Ye Chun

Tupelo, 2015

Ye Chun’s Lantern Puzzle opens with “Map,” a sequence of nine poems titled after specific locations. Like a map, these poems are visually inclined: Each one contains two stanzas situated on facing pages in the book; stanzas on the left-hand side tend to stretch out longitudinally while those on the right drop vertically down the page. Readers expecting to feel grounded in the concrete particulars of a place—Shenzhen; Lhasa; Olympia, Washington—may be disappointed. Instead, these poems record enigmatic inner terrains.

The first stanza of “Kansas City,” for example, begins:

Cars pass, each with a heart
bearing the weight of its metal.
My second-hand coat and I carry each other
not knowing who sent me on the road,
who evaporated in its arms.

The companion stanza adds:

Avoid windows
A mattress
Avoid windows
A bathtub
Cover your head
A rhombus head
With hands
Hands in stones…

In this sequence, readers can sense a consciousness tracing experience, one that draws slight lines between a spider’s web, train tracks, water wakes, a “hand gridding its fingers” onto ribs. In trying to illuminate such narrow moments of experience, however, Chun risks opacity.

Later sections of the book, though, open up to a more expansive landscape, personal history seeping into a familial and cultural experience. “Photo of My Father at Eleven” and “Photo of My Mother at Twenty-Five,” for instance, directly address parents. “Ancestor,” cries out another poem, “your teeth fall into the night / like little bronze mirrors.” The history Ye Chun conjures is one of loss and displacement: a grandfather leaves for war, a loyal servant in the 7th century BC slices off a chunk of his own flesh to feed a starving prince, Red Guards burn “55,884 rolls of sutras at the White Horse Temple” as the speaker burns her diary.

Chun wonders in this collection: How can one return to the country of childhood? How can one bring back the dead? How can one sketch all the roads leading up to a singular moment? Chun answers with a question: “Is a compass a moon bringing a finger to its lips?” Traveling through these poems, readers are reminded that “Streetlamps imitate stars. / Stains on a hotel ceiling imitate mountains, boats and ruins.” Lantern Puzzle maps bright flares of experience even as it acknowledges the futility of ever fully capturing a whole.