Pink Noise

Hsia Yü


Sunday, December 9th, 2007

Pink Noise is a must-have one-off, a self-published, literally plastic, literally transparent volume turned out in hot pink and black ink by post-modern semi-expat Taiwanese poet Hsia Yü. Hsia Yü’s deadpan, nimble poetry is increasingly anthologized here in America, and may be consumed in large quantities in Steve Bradbury’s translations, collected under the evocative title Fusion Kitsch and published by Zephyr Press. But if you know anyone on the Taiwanese second-hand book market, beg and cajole that person immediately to find you a copy of Pink Noise. You will want to read this volume in the flesh.To see one’s face liquefied, sliding and slipping off the stiff, slick, polyurethane leaves is to be confronted with such vertiginating quandaries as, how can transparency equal privacy? One thinks of huge flat panes of glass climbing story by story into heat-and-light-capturing pink-washed urban skies. There is text on every level, written backwards in the flux: a billboard here, a news ticker there, in one darkened apartment screensaver kittens go polyhedron, and here you imagine yourself close enough to a neighbor’s bare shoulder to read whatever she’s reading–an instruction manual or a credit-card bill. She’s closer than ever in the mind’s pink eye. But this tide of surfaces may flex again, instantly, and place you in the mise-en-abyme of your own bathroom mirrors, or kneeling before the computer screen reflecting your own wide-parted, penetrable eye.Pink Noise is startling on so many levels, most distinctively in that, lost in its cloudy voxbox, you can’t tell what level you’re on. The book consists of more than sixty poems, “written noise,” printed in Chinese and English, in hot pink and black ink, and on plastic see-through pages so that one poem becomes inscribed on and entangled in the others, a staticky, antic, space-aged polymer palimpsest but without the ordering, temporal implications a palimpsest implies. The bound pages are then tucked inside a stiff transparent sleeve, which is wrapped in a transparent band, each of which is printed with text in Chinese and English in thin, precise white and black ink.The outermost levels of the book provide two contradicting origin myths–do they compete or somehow elaborate each other?  The ceremonial-feeling band enclosing the whole bears the following text:

I’ve always wanted to make a transparent book, and after I had finished composing the 33 poems gathered here, I knew the time had come to make this book of poetry filled with “written noise”… Then I put it in an aquarium and a swimming pool and left it in the rain for days… This is a book that knows no limits and thus knows not to go too far.

The comma and the ellipses are the signature gesture of this annunciatory yet barely legible statement. The first sentence proceeds apace, conventionally encommaed and not ‘noisy’ at all, explaining the book’s provenance in light of the “I”-poet’s supposed intention and design. The first ellipses then begins warp this account. Does it represent a leap in chronology, omitting all the steps between ‘knowing’ a time has come to make a plastic book and the time at which the finished, waterproof book is “put in an aquarium” etc? Or is it merely a pause in the performance of this utterance, does it suggest that the next step after ‘knowing’ is ‘to put it,’ the transparent, perhaps non-existent book, through its various wet trials? The paradoxical final statement has already been enacted by the temporal paradoxes of the previous sentences.That a whole swath of Chinese text is printed on the back (or front, or reverse) side of this band is utterly beside, and thus contingent upon, the point.The band must be slid off to clamber further into this space. The matte plastic sleeve is blank on one side; the other holds the ISBN (that’s 978-957-41-4521-8, if you want to try and find a copy of this dispersed and sold-out book) and barcode, two more visual manifestations of coded identity which only computer and light beam can read. On this level, the Anglophone reader must wade in among the Chinese characters to sift out, in toothpastey, toothpick-thin writing, an English description of the book’s content: “A gathering of words, sheer swarms of them rise out of depths of light–the primal crime scene of a linguistic serial murder…” This swarming, sheerness, and rising-out-of-depths speaks of the murky experience of reading the multilingual and visually accumulative work, while the queer figuration of the serial murder anticipates the fata morgana aspect of the book, in which repetition and reiteration results in now accumulated, now emptied coffers of experience, so that the serial activity must begin again. Oddly it is again the punctuation, the ellipses and the dash, that pegs the English tentatively to the Chinese, inviting us to dream of the equivalencies that might fall in between them.But before we can make our way into the interior, we get one final hefty chunk of prose. This provides yet another version of the book’s inception–a technical account of collecting English “from the Net or from links I found in spam,” and then feeding them multiple times through a software called “Sherlock” to create Chinese and new English texts: “I lineated them both to look like poetry, placing the English and Chinese face-to-face in the semblance of a bilingual volume of translation.”The obvious instability being proposed here among various versions of the text–if selection and translation are at the incipience of this text, then what and where is the ‘original’? Can two separately generated texts have parallel ‘faces,’ and pretend to exhibit a family resemblance?–deranges conventional hierarchies of reading we normally apply to texts. The various accounts of the text’s conception (as recounted on the band) and inception (as recounted on the sleeve) also refuse to be anything but multiple, clinging to us as we wade into the text’s crystalline murkiness. But the canny sleeve anticipates this, imagining a “machine poet”– presumably the Sherlock software?–responsible for the text that follows:

[…]like a lethal lover, it tells you from the start that it is not to be trusted. […] Still, I’ve always felt it understood poetry’s clandestine mission […]I’m anxious to consummate this romance, to bring it to the pink of perfection before these machine poets evolve into an all-too-prosaic fluency.

In the above quotes, all bracketed ellipses are mine. The sleeve (who else is talking? Can a literally marginal fabric ‘speak’?) works from two separate philosophies about poetry, one that it is the combination of symbols from a field of possibilities exterior to human consciousness, the other that it has an interiority, a ‘clandestine mission’, a “pink” inside which is the “pink of perfection” and derives from the insideness of human consciousness.  To “consummate this romance” with the ‘Romantic’ notion of an interiority from which poetry’s “clandestine mission” derives produces the book’s anxiousness, its urgency not directed toward a particular urge. But what act could such a consummation entail?In this erotic-intellectual uncertainty, this pink noise, we reach the end of what the packaging can provide; for more, we must enter the slick space of the book. Inside, the text piles up and confuses; black writing overlays with pink, we move into the black, we move into the pink, it clots and separates, and at intervals only a hand thrust between the pages will make any given text come into focus. Then one’s own hand seems so clear, stuck between plastics as if on a laboratory slide, one’s own hand not figuratively an author but just another specimen in this catalog of what might be specimen language. The overall effect of these poems is that of loneliness, the self being a continually lonely site to which language recurs and occurs. Viz. “17 Will you dare to be bare?“:I slowly opened one eye and then the otherBut that’s a story for another timeDo the words “beach season” fill you with excitement?Or dread at the thought of baring it all?This summerDaily indulgence:Easy treats, delightful ideasDid you bring protection? […]The resolutely transparent yet stiff, hard nature of the pages in <i>Pink Noise</i> evoke screens and hypertext; one may pass through them in all ways except bodily. That dynamic seems replicated in the poems, in which the enjambed lines both follow and detach from each other. One ‘clicks through’ one line to get to the next, with the capital letter at each line’s left margin enacting this separateness. Isolation is the theme of nearly every poem, as well as its currency; it’s there in the line and stanza breaks, there in the ephemerality of the consumerist abstractions, there as the thin layer which is the only effective ‘protection,’ and yet a fraught and flexible one. The radical materials, design, and conception of Pink Noise as an object, then, introduces a new way of reading the textual lyric, as ever-deepening layers and levels more akin to hyperspace than to a dramatic performance of a succession of singular temporal instances. It should be remarked that the only terminal punctuation in this book seems to be the ellipses or the question mark–uncertain, evasive terminals at best. Moreover, the thematic and tonal consistency of Pink Noise. when taken along with the paradoxical uncertainty and multiplicity of the text as a site, revises the lyric itself, stressing not its desire to communicate and be persuasive but its status as an entrant in a capacious, multivocal record of lonelinesses. Just so the poems in this book, clotted and massed together, a global field of inseparable solitudes.

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3 Responses to “Pink Noise”

  1. Steve Bradbury Says:

    Great review Joyelle, but there are a couple things you brought up that are worth amplifying:

    Hsia Yu lived in New York and France for some time, but 5-6 years ago she moved back to Taipei, where she co-edits Xianzai Shi, or “Poetry Now.” ( She edited and co-designed issues #2 and #5.

    When Pink Noise was released late last August it sold like hot cakes and climbed to #4 on the bestseller list at the Eslite Bookstore chain, Taiwan’s answer to Borders, before it sold out. It may be awhile though before it starts showing up at used bookstores or goes to a 2nd edition. Hsia Yu has a huge and devoted fan base who avidly collect her books, and she lost a fortune on the first edition. She spent about $18,000 U.S. to print the volume but she’s not much of a business woman, and the deal Eslite made with her to sell the book was so cut-throat she lost money on every copy they sold.

    The machine translator Hsia Yu used to make the Chinese version of the 33 poems is actually a search and web program with a translation function that comes with the Apple Macintosh computer she uses.

    It’s a pity you can’t read Chinese because, as Hsia Yu points out in an interview in the forthcoming Zoland Poetry, which includes some English back translations of the Chinese versions, half the poetry in Pink Noise are the discrepancies between the two versions–Sherlock didn’t just (mis)translate the English poems Hsia Yu cobbled from the net; he?/it? reinvented the Chinese language.

  2. Matthew Myers Says:

    Personally, I feel this review and others on the site have a complexity of diction and sentence structure that seems forced. I review occasionally for Blackbird and my style is much different(not to say better). A more simplistic approach to writing, I believe, especially when critically assessing poetry (a rather subjective and difficult subject to explicate clearly), would render your reviews more readable and, therefore, more enjoyable. Certainly falling short of pretension, the reviews I read contained sincere thoughts and judgments, however unnecessarily verbose they seemed at times. If you wish to read one of my reviews, it is in the new issue, v7n2, of Blackbird, under non-fiction.
    Matthew Myers

  3. Alex M Says:

    Matthew Myers, put yourself back in your pants. The only bad writing on this site is yours (so far, at least–I wouldn’t want to underestimate the power of future contributions to appall). Your unwitting choice of the very apt word “simplistic” to describe your own writing would be funny if it weren’t downright depressing. Congratulations on contributing the only unproductively complex (read inflated and unidiomatic) diction on this page so far.

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