[Review] “Songs of the Seasons: Mi Jialu’s Deep Breaths” by May Huang

{Written by May Huang, this review is part of Issue 44 (June/July 2019) of Cha.} {Return to Cha Review of Books and Films.}

Mi Jialu (author), Jennifer Feeley, Matt Turner, Haiying Weng, Lucas Klein, Michael Day, and Feng Yi (translators), Deep Breaths: Collected Poems of Mi JIalu 1981-2018, Showwe Press, 2019. 420 pgs.

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Deep Breaths is a sprawling anthology of poems by poet and professor Mi Jialu, who currently teaches English and Chinese at The College of New Jersey. Spanning 37 years, the poems in the collection are divided into chapters of Mi’s academic life: the first section, “Verses from the Sky’s Edge,” consists of poems he wrote between 1996 and 2018 while completing his PhD at UC Davis and working at New Jersey. The second, “Cloud Divination at Mount Gele,” tracks his post-collegiate years as a teacher, as a Masters student at Peking University, and later as a student at the Chinese University of Hong Kong. The final and shortest section, nostalgically titled “Flashes of Youth,” takes us back to Mi’s undergraduate days in Chongqing from 1981 to 1984. Gathered in a bilingual edition, the poems take on a new life in English made possible by the translation efforts of Jennifer Feeley, Matt Turner, Haiying Weng, Lucas Klein, Michael Day, and Feng Yi.

It feels especially fitting to read Deep Breaths in a bilingual format, for the collection is fundamentally translational and transatlantic even in its original Chinese. Throughout, Mi draws upon English-language poetry and his experiences abroad to meditate on time and place. “New Poetry Book,” the poem that doubles as a foreword for the collection, is an homage to William Carlos Williams’ “The Red Wheelbarrow,” while “Milan Cantos or Thirteen Ways of Fantasizing About Milan” recalls Wallace Steven’s “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird.” Moreover, several poems in the collection feel particularly Keatsian. “Autumn for the Stranger,” translated vividly, describes time “[moving] slowly” and “juices creeping on the edges” of leaves, an image that recalls the “oozing hours” of Keats’s famous ode. And yet, Mi’s fourteen-part poem grows darker as it progresses: we transition from a delicate “butterfly wing-like sail” to the “Fallen Twin Towers / Like two defeated whales,” an image that conveys crisis and tragedy. Although there are at least eight poems dedicated to autumn in the collection, Mi shows us in subtle, lyrical ways that no two seasons—let alone seasonal poems—are identical.

Such differences are especially pronounced when we compare the poems written in the first and last chapters of the book. Although the poems in the collection are unified by Mi’s attention to familiar themes such as seasons, nature, and time, the later poems feel decidedly more mature, even sombre, in tone. In “I Love Snowflakes,” a poem written during Mi’s undergraduate years, snow is nothing but wonder and excitement—a feeling that will be familiar to those experiencing their first white winter after growing up in a snowless place. “I love snowflakes, / All things are baptized by her, / and become holy and pure,” writes Mi. Fast-forward 37 years, and “Glancing at Snow” presents a darker image: “the flakes that soak through the tongue become blood,” writes Mi. It is also in the later poems that the stakes of writing ecopoetry are more pronounced; in one poem, Mi describes a squirrel “foretelling global greenhouse effect.”

The sense of innocence that pervades many of Mi’s early poems coincides with the poetic perspective of a wide-eyed, impressionable undergraduate. In the poems he writes to his classmates, teachers, and campus, he describes college as a place “to explore, to search, for discovery, for innovation.” The distinctly collegiate setting of “Flashes of Youth” places him in the lineage of Chinese poets writing from abroad, such as Wen Yiduo and Xu Zhimo, who published poetry while studying in Chicago and Cambridge respectively. Mi’s poetic connection to his forebears gives his poems a “traditional quality,” which is also embodied by the painting on the book cover by Chihung Yang. As such, the poems in the collection that are more adventurous in form immediately stand out. In the poem “Split,” the character “裂” and the letters of “split” are spread out to form the shape of a cross. “Political Pop Poems” (a title that works brilliantly in its English translation) takes us down a roving, almost psychedelic memory lane with Mao Zedong at its centre. In a collection that does not strike one as being overtly experimental, these poems might appear flashy or out of place. And yet, Mi demonstrates in his most deceptively simple poems that he does not need to rely on artifice to make an impression; whether he is describing how “leaves roar with flames like crashing waves” or comparing nostalgia to “a star fluttering against the current,” Mi pays careful attention to the sounds and sights that paint vivid, imaginative scenes.

Deep Breaths traverses seasons, distance, and time to explore the experience of being a poet who lives between languages and spaces. In poems that feel philosophical and grounded, Mi reminds us to pay attention to the mundane moments that take place around and within us, even something as simple as a breath of air.

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May Huang is a translator, poet, and essayist. Born in Taiwan and raised in Hong Kong, she graduated from the University of Chicago with Honours in English and Comparative Literature in June. Her work has appeared in ExchangesInTranslationCha, and elsewhere.

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