Swept away by the lyricism of Jen Hyde’s “Hua Shi Hua”

At first, I had a tough time getting into Hyde’s collection, certain that I was in for a boring book of nature poems (I know, I know, look at me, judging books). I skipped several sections and began perusing poems in the middle of the collection and suddenly, I was struck by the elegance of Hyde’s phrasing and images:

“When a mirror faces another //
mirror I think
a new room opens…”

“I / find no blue shoes.  I am in a market with my loneliness.”

“a crane lifting steel
raises my heart”

I quickly turned the pages back until I arrived at the fifth page again, where I resumed reading with a new interest and attention, and I was rewarded with moments of deep appreciation for how Hyde describes her discoveries in China. She gently prods at the edges of what I, the reader, knows about places she only recently discovered. [In an Author’s Note at the end of the book, Hyde explains how she began to create a relationship with her heritage through the Asian American Writer’s Workshop at NYU Shanghai.]

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In “Her Shoulder is a Shelter”, the speaker mentions their mother’s perfect cleanliness, how she daily washes walls, how she carries burdens placed there by others.

In “Self-Portrait”, we learn that the speaker / Hyde defines herself in the first person, claiming dislikes and habits and even hopes: “I look back and say I will walk into the next day.” This is contrasted with the speaker’s mother, “who never / says I”.

My favorite lines in the book are in “Yak”:

“Last year my heart
ventured above the sea
and still beats…”

I was headed
nowhere which
I imagine is the
act of moving
toward heaven.”

Perhaps no review is complete without mentioning the recurrent theme of cranes, both those elegant birds that populate China and most of the world, as well as the more common (at least in Shanghai) construction cranes, boasting progress [“tiny progresses”] even as the other crane disappears from the ever-and-ever encroached-upon wilderness. In “A Catalogue of Things I Know, A Jian”, Hyde also employs the word “crane” in other ways, in craning necks, in discussing the intersection between person and machine, between machine and bird, in wishing upon a mountain and an ocean.

The final poem in the collection, “The River of Yellow Flowers”, touches on Hyde’s self-disclosed bodily identity: “you have been – all along – / the milky light who sings me into another body.” She explains in her Author’s Note that she has a heart defect that has required two major surgeries and a “bioprosthetic heart valve” made from cow tissue. This animalistic addition, as well as her exploration into heritage and diaspora, have resulted in a fervored assertion that she is, and is proudly, an Asian American woman. Writing on the brink of self-discovery and an ever-changing Chinese urban landscape, Hyde’s collection is a beautiful testament to the beauty and hauntingly imperfect act of becoming.

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