Sometimes chance conspires and the laws of randomness cast good things in our direction at a time that seems exactly right. This is what happened to me this week, when I extracted from two giant reading piles—columns over four feet high, weaving even now a little precariously behind my desk—a thin chapbook by a poet I hadn’t heard of, The Carp, by Yun Wang. I took a break from guilt, put my feet up, and started reading.
But let me back up for a moment and tell you how I got the little chapbook, and why I’ve had it stashed away for two or three years.
My daughter studied bookbinding and letterpress techniques at Booklyn, in Brooklyn, New York (http://www.booklyn.org/) around the time of 9/11. (It’s an aside I won’t go into here, but I was in the air, on my way to JFK, to visit her that morning.) A few years later she started her own press called Spruce Street, named after her then-street-address in Berkeley; she also went to work for a press called Whereabouts. (She’s a teacher now in a high school for English language learners; collectively the students speak a total of 29 languages. Last year she taught Romeo and Juliet; this year they’re doing The Odyssey.)
Whereabouts (http://www.whereaboutspress.com/) publishes prize-winning travel books that are unusual because they are not guides in the usual way—they are, rather, story collections—the country’s literature is what guides the traveler. The owner, David Peattie, is the nephew of the California poet Noel Peattie, who died a few years ago at the age of 72. Noel was the retired Special Collections Librarian for UC Davis, and a prolific poet, writer, editor and supporter of other poets’ work; he was also the son of naturalist writers Louise Redfield and Donald Culross Peattie. (His own poetry collections include Western Skyline, In the Dome of St. Laurence Meteor, King Humble’s Grave, Sweetwater Ranch, and The Testimony of Doves.) Over the years his imprint, Konocti, published poetry books by several of my friends. Noel and I knew each other for a couple of decades; he was a true bibliophile, with a vast collection, many of them rare editions.
A year or so before he died, Noel had obtained a book of my poems (published by my daughter’s press) called The Book of Insects, and he wrote me the kind of encouraging and appreciative note that we poets always hope to receive. After Noel’s unexpected death, David gifted me with a number of books from Noel’s collection, knowing that I would love reading them, and would also treasure them as a link to Noel. Since then I’ve read most of them a number of times, but somehow overlooked Yun Wang’s The Carp—until now.
I was so arrested by the poems in this little cinnamon-colored book that I began investigating Wang on the web. Born in China in 1964, she grew up during the Cultural Revolution. Her father was tortured and imprisoned, and sent away to the countryside to be “reformed.” The Carp is dedicated to Wang’s father, and many of the poems in her little book tell stories from that period. The stories are stark, terrifying, mysteriously beautiful and sad; they fuse into something intangible and true.
As I used what our idiotic and thankfully now former president called “the Google” to read more about Wang, I discovered that she has a more recent collection, the 2002 Nicholas Roerich Prize winner from Storyline Press, called The Book of Jade. I was also amazed to learn that she is a world-renowned scientist and cosmologist, known especially for her work on dark energy, and that she is currently Associate Professor of Cosmology at the University of Oklahoma at Norman. (You can read about her cosmological research, and also several recent poems at her website: http://www.nhn.ou.edu/~wang/)
After reading The Carp I immediately ordered Wang’s full-length collection on Amazon. Then I emailed her. I found her email address at the U of OK, and sent a short note not unlike the one that Noel Peattie once sent me. Later that day, Wang acknowledged my note, thanking me graciously. Then she sent me a postscript: She had looked at my website and read some of my poems, and was writing to tell me that she too had enjoyed them.
And so, here we are, breathing in words, in conversation over poems that a few days ago we knew nothing about. There are poems in The Carp that would have brought Yun Wang imprisonment and torture like her father’s had she been old enough to publish them when the Cultural Revolution reigned. Perhaps the book would have been destroyed—though no doubt some devoted reader or fellow author would have tried to find a way to preserve its pages.