“N’importe où hors du
There are many ways to discover Clara Hsu. She has a book of poems, Mystique (2006) and a book of prose sketches, a travel account with the extravagant title, Babouche Impromptu and Other Moroccan Sketches (2008). She co-hosts a local poetry television show, San Francisco Open Mic Poetry Podcast TV Show (formerly Mystic Babylon Poetry Podcast), with her friend, poet/videographer John Rhodes, and you can find a number of her performances on YouTube. (She recites in Chinese as well as English.) She has a CD, The Mystical Path, which features her performance partner, Bill Mercer, along with herself—as well as shakuhachi flute and drum played by Mercer and Hsu. (On one track she sings, tenderly and beautifully—though she is quick to point out that she is not a “professional” singer.) She has a website, http://www.clarahsu.com and a blog: http://www.thepaintedskin.com. She calls her San Francisco home The Poetry Hotel and hosts a monthly salon there. Poetry for her is intensely communal.
Her personal history is
interesting. Born in Hong Kong—her father manufactured pianos—she
began as a musician. (She still teaches piano.) In 1982 she founded
with her father the world music shop, Clarion Music Center in San
Francisco’s Chinatown. The store, whose name puns on “Clara,” has
been described as “not your ordinary music store,” “full of
instruments, especially Chinese ones & music of many cultures.”
The store continues to thrive, though she
and her father are no longer the owners. She is restless,
intelligent, imaginative, sometimes surprisingly and fearlessly
assertive, capable of extravagant, life-changing gestures
that annihilate what most likely struck her as boring stability: in
“February 2007,” she writes, “I sold my business, ended a long
marriage [which had produced two children] and became a poet. I
studied Arabic for a year and returned to Morocco, this time alone.”
She practices, she says, “the art of multidimensional being.”
Mystique concludes with “Away”:
soon as you walk in the door
a mountain sits amid
drunk with elixir
leave you a roomful of memories
Babouche Impromptu is a book of memories. The sketches are not unlike those Christopher Isherwood produced in Berlin Stories. Like Isherwood’s, Hsu’s speaker might say, “I am a camera.” She is there more as a presence—a point of view—than as a “person”:
Hassan the receptionist woke up when he heard me dragging my luggage down the stairs. His eyes were puffy with sleep.
“When you come back, remember this is your home.”
I thanked him and walked to the square. D’jamaa Elfna stood empty of activities. The grounds had been cleaned. Puddles of water reflected the early morning light. A couple of snakes and men idled at their usual spot. They were the only remnant from yester-night.
A taxi was waiting. The driver approached. I asked him how much it would cost to go to the bus station.
“Twenty dirhams,” he said.
I shook my head and kept walking.
“Fifteen dirhams,” he yelled.
Another taxi pulled up. This time I told the driver through the open window how much I would pay. He nodded and I got in.
The prose is simple, direct. It never insists on what “Clara” feels—though we realize that, despite the fact that her luggage is heavy (“dragging my luggage down the stairs”), she is not going to pay an extravagant price for that taxi ride. Finally, her will prevails: “This time I told the driver through the open window how much I would pay.”
The sketches are always charming, easy to read, filled with interesting details. There is even a sprinkling of Arabic throughout the book. (We learn, among other things, how to say “thank you”: shukran.) Babouche Impromptu concentrates on the other, and if, at least in part, the initial appeal of the other is its exoticism, Hsu works hard to diminish that exoticism, to bring the other into the realm of deliberate human interaction. Asked if he will pose for a photograph, one of the people she encounters answers, “I’m not…strange thing you bring back America…No, no, we’re not, er…exotique!” Of course he is exotique, but Hsu’s sincere interest and compassionate curiosity allow us to experience such characters as vivid and understandable: each, we know, has his or her “reasons”—and of course an historical/national context in which he or she exists. In this sense Hsu’s book might be described as a reclamation of the exotic other.
Yet there is another, more
lyrical strain to Babouche Impromptu. It surfaces in
deliberately “purple” passages like this—though even here
“objective” description is a strong factor:
D’jamaa Elfna—the pulse of my heart. Your air is perfumed with incense mixed with the smell of grilled meat. Motorbikes criss-crossing, among pedestrians, blind beggars’ sing-song in the midst of flowing robes, and snake charmers’ circular arm motions bring me to you.
The strain also surfaces in the subdued theme of eroticism which echoes throughout the book. Here is one instance:
The storyteller’s voice spiraled and pounded in my direction as though he was questioning me. His husky and seductive litany touched a darkness that was lurking as I saw myself coming upon a solitary adobe hut, small, round, ashen against the night. As I walked toward it, the storyteller’s voice turned strident.
..I can’t go in…there’s no door,
no window…it’s a funeral mound…
He was now whispering, urging.
Our eyes met.
I stepped back.
In another, a man “pulls me forward and presses his lips on my cheeks.” The—climax—of this theme is “Threesome with Jack Kerouac,” a delightful and utterly fanciful chapter in which Hsu finds herself in bed with the long-dead author of On the Road. Nothing explicit is offered, but the reader’s imagination is allowed to toy with various possibilities, especially since Hsu does kiss the famous author’s cheek as she snuggles next to him. There is of course always an erotic element to travel, to encountering the other—so, while surprising, the chapter does connect with the general theme of the book. Yet it also suggests that eroticism is one of the deep sources of Clara Hsu’s restless, off-flying imagination—the power that allowed her to sell her business, end a long marriage, become a poet, and journey alone to Morocco. A recent poem describing a Turkish religious festival concludes,
Inside a hotel
N’importe où hors du
monde. The kind of eroticism embodied in Babouche Impromptu
can easily rise to the realm of mysticism (“mystique”).
The encounter with the other postulates a self to which the other has reference. The natural mode of this encounter is necessarily descriptive—we need to know that the other is other—and the entire enterprise remains in the realm of subject/object (I/Thou).
In her most recent work,
Clara Hsu seems to have moved away from that mode—though she has
certainly not abandoned it. The most spectacular example of a
stylistic change in her work is “From
Dallas to Istanbul.” In this tour de force, description remains but
it is only one element in a structure which is essentially an
interplay of voices—the self not as a sounding board for a perceived
other but as a potpourri, a multiplicity, the center of an ongoing
chaos of yackety-yak that arises from both “inside” and
“outside.” Travel remains—we are in an airport—but who exactly is
the “me” at the end of the poem?
“Boarding First Class Passengers.”
Boy bouncing up and down on the automatic walkway.
Line forming. Into the tunnel of no return.
Old man with breasts. Backpack, shorts, tennis shoes.
Beep. You passed. Beep. Beep.
The corridor is strangely quiet.
Caution. Slippery when wet.
“Did you order a special meal?” she asked, coldly.
“Fasten your seatbelt.” The machine said. It’s all machine from Dallas to Istanbul.
Peter, we must meet up after your session with Hilary
Clinton. I understand. Work first. But S.F—D.C.—IST! What
Hsu is a musician: if the work we see in Babouche Impromptu tends to be duets—two people talking—this work is fugal. It opens us to the polyvocal nature of the world. (Each of the lines is itself a mélange of voices.)
Another recent poem that
moves in a similar direction—though it is stylistically less
adventuresome than “From Dallas to Istanbul”—is “Things That Are and
Things That Dream.” The poem has an oneiric quality that puts a
definite haint on the various “things” which would have been so
carefully (and objectively) presented in Babouche Impromptu:
Cool air rushes in from an open window.
Babouche Impromptu deals with “things that are.” Here, everything exists in a world larger than any individual thing’s particularities. The poem suggests that there is a deep sorrow at the heart of the world—and that nothing is solid: “whoever walked here today has appeared and disappeared.” Though the poem abounds with description, “we” are at distance from everything it names. Loneliness colors everything, turns everything into a metaphor for sorrow. Here, the world is a dream, and we are only dreamers:
Things that are
As a Chinese-American woman living in San Francisco, Clara Hsu has undoubtedly encountered the “attraction of the exotic”: there are surely plenty of Western men who think of Chinese-American women as exotic—something out of the “mysterious East.” Yet when Hsu writes about exoticism she does not write about herself as an exotic object of desire—as many Asian feminists might. Rather, she is the person experiencing the “exotic.” Everything in Babouche Impromptu is a testing of her own capacity for understanding and sympathy. How can she present this “exotic” material as something real and even (which it also is) everyday? How can she deal not with the objectification of herself, as a feminist might, but with her own tendencies towards objectification? The vividness of her book is a wonderful indication of her success.
Yet the issues raised by objectification remain in the realm of subject/object, and Hsu is an artist whose deep imagination is in a constant state of movement. “Life,” she writes, “has no destination,”
death no grip.
become the sea, a cloud, the sky,
Identity is not fixed but constantly changing. It is constantly away. Someone remarked to Charles Olson that he “went all around the subject.” Olson answered that he didn’t know it was a subject. Hsu does not wish to limit herself any more than Olson did, though, as in Baudelaire, boredom—Ennui, stoppage—is a continual threat:
Gaunt faces surface each dreary day
How can one assert one’s freedom, challenge and repudiate reality if not by acts of audacity and bravery? Clara Hsu’s answers to this question constitute her art, her poetry, her mode of “multidimensional being”:
Discovering Clara Hsu is an ongoing process—and I do not mean to suggest that the process has come to an end. She has already produced some extraordinary work, and I’m sure that more is on the way. Everything I say here is necessarily tentative, to be continued, even contradicted. (I have not yet shown the piece to the lady herself.) But I want to end this essay with Clara Hsu’s gorgeous translation, “Farewell, River Cam,” from the Chinese of the early twentieth century master, Xu Zhimo (1897-1931), one of the first poets to bring Western Romantic forms into Chinese. One may celebrate movement, energy, and freedom, one may celebrate the beauty of the other as one encounters it in the here and now, and yet elegy—even nostalgia—may be an aspect of that celebration.
the river, the golden willow
Moss on soft mud
The pond glistens under the shade
Finding dreams? Take a long pole,
But I have no song.
Copyright © 2012 Jack Foley