[Essay Press; 2022]
To love an artist, Valerie Hsiung’s new book of prose poetry, emanates from a labyrinth of runes and orchestrated signs. Reading it, you fold into your most repressed allegiance and feel the swirling of your alternate self—that speck of nothing each of us harbors. You allow the skeptical double of your once-confirmed assurances to leap readily into the open. Hsiung’s world is expectant, bulging with gift, analysis, and insight, and searching for figurations that cut across subjectivities. In Hsiung’s writing, a poet assists the emergence of a world “pregnant with Chinese and oranges pregnant without purple and grey the gluttony of dust.” The book’s thematic whirlwind establishes several moving vectors and intersections. For instance, while the poet muses about the history of language that she uses—where it comes from, what imperialist legacies it embodies—climate change asserts itself as an incurable and omnipresent sickness, a harm added to other plagues, such the COVID-19 pandemic. “A wave of climate change waves a wave of the plague.”
Hsiung’s hybrid text develops like a film. The writing is reminiscent of Sergei Eisenstein’s ideas about montage, a film editing technique that creates concepts by an evocative juxtaposition of ideas. Through a modulation of focus, To love an artist entwines different themes and textures and suggests elaborate conceptual connections. Hsiung’s stitching practice works both at the structural level of the book and at the paragraph level. Paragraphs are constructed like mosaics, as the writer juxtaposes different ideas within a short succession of sentences to indicate unexpected associations. For example, Hsiung links the itineraries of expansion that brought the Anglo-Saxon language and the Latin alphabet to the British Isles and the Tatar route, a trading route initially established between Italians and Mongols. The narrator notes how the plague in Chaucer’s time undoubtedly spread along this route; they simultaneously call attention to the Chinese women who were abducted along it. Connecting the circulation of a system of signs and the spread of disease to historical violence against women, the narrator implies that culture and commerce happen through contagion and violence.
Throughout this work, Hsiung also joins autobiographical musings with reflections on historical trauma and labor. Her family’s history of exile embodies the ways individual lives succumb to larger political circumstances. The narrator thus contextualizes her family’s position within the Chinese Cultural Revolution of 1966:
My mother worked at a desk. My father worked at a desk. My mother’s mother’s family owned desks, beautiful hand-carved desks, cabinets, bureaus, and they owned land, when the red guards took over. They were considered landowning intellectuals who needed to be imprisoned or executed in a public square publicly.
It is not only her family’s economic prosperity that renders them pariahs in the eyes of the state, but importantly, the intellectual character of the labor they performed.
To love an artist calls attention to the historical contexts that have formed the languages we use, suggesting how usage can both reify and rupture violence. Hsiung enacts a struggle between a “language of brutes” and an incantatory, ritualized, forging language. Hsiung’s language displays worlds by carrying its fossilized images through time. Artists who use language are particularly responsible for how it may be revitalized and even employed as a theoretical weapon. In this sense, To love an artist reflects on what its title suggests—artists loving artists; artists critically engaging with other artists by either applauding or rejecting their work; all of this bound by the labor of remembrance, desire, and death, too:
I am very sad today. A great artist has died. A great poet. Though I never read a single one of her lines. I never heard of her name until now, upon reading the words of another poet, totally mediocre, another artist, totally mediocre, who has shared, not so anonymously, with the world, her own sweet dedication, to the great one. . . . And I will fall in love with this poet, or, what I think to be this great poet through the falling into of the great poet’s words. I will read and read portions of this copy of this poet’s work over and over, to myself, in silence and out loud, until I have committed the words, most but not all, to memory.
The narrator reflects on a recurrent question for any artistic practice: How will one’s work shape generations to come? The narrator here seems to engage in a prophetic reflection, as they imagine that they will fall in love and surrender to the cultural artifacts that another artist has produced. This prophetic imagining embodies what it means to love artists and art. By engaging with the work of dead writers, especially those who have recently passed, Hsiung proposes, we can glimpse at how language might respond to how our actions shape possible futures. A temporal frame urges Hsiung’s writing, yet it is not a simple chronology. The book establishes an indexical present from which the narrator struggles to conciliate what has been shattered and what remains. The split between Chinese and American cultures, between classes, economies, and possibilities, creates a plural flow of agency and desire. This flow constitutes the unrecordable speech of a global world that marks Hsiung’s text with absence. Untamable, this speech persists.
What does it mean to write within a global economy where some possess a choice-giving mobility—like the ability to make art and travel—while others remain locked in grueling struggles for survival? Hsiung does not attempt to resolve the question of how art can relate to the unquestionable violence identified here. Is the poet like the “hired guide” in Hsiung who mediates, translates, shields, and subdues in order to propitiate the world for those whose mobility is mostly assumed? Or will the poet identify problems to render visible social oppression, all the while recognizing that “The we persists and culture ostensibly goes on, unthreatened./To maneuver.” To love an artist reinvigorates this power of observation.
Isabel Sobral Campos’s books are How to Make Words of Rubble (Blue Figure Press, 2020), and Your Person Doesn’t Belong to You (Vegetarian Alcoholic Press, 2018), Other works include Material (No, Dear and Small Anchor Press, 2015), You Will Be Made of Stone (dancing girl press, 2018), Autobiographical Ecology (Above/Ground Press, 2019), and Sobriety Crystal (The Magnificent Field, 2021). Her poetry has appeared in the Boston Review, Brooklyn Rail, in the anthologies BAX 2018: Best American Experimental Writing and Poetics for the More-Than-Human World, and elsewhere. She is the co-founder of the Sputnik & Fizzle publishing series.
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