Don’t Conflate Courageous Writing With The Courage of Bearing a Difficult Life

Xiao Yue Shan on the politics of witness in the poetry of Yu Xiuhua

Woman looking up into the snow
Screenshot from “Still Tomorrow”

Before I was interested in poetry, I was interested in courage. It seemed to me a noiseless thing, an almost secret thing. It wore patched clothing and cloth slippers, it kept its wedding jewelry in folded paper boxes, and it walked to the factory, or to the school, or to the market. Only rarely did it show its sharp intensity, a searing shape—during nights that ground salt into the skin, or days in which a thing, or a body, was burned. For much of the time, it remained indistinguishable from the very shape of the days. Only later, when I put together the pieces between what I had seen and what I had only heard of, could I point to all those bright tracks it left in the fields of history, and name it for the thing it was. Courage.

When courage is felt in poetry, it often carries with it the profound, overarching politics of witness, subversion, or transgression. Anna Akhmatova’s stark I can. Audre Lorde’s I have been woman / for a long time. Courage rivets around the I, flattening the self out into a realm of sights, experiences, consequences. Roused with the moralism of truth-seeking and truth-saying, our lauding of this performance stems from a fear of misery, of suffering; the love of bravery is the rejection of one’s own fallibility. We use the testament of another to confirm an idea of what it could mean to survive, to fortify the ranges of human capability. Summoned to define the most vividly realized texts of living, courage is transportive—a mirror that, as was once feared, could capture one’s soul. 

Moonlight Rests on My Left Palm by Yu Xiuhua

Though we speak of it often with awe, there is a dissonance when courage is made into accolade for individuals who speak openly and undauntedly: courage in writing being conflated with the courage of being able to bear a difficult life. When the brief, diaristic verses of Chinese poet 余秀华 Yu Xiuhua first rose to staggering virality, comment after comment lauded her courage, her ability to strip herself seemingly nude, to take a scalpel to flesh, and cut. The poet 刘年 Liu Nian compared her arrival in poetry to that of “a murderer entering a group of damsels.” Her poems were unsparing with emotion, and steeled with attention. They sharpened speech to a serrated edge, then tempered it with dewy romance. She spoke of violence, of lust, of loneliness in formless, almost placid lines that could be read in a sigh. Though Chinese poetics is long familiar with the brutal, Yu’s work sent an immense reverb through the country—this seemingly effortless coalescing of classic poetic tenets and contemporary recklessness, which dragged womanhood, and all its distinct desires, to face. What amplified this sense of reverence in the public scheme, however, was that these poems—by the supposed “Emily Dickinson of China”—were written by an uneducated woman with cerebral palsy, amongst a rurality silent with grains and camphors, deep in the Jianghan plain. 

wheat-stalks silent in the moonlight, the slight grazes between them

is the lovemaking of all living things

. . .

I am very happy to land here

like a sparrow crossing the sky through its blue

Say between the bars of the world, we reach one another by the solid and liquid of recognition. Touches are solid, and impressions are liquid. Features—lips, breasts, hands—are solid, and voices are liquid. Eyes are solid, and vision is liquid. When someone sees you, their sight lands on something solid. When someone opens to be moved by you—this is the quality of water.

She spoke of violence, of lust, of loneliness in formless, almost placid lines that could be read in a sigh.

Yu’s poems veer at times towards the pointedly confessional, the urge to tell, breaking away from the refinements of metaphor. In this, she tells us about her loveless marriage (let me leave, give me freedom), her body (all these parts exchanging pain), her frustration at being unloved (I sense that what he has with everyone else is love / only with me it is not). “I chose poetry because of my cerebral palsy. Writing a word is strenuous. . . poetry uses the least words,” she reveals. In interviews and prose, she continually grounds her craft down to the habitual and the platitudinous, to “daily thoughts” and a “literary hobby.” Despite this humility, however, it has become clear from their spectacular reception that her readers have not met her poems on such simple terms, but look upon them as if encountering something oceanic.

In the documentary Still Tomorrow, Yu arrives at Peking University to talk with a crowded lecture hall of admiring students. During the Q&A portion, a young woman stands up and asks, with a genuine, almost desperate urgency: “How do you accept yourself? How can you be a happy woman?” One knows—can intuit from this tone which is on the brink of tears—that though her interrogations carry with them the strain of pity, she is truly in need of an answer. Yu listens, the apples of her cheeks softly red, her mouth holding, and responds: “I have not yet accepted myself. . . And as for how to be a happy woman, I don’t have any experience, so I cannot tell you.”

still what I know more of is

why a tree that no longer flowers

still greens

Poetry is a craft of mutual confidences. The page, a vehicle by which the hidden tumult of thinking travels to the broad meters of the world, is the solution to secrecy’s fallibility—that something concealed in the mind can never become certainty. The impetus behind the writing is many, but all such motivations share the understanding that one’s life does not belong to anyone alone, that trueness occurs in the meeting between minds. To give over to language any semblances we have of truth or destiny, the corpus of our beliefs and our fantasies—it is the pouring into a vessel to see the liquid’s shape. As such, poems are autobiographies not from the materiality of history, but from the convictions of knowledge. They wring, from the solid facts of being, the waters of experience. Navigating the multiplicities of language, the poet creates her own arena for words to enact: a place where they, as Wittgenstein said, are “not used in the language-game of giving information”—where they serve not utility but imagination. Poetic language looks ahead at a world in which the thing it speaks of is already true. 

Poems are autobiographies not from the materiality of history, but from the convictions of knowledge.

The distance carved between Yu Xiuhua—the woman—and the entity of her poems is the same distance that occurs between the music and the instrument, yet the fact remains that music contains within its very form the body that produced it. The woman that asked how do you accept yourself, how do you live is not asking Yu because she thinks the poet has unearthed some universal formula; she asks because she has discovered an intelligence in the existence of the poems, the poems which hold the shape of the poet’s body, realised. For what stood out to me in her question, posed shakingly in the static of a crowded room, is how to be a happy woman. Perhaps she could have better asked, how do I realise my body like that, too? In an essay on feminine writing, Hélène Cixous claimed: “If women were to set themselves to transform History, it can safely be said that every aspect of History would be completely altered. Instead of being made by man, History’s task would be to make woman, to produce her.” The specificity of writing about a body that moves through the world, that receives sensations and translates them into words, is a determination to contribute to the remaking of woman. Yu Xiuhua does not bring up a distinct politics of feminism in her work—she generates it. She cannot answer the question because the answer is contained in the act of writing, not in the act of living.

I also think of rain, always letting the hour glow brighter

coming down like that

tearing the sadness to pieces, settling them on the surfaces of leaves

In poetry the emphasis is to never resemble anything, and that is always political. New recognitions can only take place when a subject comes to be disassociated with its assumed presences: when one can witness what they have not seen before, and at the same time understand that it has always been there—the yellow in the green, the electricity in the air. Atwood’s fish hook and open eye. Adrienne Rich’s trees. Lyn Hejinian said, “The incapacity of language to match the world permits us to distinguish our ideas and ourselves from the world and things in it from each other.” That the word woman so little resembles a woman, and that the word disability is so apart from its actual condition, is something that poetry builds into a politics of liminality, wherein one thing—as harnessed by idea—can metamorphose indefinitely from their objective reality, throwing open the concrete cell of a singular definition.

Suffering is one such cell. It initiates a visceral aversion in those who confront it, and simultaneously creates a system by which one can differentiate oneself—via indignance, or compassion, or admiration. None of these reactions are necessarily harmful, but they serve to reaffirm our predetermined beliefs about pain and the people who bear it. When we pity or commend someone for enduring a condition that we ourselves do not meet, we are essentially asserting that we understand what suffering is—the catastrophic dimensions, the terrifying closeness. Suffering becomes a flat, incomparable fact; its edges are too rigid to be breached, and we can only approach it with lingering fear and self-preservation. And because it is undefinable and unmeasurable by anything other than itself, it cannot change. 

When suffering is given a place in letters, it gains fullness not by exacerbating the distance between those who feel it and those who do not, but by divorcing suffering from being an affliction of the body (another body), to engage with it as a dynamic substance, a direction of the mind. Writing is the only place where pain and rage can be suffered in a way in which they do not hurt, do not constrict, but can speak to their greater elucidation of humanity. To give suffering a poetics is to distill agony into an essentiality of human existence, to give lucidity to the oblivion. It is a rejection of pain’s barren, lonely insistence of domination, and to affirm its residence as a mere component of the world. 

One of my favourite Yu Xiuhua poems is entitled “the details of life light me from afar.” It begins:

in speaking of distance, one attains vastness: the flat northern plains

the damp southern towns

one dazzling detail: a woman in a large red dress has a reason

to bring water up from the deepest well, pouring it from dawn until dusk

In poetry the emphasis is to never resemble anything, and that is always political.

To be bound by a single compartment is to understand oneself as a subject in someone else’s vision—vision that aims to teach us about ourselves, to instruct so that we do not fail to receive the perceptions of others when they are presented to us. The psychic weight of definition is always borne by she who is looked at; the one who looks merely imparts. It seems to me that Yu’s work was able to capture the greater consciousness of her readers because of a gentle—and perhaps unintended—inversion of perspective. Within the viewfinder of presumptive types and renderings, her poems express an ability to see herself from a distance, to become a subject of her own findings and impressions. I say unintended not to minimize her skill, but because this shift between writer and subject is an in-between state of intimations and flickers; there is no wholeness in either occupation. Only when the reader approaches the poem and bestows on it a recognition, is the subject made firm—when the public has met and understood the knowledge of the private. W. J. T. Mitchell once said of paintings that they desire “to change places with the beholder, transfix or paralyze the beholder, turning him into an image for the gaze of the picture…” There seems to me a similar exchange in poems. To be moved by a text is to be moved along with it. So the poet is not only looking at herself but looking at the reader. So the reader is not only looking at the poet but looking at herself. My pain fits into the contours of your pain. To be unfixed, yet recognised.

Still, we know that poetry is not salvation. “The book I wrote with such violent feeling to relieve that immense pressure will not dimple the surface. That is my fear,” wrote Virginia Woolf. It is from this admittance, this is my fear, that we can begin to understand the appearances of courage. 

The psychic weight of definition is always borne by she who is looked at; the one who looks merely imparts.

There is a sense that indefatigable strength is something that lies outside of the body—one summons courage, one gathers courage. Yet, from what I have seen, this sense of receiving something from the beyond misguides the actualities of courage. For it is not an act that is intentionally performed, but something that we imbue onto the situation to understand it. Only when standing outside of an experience can we celebrate the courage it must’ve taken. “I suppose when others praise us as strong,” Yu said, “we should acknowledge them with silence.” Poetry, no matter how arduous the conditions of its writing, does not present model emblems of fortitude, nor simple answers to insistent questions. Instead, it gives us the opportunity to contact something far more generous: the mutable borders between self and other, the incommensurability between things and definitions. We name this gift courage. When this notion was just a word—a forthright commendation—I believed it to be a choice, something boldly selected in the face of peril. Now I see it as a reading. 

To connect, to commune, to conversate—the confessional is a radical act of transformation. This is my fear, says the poet, opening up the passage for us to say no—this is your courage.

More Like This

9 Graphic Poetry Collections That Reimagine Text and Image

These poets are slicing up the patriarchy by disassembling found texts and reclaiming the self

Aug 25 - Kelcey Ervick

7 Poetry Collections About Transformation

Women poets writing about the body and liberation in diverse and dazzling ways

Jun 30 - Diana Whitney

I Will Not Call My Body a Temple

"Poem About My Mouth” and “I Let You,” two poems by Hannah Aizenman

Dec 6 - Hannah Aizenman
Thank You!