In Sleep and Wordless: A Review of ‘chengyu: chinoiserie’ by Leung Rachel Ka Yin


The sensation of finishing Leung Rachel Ka Yin’s pamphlet, chengyu: chinoiserie (Hedgehog Poetry Press), is akin to emerging from a kind of dream—feverish and disorientated, you are often unsure of where you are or how much time has passed. There are parts of the dream that you can remember with startling clarity, yet other parts haze into a memory which already feels distant. The same can be said of Leung’s poems: each has a quality of heady intensity; this is a dreamlike world that the reader experiences through every one of their senses. Just as you may attempt to fall asleep to dream again, Leung’s pamphlet demands an immediate second reading—yet the reader is already aware that nothing will recapture the novelty of that first read.

Part of reading Leung’s pamphlet is about figuring out how these poems must be read. Each poem is devoted to a separate Chinese idiom, as anticipated by the pamphlet’s title: “chengyu” means “idiom” in Mandarin. The poems’ titles take on a tripartite form, giving us the characters of the idiom, the literal translation, and how these shape into colloquial English; 心花怒放 moves from “the flowers of the heart bloom wildly” to “elation,” as another is named “sea oath, mountain treaty.” Leung’s titles seem to encapsulate the entire feel of the pamphlet, speaking eloquently about the tricky nature of translation and foreshadowing how the boundaries of language will be tested. So many of Leung’s poems concern the unsaid, the inarticulable: she describes being “tongueless,” “in sleep / and wordless.” Speech is frequently replaced by “whispers” and “sighs.” The reader gains only a brief glimpse of the emotion of these poems, fluttering at the margins of language but refusing to be held down. 

This is not to say that Leung disengages with the Anglophone reader; no poem feels inaccessible or too elusive. There is a universality to these poems, which speak of adolescent love with a tenderness and care that prevents them falling into cliché. In the pamphlet’s opening poem, “dead heart, prostrate,” Leung uses the personal pronoun, which will assertively run throughout the poems to come: “i am a swimming sluice / in a net of slender bones.” Each poem, in its own way, will continue to inhabit this amorphous world of water, as she describes being “waterless” and “defenseless” in the “house of dried fish,” and the process of drowning in “speak of love in small whispers.” Nonetheless, Leung’s poetry transcends the stereotype of teenage angst and cannot be reduced to our typical notions of what defines writing on adolescent love. The maturity of each poem glimmers on its surface—the writing is lucid, technically exact; there is the sense that this is a poet who has written reams of poetry before. Leung writes in her opening poem how “at once, my suppleness left me”—a statement which feels ironic among poems which are exactly this: supple and lithe, refusing definition yet still coming together with ease.

Each poem of Leung’s may have a certain, similar poise, but they defy predictability. Leung’s writing waltzes feverishly between elegance (“if you could give the first falling to me”) and a violence which arrives in moments of particular intensity (“fuck me colourless”). Nothing feels stable; the poems crystallise into a series of vignettes, “gliding with such irrationality / through feverish spring.” Literary references (the “gold-hatted, high-bouncing lover” of Thomas Parke D’Invilliers), biblical tropes (“Genesis / upon Genesis”) and snatches of Western pop culture (“LOVE IS NOT A VICTORY MARCH”) do not feel familiar to the reader, but curiously new. Leung breathes life into these maxims. Perhaps the only weakness of the pamphlet is that this does not always seem to be applied to Leung’s use of form, which lacks the same experimental sense as her imagery—as the poems progress, the line lengths risk becoming narrower and narrower in a somewhat gratuitous way: “head / in shoulder / and / soft / on soft,” Leung writes in “the flowers of the heart bloom wildly.” This is a minor flaw, however, in a field of poems which are otherwise exquisitely intimate and distinct.

Leung does not overlook, however, the danger of indulging Western audiences with the “intimacy” and “elegance” some may expect of Asian female writers. chengyu: chinoiserie is not a form of oriental tourism. We are given insights into Chinese culture, but never in a way which feels voyeuristic. Leung treads this tripwire with a deftness we tend to associate with writers of far greater experience.

It is easy to forget that chengyu: chinoiserie is only Leung’s debut. The dedication of the pamphlet to the mysterious “SW,” Leung’s “muse,” chimes with the enigmatic feel of her writing, but never seems to require explanation—these are poems, which like the “voice” Leung reclaims in her final poem, stand up effortlessly by themselves. Meditative and exact, Leung is both a young writer to admire and a name to watch.


Lucy Thynne

Lucy Thynne is 19 and studying English at Somerville College, Oxford. A previous winner of the Foyle Young Poet of the Year and the Young Romantics Prize, her work has also been recognized by the BBC, the Forward Arts Foundation and the Orwell Youth Prize. She is the Fiction Editor at Oxford University’s oldest publication, the Isis Magazine, and works as a Commissioning Editor at the Oxford Review of Books.

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