: // ‘All dreams are valid’”. This metadiscursive touch is at once subtle and comic, and it works very well. The reader is not startled, then, to read later on that a “train turn[s] / into a white wild horse” (“Edge Arts”). All imaginings are valid: the capacious side of poetry, and of Yin’s poems.

It is not new to find poems that incorporate dreams, nor is it a culturally-exclusive technique. Jeannette Armstrong and Lally Grauer’s 2001 book Native Poetry in Canada: A Contemporary Anthology includes a chapter on poet Daniel David Moses which recalls that Moses’ lyric style of the late 1970s and 1980s “quite soon took a ‘turn to the surreal,’” and that he “began to incorporate dreams and ‘dream images,’ drawing from ‘the numerous traditional Native cultures which revere dreams as a way of understanding the world.’”

Imagination and dreams seem to be significant to Yin—perhaps because they offer a way to process and cope with life’s tumult. Suffering and loss form the human experience, and Yin’s curiosity about them began in childhood:

What is death like?
No one takes a close look.

When you were nine, a road accident, a pool of blood.
You followed adults into a room …
all strangers, you touched the victim’s foot,
wondering if it was the same coldness
as your grandma, who died in her sleep.

Although one cannot be sure, it seems that Yin is reflecting on her own life, as the poem continues, “Years later you started writing poetry” and does not give subsequent concrete indication that this “you” is another human being.

As an adult, then, Yin’s poetry does not try to resolve life’s complexity, but she grapples with it. In the poem “Snow,” she recalls her sister’s battle with cancer and ties the unpredictability of seasons to the uncertainty of medical prognosis:

It must be a miracle.
The doctor told us
you wouldn’t make the snow season.
But this year, in our warm south
winter comes earlier.
We rush to get fur coats from closets.
We are both happy and worried—
no one can predict the weather
and the future anymore.
In the news, somewhere where
there are never floods;
now it is under deep water.

The poem then takes a more personal turn—an effective turn that recalls more closely the childhood bond between the older and younger sister:

When we were young,
we waited for snow eagerly.
Following you, I made snow
angels, mine always smaller.

The phrase “mine always smaller” is simple but moving. Because Yin’s poems are plainspoken, the poems seem simple and might be easy to overlook. However, it is this simplicity that suggests a deft hand. This hand then moves swiftly from the embodied absence of “snow angels” to a lack-of-knowing about an afterlife:

Does it snow in heaven?
Nobody tells us.
Those who go before us, you say,
go to check
and save a place for us.

In the same interview with The Medium, Yin explains that she “lost her sister to cancer [and that], because of this, she th[inks] about death a lot.” Yin’s contribution in Seven Nights is neither experimental nor avant-garde, but the degree to which and the ways in which her poems remind us of life’s brevity are refreshing.

While “Snow” is a touching poem about loss, the mid-poem aspect of flooding touches upon anthropogenic concerns—the collective mess we have made of this planet. In other poems, Yin mentions “the air pollution index / the soaring house prices / and the landless farmers.”

Other poems contemplate the ways in which society sometimes ignores marginalized people. In the poem “Bread,” the reader witnesses the indifference of a “well-suited man [who] sits in a glass building / busy on his report in a pair of glittering shoes”. Any of us could be guilty of his “willful blindness” as we rush about in our daily lives: “when encountering the homeless down the street / or on World Alive news, he flips his pages”. The “well-suited rat” of Yin’s opening poem has reappeared, its meaning more clear.

One of the most poignant reflections on social injustice occurs in the poem “Stones.” Yin uses this titular subject to link Canadian poet Pat Lowther’s tragic, violent, and untimely death to the stoning of women by men—perhaps in Saudi Arabia or Afghanistan; the exact place is not clear. In any case, Yin’s linkage is clever, alluding to Lowther’s own posthumous collection A Stone Diary:

Hard and cold, this is your statement.
Pat Lowther tried to warm and shine you,
but was found in the muddy currents

In another country, men use you
to target the “sinners”—
women who dare to expose their faces
or limbs with a free mind.

No eyes to shed tears, no mouths
to tell about the biases, you hold
only harshness, and silence.

Perhaps Yin is speaking to the limits of her poems, of poetry, and art in general: Lowther’s attempts to “warm and shine”—that is, to change—the nature of stone were not enough to save her from a hammer’s blow, to save her body from a murky and troubling end in Furry Creek, British Columbia. Since Yin states in an earlier poem that “[her] pen is the skipping stones / falling into their rivers, / rippling outward / and asking / what life is like,” it seems that she ultimately considers her poetic role to be one of questioning rather than resolving: to be a sometimes-harsh (but not silent) witness.

“Perhaps Yin is speaking to the limits of her poems, of poetry, and art in general … ”

Stylistically, Yin makes titles of nouns more than once, and she speaks about said nouns as an “it,” or addresses them directly using the second-person “you.” This practice seems to hold something in common with classical Chinese poetry, in which, according to Zong-qi Cai’s How to Read Chinese Poetry: A Guided Anthology, “the customary function of the title in Chinese classical poetry is to state the poem’s occasion—or at the very least, in the case of yuefu [(folk-style)] poetry, to give clear generic signals as to how to go about reading the poem.” Aside from the poem “Stones,” Yin uses this direct-address strategy for the poems “Death,” “Bread,” “My Accent,” and “Lorna’s Cat.”

This last example is one of my favourites in the collection. Cat-lover that I am, I find myself partial to the endearing, playful, and surreal qualities of a poem which, a quick Google search confirms, is about one of the celebrated Canadian poet Lorna Crozier’s current feline friends:

“Lorna’s Cat”

She calls you “Basho”—
a name blown from remote Japan
and outliving the lonely banana tree,
a name pioneering the Narrow Road to the Deep North
and lighting up seven continents for centuries.

Even though the book quotes and alludes to many Western poets throughout—including Rae Armantrout, Margaret Atwood, Dorothy Livesay, Mary Oliver, William Carlos Williams, and William Butler Yeats—the above passage honours the wisdom and poetic gifts of the East before it continues:

She must believe
you possess nine lives
each watching out for red moons,
and searching for a heavenly ladder
where you can suddenly disappear
then return with a glowing halo.

On snowy days,
she watches you inking
your paws on the rice papers,
so much like water splashing
from the old pond.

The enjambment, especially of “inking” and “splashing,” creates a dynamic feel, and the “old pond” alludes to what is perhaps the most famous haiku of all time, Matsuo Basho’s “Old Pond”: “furu ike ya / kawazu tobikomu / mizu no oto”. Or, “An old pond; / A frog leaps in— / The water sound” (Aitken 7).

The poem “Lorna’s Cat” acts as a nice counterbalance to the book’s oft-difficult subject matter. Another one of my favourites—equally delightful and elegantly-wrought—is the poem “Life Jars,” which Yin wrote upon request for CBC Radio’s Quiet Zones project. Consider its first three verse paragraphs:

When I was a child,
I was told
silence is like light,
having colours and faces.

Walking through the country in the dark,
I used to fill a glass jar with fireflies.
It became my green starry compass.
When I inhaled the silence,
I could hear quiet voices from living creatures,
each making music of its own life.

Now grown up,
every day’s busy journey in this hectic city,
I thought our life jars must be full of mundane
trifles and noises;
Yet wandering into ravines in this urban landscape,
I can find the silence, silence and silence—
Where it opens a door like sunrays breaking
through.

“Life Jars” is the title of a poem as well as the title of the section in which it is found. Although it is my favourite of the book’s four sections—containing the poems “Snow,” “My Father’s Temple,” “A House Is a Tree,” “The Natural,” “Lorna’s Cat,” and “Life Jars”—it contains one poem that does not seem to match the rest of the section and collection’s level of craft. The back-cover synopsis notes that this penultimate section “collects incidents and stories from daily life,” which it does successfully on the whole. However, I do not think that the poem “Visiting New York,” which presents a sequence of five haiku about Big-Apple experiences, adds to this otherwise-shining repository.

“Perhaps it disappoints only because of other poems’ strengths.”

While I do not take issue with the poem’s subject matter, at neither the level of language nor the level of narrative does the poem grip me. Both the poem “Life Jars” and the poem “Visiting New York” are grounded in place, but the former sparkles and the other dulls. Consider the language and pace in “Life Jars”: the opening simile—with “silence … like light, / having colours and faces”—is startling and thought-provoking, and the imagery that follows is crisp and lush, such that I felt like I was walking beside the child Yin and experiencing a moment in time with her. By contrast, although there are provocative phrases in “Visiting New York” such as “white blindness” and “the term of mirage,” no great moment of transformation arose in the poem or in my spirit as I read it aloud. Perhaps this haiku sequence does not leave quite enough room for the reader to enter or contain enough tension to be compelling. Perhaps it disappoints only because of other poems’ strengths.

Seven Nights with the Chinese Zodiac is, at once, about the unstoppable passage of time and what that means for individual humans and for our civilization as a whole. However, this poetry book is also a celebration of all that lives and breathes as wondrously as those fireflies in her glass jar, “making music of [their] li[v]e[s]”—if only we pause to listen and look.


Works Cited

Aitken, Robert. The River of Heaven: the Haiku of Basho, Buson, Issa, and Shiki. Berkeley: Counterpoint Press, 2011.

Armstrong, Jeannette C. and Lally Grauer, eds. Native Poetry in Canada: A Contemporary Anthology. Peterborough: Broadview Press Ltd., 2001.

Yin, Anna. “The Art that Crosses Oceans.” The Medium. Interview. 25 Jan. 2016. Web. 26 Jan. 2016.

Yin, Anna. Seven Nights with the Chinese Zodiac. Windsor: Black Moss Press, 2015.

 


Doyali Islam’s poems have been published in Kenyon Review OnlineGrainCV2, and Arc. She is the winner of CV2’s 2015 Young Buck Poetry Prize, as well as the recipient of a 2015 Chalmers Arts Fellowship and past grants from Canada Council for the Arts, Ontario Arts Council, and Barbara Deming Memorial Fund. A Canadian poet, she lives in Toronto and will read her work at Ottawa’s VERSeFest 2016.

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