Small details of love shine in Yanyi’s ‘Dream of the Divided Field’

April 26, 2022, 9:04 p.m.

“I want to be beautiful / and a part of this earth,” Yanyi writes in his poem “Paradise, Lost,” which depicts an idyllic village near Akrotiri in the early morning. This poem, in conjunction to others in his second poetry collection, “Dream of the Divided Field,” explores heartbreak, familial relationships and love in conjunction with landscapes, real and imagined.

In these poems, Yanyi often seems to strip away story and circumstance, leaving behind only the bare emotion; we have access not to what happened, but what it felt like. In “Coming Over,” he describes the end of a relationship: “You / came into the bathroom, taking / out your razor, your toothbrush. Leaving / my toothbrush.”

The process of leaving must be reduced to these smaller details: two toothbrushes in a bathroom become one. In this poem, and in others in the collection about the dissolution of this relationship, we never quite see either the speaker or the “you” clearly. Rather, these two individuals are shaped by what is left around them. “The bathroom noticed / what else was missing,” Yanyi writes in the same poem — the speaker is unable or unwilling to notice these realities themselves.

This form of indirectness features heavily throughout these poems; Yanyi spends a lot of time writing around the thing that must be written about. Familial relationships are depicted through the lens of a dream; plantlife and wildlife are used to talk about love. But rather than use beautiful language to obscure these subject matters in these poems, Yanyi truly seems to find a path — through landscapes and dreams — to confront these difficult questions about understanding and belonging. For instance, in the poem “Dream in Which I Try to Disappear in Front of My Aunt, or, Interrogation,” the speaker hides themselves in the bathroom from their aunt. Afraid of being seen by her, the speaker “reverses … time” to make themselves “as soft as possible.” It is only through the medium of a dream that such a reversal is possible; it is only through a dream that even the beginnings of a confrontation with the speaker’s aunt can be put to thought.

I found Yanyi’s use of indirectness most compelling in these poems about family. There are many distances throughout these poems, both between people and across time. For instance, nowhere in his poem “Listening to Teresa Teng” does Taiwanese singer Teresa Teng or her music actually appear. Instead, the poem focuses on the speaker and their parents: “I am not yet good / in the home my parents made / to survive a little more familiarly. / My parents don’t know what they want. / I know what they want and I know / I won’t give it to them. / Inheritance, / or what to do with knowledge.”

I can’t speak to Yanyi’s impression of Teresa Teng, but Teng — an icon of Mandarin popular music in the latter half of the 20th century — at least to me, is twice-removed: she is familiar to my parents, who are familiar to me. Teng was active as a singer in the 1970s and 1980s, and passed away in 1995, several years before I was born; we missed one another by a generation. In this way, I think I can understand the “a little more familiarly” that Yanyi describes, and why the image of a family listening to Teng may be more nostalgic than the music itself.

Although I found Yanyi’s depiction of differences among family and the ends of relationships artful and skilled, I was drawn most to the poems in this collection that are, quite simply, love poems — Yanyi’s poetry, at its best, is filled with so much warmth. His poem “Antiaubade” opens with a list of the speaker’s greatest loves: “I love waking up at 6am. / I love the early birds. / I love the long dark of the winter day, / the never-ending plumpness of summer.”

Even the smallest details of life — the “early birds” and the “long dark of the winter day” — is worthy of mention, and worthy of inclusion in a poem. These statements are earnest in their bluntness. Similarly, in “Aubade,” one of the final poems of the collection, he writes about love: “I woke up with so much love for you / It doesn’t matter where I am / I am making eggs / The sun is warming my just-shaved head / like your hand when sometimes / it rests there.”

Yanyi writes simply and precisely, neither overstated or understated. Though the images in this poem — making eggs, a sun-warmed head — are never made to be more than what they are, I’m inexplicably captivated by how much joy there is in such a plain, domestic scene. In this collection, I find new ways of reading and writing about love — Yanyi manages to find love in these delicate, tender moments.

Editor’s Note: This article is a review and contains subjective opinions, thoughts and critiques.

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