by Jack Foley, The Alsop Review
November 18, 2011
“N’importe où hors du monde.”
Charles Baudelaire (“Anywhere out of this world”:
Baudelaire is translating the English poet, Thomas Hood)
There are many ways to discover Clara Hsu. She has a book of poems, Mystique (2006) and a book of prose sketches, a travel account with the extravagant title, Babouche Impromptu and Other Moroccan Sketches (2008). She co-hosts a local poetry television show, San Francisco Open Mic Poetry Podcast TV Show (formerly Mystic Babylon Poetry Podcast), with her friend, poet/videographer John Rhodes, and you can find a number of her performances on YouTube. (She recites in Chinese as well as English.) She has a CD, The Mystical Path, which features her performance partner, Bill Mercer, along with herself—as well as shakuhachi flute and drum played by Mercer and Hsu. (On one track she sings, tenderly and beautifully—though she is quick to point out that she is not a “professional” singer.) She has a website, http://www.clarahsu.com and a blog: http://www.thepaintedskin.com. She calls her San Francisco home The Poetry Hotel and hosts a monthly salon there. Poetry for her is intensely communal.
Her personal history is interesting. Born in Hong Kong—her father manufactured pianos—she began as a musician. (She still teaches piano.) In 1982 she founded with her father the world music shop, Clarion Music Center in San Francisco’s Chinatown. The store, whose name puns on “Clara,” has been described as “not your ordinary music store,” “full of instruments, especially Chinese ones & music of many cultures.” The store continues to thrive, though she and her father are no longer the owners. She is restless, intelligent, imaginative, sometimes surprisingly and fearlessly assertive, capable of extravagant, life-changing gestures that annihilate what most likely struck her as boring stability: in “February 2007,” she writes, “I sold my business, ended a long marriage [which had produced two children] and became a poet. I studied Arabic for a year and returned to Morocco, this time alone.” She practices, she says, “the art of multidimensional being.” Mystique concludes with “Away”:
As soon as you walk in the door
you will find I’ve already gone
to a mountain sits amid
a void and aimless drifting clouds
drunk with elixir
the tarnished silver sphere reminisces
I leave you a roomful of memories
do what you want with them.
Babouche Impromptu is a book of memories. The sketches are not unlike those Christopher Isherwood produced in Berlin Stories. Like Isherwood’s, Hsu’s speaker might say, “I am a camera.” She is there more as a presence—a point of view—than as a “person”:
Hassan the receptionist woke up when he heard me dragging my luggage down the stairs. His eyes were puffy with sleep.
“When you come back, remember this is your home.”
I thanked him and walked to the square. D’jamaa Elfna stood empty of activities. The grounds had been cleaned. Puddles of water reflected the early morning light. A couple of snakes and men idled at their usual spot. They were the only remnant from yester-night.
A taxi was waiting. The driver approached. I asked him how much it would cost to go to the bus station.
“Twenty dirhams,” he said.
I shook my head and kept walking.
“Fifteen dirhams,” he yelled.
Another taxi pulled up. This time I told the driver through the open window how much I would pay. He nodded and I got in.
The prose is simple, direct. It never insists on what “Clara” feels—though we realize that, despite the fact that her luggage is heavy (“dragging my luggage down the stairs”), she is not going to pay an extravagant price for that taxi ride. Finally, her will prevails: “This time I told the driver through the open window how much I would pay.”
The sketches are always charming, easy to read, filled with interesting details. There is even a sprinkling of Arabic throughout the book. (We learn, among other things, how to say “thank you”: shukran.) Babouche Impromptu concentrates on the other, and if, at least in part, the initial appeal of the other is its exoticism, Hsu works hard to diminish that exoticism, to bring the other into the realm of deliberate human interaction. Asked if he will pose for a photograph, one of the people she encounters answers, “I’m not…strange thing you bring back America…No, no, we’re not, er…exotique!” Of course he is exotique, but Hsu’s sincere interest and compassionate curiosity allow us to experience such characters as vivid and understandable: each, we know, has his or her “reasons”—and of course an historical/national context in which he or she exists. In this sense Hsu’s book might be described as a reclamation of the exotic other.
Yet there is another, more lyrical strain to Babouche Impromptu. It surfaces in deliberately “purple” passages like this—though even here “objective” description is a strong factor:
D’jamaa Elfna—the pulse of my heart. Your air is perfumed with incense mixed with the smell of grilled meat. Motorbikes criss-crossing, among pedestrians, blind beggars’ sing-song in the midst of flowing robes, and snake charmers’ circular arm motions bring me to you.
The strain also surfaces in the subdued theme of eroticism which echoes throughout the book. Here is one instance:
The storyteller’s voice spiraled and pounded in my direction as though he was questioning me. His husky and seductive litany touched a darkness that was lurking as I saw myself coming upon a solitary adobe hut, small, round, ashen against the night. As I walked toward it, the storyteller’s voice turned strident.
…I can’t go in…there’s no door,
no window…it’s a funeral mound…
He was now whispering, urging.
Our eyes met.
I stepped back.
In another, a man “pulls me forward and presses his lips on my cheeks.” The—climax—of this theme is “Threesome with Jack Kerouac,” a delightful and utterly fanciful chapter in which Hsu finds herself in bed with the long-dead author of On the Road. Nothing explicit is offered, but the reader’s imagination is allowed to toy with various possibilities, especially since Hsu does kiss the famous author’s cheek as she snuggles next to him. There is of course always an erotic element to travel, to encountering the other—so, while surprising, the chapter does connect with the general theme of the book. Yet it also suggests that eroticism is one of the deep sources of Clara Hsu’s restless, off-flying imagination—the power that allowed her to sell her business, end a long marriage, become a poet, and journey alone to Morocco. A recent poem describing a Turkish religious festival concludes,
Inside a hotel
five beers two friends and a night mistress
blond hair, red streaks, sturdy as an ox.
celebrate the flesh.
N’importe où hors du monde. The kind of eroticism embodied in Babouche Impromptu can easily rise to the realm of mysticism (“mystique”).
The encounter with the other postulates a self to which the other has reference. The natural mode of this encounter is necessarily descriptive—we need to know that the other is other—and the entire enterprise remains in the realm of subject/object (I/Thou).
In her most recent work, Clara Hsu seems to have moved away from that mode—though she has certainly not abandoned it. The most spectacular example of a stylistic change in her work is “From Dallas to Istanbul.” In this tour de force, description remains but it is only one element in a structure which is essentially an interplay of voices—the self not as a sounding board for a perceived other but as a potpourri, a multiplicity, the center of an ongoing chaos of yackety-yak that arises from both “inside” and “outside.” Travel remains—we are in an airport—but who exactly is the “me” at the end of the poem?
“Boarding First Class Passengers.”
Will the elite please be seated.
“Don’t you know me by now? I really don’t care.”
Boy bouncing up and down on the automatic walkway.
Starbucks’ Earl Gray. Gulp it down. Tall, Grande, Venti, whatever—lifestyle, sophistication—they mean.
“Turkish tea, apple tea, Nescafe?”
Line forming. Into the tunnel of no return.
All we like sheep, have (not) gone astray…husbands, wives, friends, lovers, businessmen, doctors, lawyers, architects, contractors, teachers, musicians, artists, babies. Poet.
Old man with breasts. Backpack, shorts, tennis shoes.
My father’s breasts are naturally aged.
“My hands on yours…”
Beep. You passed. Beep. Beep.
How many affairs do you need? Who’s keeping score? Have I passed? Am I a poet now?
“Get a life, you say?”
The corridor is strangely quiet.
Like the heart. It knows.
“I knew from the moment I set eyes on you.”
Caution. Slippery when wet.
One. The body is an extension of the mind and it is beautiful.
“I love you I love you I…”
The stewardess cannot (will not) help you with your luggage.
Suddenly there are two worlds. Us vs. them.
“We cannot get rid of the people around us, those boring, dull people who rob us the pleasures of life.”
“Did you order a special meal?” she asked, coldly.
What about drugs? Never tried though got high on second hand pot smoke once.
My daughter’s boyfriend told me to eat some psychedelic mushrooms. A few bites would take me into the altered state.
“Fasten your seatbelt.” The machine said. It’s all machine from Dallas to Istanbul.
Peter, we must meet up after your session with Hilary Clinton. I understand. Work first. But S.F—D.C.—IST! What synchronistic serendipity!
“And we must get used to not being together.” signed, me.
Hsu is a musician: if the work we see in Babouche Impromptu tends to be duets—two people talking—this work is fugal. It opens us to the polyvocal nature of the world. (Each of the lines is itself a mélange of voices.)
Another recent poem that moves in a similar direction—though it is stylistically less adventuresome than “From Dallas to Istanbul”—is “Things That Are and Things That Dream.” The poem has an oneiric quality that puts a definite haint on the various “things” which would have been so carefully (and objectively) presented in Babouche Impromptu:
Cool air rushes in from an open window.
The curtain fringes waver: yes/no.
like babies in distress. Such sorrow as they
circle a slow dance above the minarets.
Inside Sinan’s courtyard
his handprints heavy under each ancient brick.
Shape of a tulip
a young girl with headscarf, her long waist leaning
for a butterfly kiss.
The half moon
separates things that are and things that dream
holds them upon her face.
The cobblestone street
whoever walked here today has appeared and disappeared.
Earlier on, an orange cat put his paws on my knees.
You said it is in search of love.
I said it is lonely.
Things that are
have no need for us.
Things that dream
are what we’re made of.
Babouche Impromptu deals with “things that are.” Here, everything exists in a world larger than any individual thing’s particularities. The poem suggests that there is a deep sorrow at the heart of the world—and that nothing is solid: “whoever walked here today has appeared and disappeared.” Though the poem abounds with description, “we” are at distance from everything it names. Loneliness colors everything, turns everything into a metaphor for sorrow. Here, the world is a dream, and we are only dreamers:
Things that are
have no need for us.
As a Chinese-American woman living in San Francisco, Clara Hsu has undoubtedly encountered the “attraction of the exotic”: there are surely plenty of Western men who think of Chinese-American women as exotic—something out of the “mysterious East.” Yet when Hsu writes about exoticism she does not write about herself as an exotic object of desire—as many Asian feminists might. Rather, she is the person experiencing the “exotic.” Everything in Babouche Impromptu is a testing of her own capacity for understanding and sympathy. How can she present this “exotic” material as something real and even (which it also is) everyday? How can she deal not with the objectification of herself, as a feminist might, but with her own tendencies towards objectification? The vividness of her book is a wonderful indication of her success.
Yet the issues raised by objectification remain in the realm of subject/object, and Hsu is an artist whose deep imagination is in a constant state of movement. “Life,” she writes, “has no destination,”
death no grip.
The soul journeys through portals
to become a stone, a flower, a bird,
to become the sea, a cloud, the sky,
like nova of a star
to become again
and again. (“Portals”)
Identity is not fixed but constantly changing. It is constantly away. Someone remarked to Charles Olson that he “went all around the subject.” Olson answered that he didn’t know it was a subject. Hsu does not wish to limit herself any more than Olson did, though, as in Baudelaire, boredom—Ennui, stoppage—is a continual threat:
Gaunt faces surface each dreary day
between white bed sheets,
lifting sometimes an elbow,
bending a knee. (“Suspension”)
How can one assert one’s freedom, challenge and repudiate reality if not by acts of audacity and bravery? Clara Hsu’s answers to this question constitute her art, her poetry, her mode of “multidimensional being”:
One. The body is an extension of the mind and it is beautiful.
Discovering Clara Hsu is an ongoing process—and I do not mean to suggest that the process has come to an end. She has already produced some extraordinary work, and I’m sure that more is on the way. Everything I say here is necessarily tentative, to be continued, even contradicted. (I have not yet shown the piece to the lady herself.) But I want to end this essay with Clara Hsu’s gorgeous translation, “Farewell, River Cam,” from the Chinese of the early twentieth century master, Xu Zhimo (1897-1931), one of the first poets to bring Western Romantic forms into Chinese. One may celebrate movement, energy, and freedom, one may celebrate the beauty of the other as one encounters it in the here and now, and yet elegy—even nostalgia—may be an aspect of that celebration.
I leave softly
as I come,
farewell to the clouds.
By the river, the golden willow
is the bride of sunset.
Her reflection undulates,
sways in my heart.
Moss on soft mud
washes gleaming on the riverbed.
Let me be a weed
in the gentle river Cam.
The pond glistens under the shade
it is not a cascade,
but a rainbow
broken up among the rushes,
immersed in illusory dreams.
Finding dreams? Take a long pole,
steer towards the greenest grass.
Fill the boat with starlight,
give song in the midst of shimmer.
But I have no song.
Silence is the wind of parting.
Crickets are keeping still,
tonight, the river is hushed.
I leave softly
as I come,
dusting the sleeves,
not taking a piece of cloud.
for other Jack Foley’s reviews, go to: Alsop Review, Foley’s Books