Book Review: Memories of Mount Qilai: The Education of a Young Poet, by Yang Mu

Memories of Mount Qilai is a prose poem based on youthful reminiscences of Hualien and other places in eastern Taiwan. It (via this translation) is very beautiful and hypnotic, so much so that it will often make you think of other things, until you are turning the pages without absorbing or even reading the words. Yang Mu is an excellent poet, and some of his conventional, individual works are included here, including (from p. 159):

Carrying an oil paper umbrella
alone, I make my way down a
long, long and lonely lane in the rain,
pacing back and forth, hoping to encounter a
young woman knotted with sadness and hate
like a bud of lilac

However, if the cited shorter poems are emotionally compressed, with a high ratio of meaning to word, the prose poetry of the overall book is the opposite: meandering and unfocused, rather obscure. A chapter toward the end concerning a friend who committed suicide never seems to come to any point of power or intensity.

Still, though, some passages will differentiate themselves from the meandering flow and make an impression on you, such as (on p. 201)

The sound I heard, beyond being entangled in my own questioning, was the sound of bicycles braking high on the slope above the north end of the bridge, the sound of bicycle chains.

I knew it was the sound of school being let out. They must have lowered the flag, listened to the speech of exhortation, dispersed, and set off for home. Nine hundred male students were surging out, swinging identical book bags in the same color and with the same weight, their hats on their heads, in their hands, or, like mine, thrust into their book bags. I didn’t attend the flag-lowering ceremony today. Starting around noon, I couldn’t sit still, as a strange, unformed melody floated through my mind, as if from the other side of a high, dark, ancient wall someone abandoned himself to chanting for me a fragmented but still special and recognizable song of prudence, pronouncing words that were difficult to understand but occasionally stressing a certain expression, seemingly also what I frequently heard between sleep and wakefulness. I looked around me: the distant sky, sea, prostrate mountains, the aged banyan tree, hibiscus, canna lilies, and the beehive under the eaves, steadily growing larger by the day. ‘How am I to let go, be free, release myself, and be different from others?’ I repeatedly asked myself such silly questions and then when totally exhausted, ‘How can I prove that I am different from others?’ The blackboard was covered with proper nouns: ‘Age of Enlightenment,’ ‘feudal lord,’ ‘serf,’ ‘guild,’ ‘Galileo,’ ‘isolationism,’ and ‘indulgence.’

Of course, poetry is the best proof that one is different from others. In a passion of ‘unsociable eccentricity’ (on p. 142), Yang asserts, ‘My form of expression is my own….This is the best. No one else has come up with it before; it belongs entirely to me, appropriate, exact, and effective.’

Yang’s book is subtitled ‘The Education of a Young Poet.’

Book Review: “Approaching the Magic Hour: Memories of Walter Anderson,” by Agnes Grinstead Anderson

This book reveals what it’s like to be married to a mad genius. The author, “Sissy” Grinstead Anderson was Walter Anderson’s long-suffering wife. The text is her own reconstruction of diaries she’d previously burned, a fact which may convey a bit of the ambivalence she must have felt about sharing the fraught experience of her marriage. Evidently, she decided in the end on complete candor, and the result is very powerful.

Anderson remains my favorite artist, despite what I learned from reading this book. I suppose my prior understanding of him was that of a tourist (I am a frequent visitor to his namesake art museum in his adopted hometown of Ocean Springs, Mississippi), and I would often describe him to friends as a little “touched.” I learn from Sissy’s account, however, that he was neglectful and violent, far beyond what one would expect from an amiable eccentric. Perhaps this book will lead some readers to obsess on whether it’s permissible to enjoy his art, considering what a terrible husband (and father) he was; but I don’t believe the human experience is so neat, and the paradox is fitting that a man whose art has made me feel euphoric was also the creator of great pain and trouble for his own family.

Accordingly, one of my favorite parts of the book is toward the end, after the death of Walter (known as Bob), when Sissy, on exploring the house where he lived alone, discovers the “little room” (preserved and on display at the Walter Anderson Museum of Art), which he’d consecrated as a temple to the sun, replete with murals showing all God’s creation in its fluttering, creeping, and crawling sublimity. “The room is full of the presence of the Creator,” Sissy writes, “not the artist, although he is surely there, but God.”

Bob had kept the room padlocked. (p. 175)

Elsewhere: “I know now that the alienated must seek forever the means of reentry into the world of man. Bob was seeking, for some reason, through the simpler world of animals. ‘Dogs, cats, birds are holes in heaven through which man may pass,’ he said.” (p. 84)

Related image

Lost and Found

By some miracle, a bookmark that I acquired in Taiwan in 1989 has remained in my possession, showing very little wear and tear, in spite of my indifference to it. I always thought it was cool – Its character style and the fact that it contains a quotation from Socrates are very evocative of Taiwan – but I never took any care of it. (After all, it’s just a bookmark.) Over the years, I occasionally employed it in its intended capacity, paying it no more mind than if it had been a shop receipt or piece of Kleenex, and then, the book read, I would leave it lying around for the next time. I don’t know how many places I’ve lived since 1989, but the bookmark survived them all.

Recently, while reading Jonathan Manthorpe’s Forbidden Nation: A History of Taiwan, I remembered the bookmark and decided that it would complete my experience. Then, after enjoying both book and bookmark, I resolved to make the latter a mandatory accompaniment to my upcoming immersion in Taiwanese fiction. With my determination fixed, I sought for the bookmark, to make sure everything was prepared; but I could not locate it. It was on no dusty nightstand or bookshelf, where it always was, where all the other bookmarks were. I checked my office, my car, and even less likely places, in increasing despair.  I realized that it was an irreplaceable antique, of tremendous personal value, the central artifact of my youth. I felt bereft and aggrieved, like a man missing a limb. I slept very little.

The following morning, I dashed to my car and arrived at the library, well before opening. As soon as the door was unlocked, I charged inside and implored the young man at the circulation desk to search every cart where a book returned the previous day might be. Finding the Manthorpe on the fourth or fifth cart, I flipped through the pages and there found the object of my quest, preserved as though in amber. I returned home and, at the foot of my bed, wept tears of gratitude.

Here is what it says:

HELP WANTED

“The most promising successful people are not those who possess uncommon talent but are, rather, the ones who are most adept at exploiting every opportunity for self-development and discovery.”

— Su-ge-la-ti

1989 Campus Career Fair

Another Paean to the Rain

Yesterday was the start of a new semester, a fact which would have dismayed me, were it not for the darkened sky and cold winter rain which blessed it and made it holy. I was so grateful for it I almost cried, and I embraced the day with hope and joy.

Listening to the lovely pattering on the roof of my car, it struck me that the rain is spiritually centripetal, drawing all who are affected by it into a community, gathering all of humanity under an umbrella. The dreadful sunshine, contrariwise, is centrifugal, casting us outward, atomized, each to his lonely own.