By Genevieve Hartman
Burying the Mountain by Shangyang Fang.
Copper Canyon Press, October 12, 2021.
112 pages. USD $16.00
In Burying the Mountain by Shangyang Fang, the worlds of music, visual art, and poetics collide in a peal that resounds throughout these pages. Infused with queer desire and tempered with the ageless wisdom of the natural world, this collection explores sense and distance, slowly and quietly carrying itself into the reader’s heart.
The breadth of Fang’s literary consciousness is on display throughout the collection. There’s no doubt this is a Chinese author penning the poems, with the work and influence of Chinese poets and artists finding their way into many poems, and even some Chinese characters. But alongside these masters linger Trakl, Mozart, Flaubert, Vermeer, and others. Fang meditates on the common grounds of human experience, particularly love, desire, loneliness, and fear, investigating and probing how past artists have wrestled with these concepts, then adding his own voice.
One of the ways that Fang’s work stands out to me is its combination of the natural world, an influence from the Chinese masters, and Western classical music and art. Both seem to be equally important in Burying the Mountain. Fang blends his love of nature with his love of art, showcasing his knowledge and perception of both ideas to create poems that are starkly beautiful, like a marble statue or a pristine orchid.
As a plant enthusiast, I’m always pleased to find a fellow poet that pays attention to their flowers, extending their beauty beyond the cliché. In the poem “Almost Hour,” Fang includes two flowers: the lily and the marigold. The poem opens with a scene of marital distress: a father smashing plates, a wife’s nakedness exposed, and a sleepless neighbor boy. The speaker continues:
...It is now the half-lit hour,
hour of almostness. A cyclist passes by,
crushes the roadside lilies into spilled milk.
The streets are made marigold, damped
with lamps. The world is suddenly autumn.
Like a stranger in a long lost photograph,
I stand the correct distance from the present. (13)
It is autumn as I write, and the gorgeous images rise out of the page. The marigold colors of the trees, which are mirrored outside my window, transport me to this strange and sorrowful evening, with its ruined lilies and watchful eyes. It seems no mistake that lilies represent purity and marigolds represent death. With this language of flowers, the poem deepens, drawing readers into the mystery of the narrative. The spilled-milk lilies represent a loss of purity or devotion; the sudden warmth of the marigolds creates a filter that distances the speaker from the unfolding drama while hinting at something ominous.
But who is the “I” in the poem? Why do they feel the need to separate themselves from the present? How have they determined what the “correct distance” is? Most likely, the speaker is the child of the father and his wife, who is distancing themselves from this moment of violence and distress. Within the gathering tension, Fang activates the flowers and all the senses (the smash of plates, the dim lamplight, the damp) to create this taut atmosphere. Over and over in Burying the Mountain, the flowers—chrysanthemum, hyacinth, gladiola, cherry blossom—cast the poems in lush colors and fleeting beauty.
The natural world extends into the sensual, too. In the poem “Argument of Situations,” the poem from which the collection draws its title, the speaker opens,
I was thinking, while making love, this is beautiful—this
fine craftsmanship of this skin, the texture of wintry river.
I pinched him, three inches above his coccyx, so that he knew
I was still here, still in an argument with Fan Kuan’s
inkwash painting where an old man, a white-gowned literatus
dissolves into the landscape as a plastic bag into cloud. (5)
The temperature of the poem—wintry—is notable, given its juxtaposition against making love, and it sets the mood for the whole poem. The cool tone continues as the speaker intermittently describes time with their lover and contemplates the man in the Fan Kuan painting, though the crispness at times gives way to lighter moments of rhyme and word play. The speaker tarries somewhere between the intimacy of making love and the loneliness of the mountaintop, feeling distance both from the present and from their thoughts of the painting. It’s no wonder that the poem is titled “Argument of Situations,” as the speaker grapples between the real and imagined. Even as the man in the inkwash “dissolves into the landscape,” the speaker’s grasp on their mind is dissolving, allowing them to wander in their imagination while engaging in the intimate act of sex. The poem culminates in the lines, “Burying my forehead inside his shoulder / blades, the mountain is making itself a man.” The act of bringing their head to the lover’s shoulder blade seems to ground the speaker, and the warmth of human connection draws the speaker back from the icy stone of the natural world, back from the imagined painting to the present.
One of the most arresting poems in Burying the Mountain is “Satyr's Flute,” a direct homage to Brigit Pegeen Kelly’s poems “The Satyr’s Heart, ” and, especially, “Song.” Like Kelly’s poem, Fang recalls a scene that discomfits the reader. In this case, rather than the beheading of a goat, it is the skinning of a goat’s penis. Also like Kelly’s poem, the severed body part longs for the rest of its body, keening for their separation to end. Moving away from “Song,” though, Fang turns this poem to consider gender identity and queer sexuality. The idea of the goat’s penis “weeping ceaselessly, softly at first / like a newborn, then louder, until the kitchen / turns into a train station…” (14) is disquieting, its personification leading readers to consider how people will try to wrongly separate a person’s sexuality from their personhood. The goat’s penis represents masculinity, of course, but in this poem, it is contextualized as something animal and “other.” The speaker imagines the goat’s distress at its own castration, then draws a parallel to the speaker’s own separation from their mother, who has rejected them because she “once saw [them] with a boy.” In the mother’s eyes, and maybe in their own, the speaker has embodied the animal “otherness” of a satyr, only partially human because of the shame that the mother feels compelled to deflect onto her child. Just as Kelly writes of a deadly sweet song that haunts the perpetrators long after they have killed a beloved pet goat, Fang presents a quieter song, the poem closing with the goat’s penis “like a fetus curling / back toward an anonymous uterus.” The reader is thrown into the painful separation between child and mother, a different but no less saccharine song.
And speaking of songs, Burying the Mountain is rife with musical notations, with poems titled “Requiem,” “Beethoven,” and “Op. 64 in C#.” “A Difficult Apple,” a long and meandering poem, quotes a few lines of “Don Giovanni” in English and Italian. In “Beethoven,” the speaker remarks, “No texts from you. I listen to Beethoven, learning how to go on even if I’m betrayed by the present” (25). It’s clear that Fang’s speaker holds deeply on to classical music to offer respite from their feelings of detachment and loneliness. The references to music are buoyed by Fang’s attention to sound. The cadences of each poem work in concert with the allusions to musical works, tying the collection together with delicacy and aplomb. For example, in “Serenade behind a Floating Stage,” the following lines delight in their own alliteration and internal rhyme:
to streets in the Philippines waking up in the rain, panes and trees
repeating a low note of C—chorister, cage, a choir captures
the cadenza of falling cardamoms, then a quartz of quietude. (68)
The hard “C” sound morphs into the “Q” sound in the poem, narrating the speaker’s friend’s embrace of queer sex and love and the profound impact on that friend’s life. The friend says that “power...is in the sonance, not in its meaning,” and the collection seems to prove that claim. Poem after poem displays a similar care in its sonic quality, using repetition and onomatopoeia to immerse the reader into the poem, deploying a surround-sound of image and gentle resonance. “Utterance of a Folding Fan,” perhaps my favorite poem in the collection, describes the opening of a fan in a dozen ways, and it washes over and through, stopped by colons in a dreamlike, continuous extension of ideas. Music and white noise ripple in this collection, the poems a sorrowful but still-sweet symphony.
Throughout Burying the Mountain, Fang creates an intentional space between the reader and the poems, often placing the speaker, and therefore the audience, in moments that feel distanced or even voyeuristic. In some ways, it is hard to review a book that seems to hold me at arm’s length, its tone austere. But while Burying the Mountain’s poems may feel isolating for the reader, they also manage to birth connectivity: the speaker’s feelings of loneliness and separation are known and felt by the reader, and the reciprocity of this bond ultimately draws the reader back into the poems. The natural world is a calming, grounding presence that offers readers a resting place in the midst of a collection that by turns draws you in and attempts to shutter you out. The scent of cut pear, the sounds of the cicadas, the milky taste of fish soup, and the marigold glow of the streets are almost within reach, but linger just within the page, compelling me to come back to experience them again.
Genevieve Hartman is a Korean American poet based in upstate New York. She is the Director of Development & Publicity at BOA Editions, reads poetry for VIDA Review, and reviews for GASHER. Her writing has been published or is forthcoming in Stone Canoe, EcoTheo, Singapore Unbound, River Mouth Review, and others. Follow her on Instagram at @gena_hartman.