Lucy Van Reviews Michelle Leber

By | 22 December 2014

It is also difficult to overlook the sensuous and seductive language that Leber uses to render the events in this imagined life of the Yellow Emperor. Lei Zu, the emperor’s first wife who is famously credited with the discovery of silk, is introduced through highly romantic imagery:

Lei Zu never saw the mountain
open its twilight belly
to release the firebird into the sky.
They said, that creature
with her grandfather’s brow
wings like a horizon cloud
tail of spinning planets
eyes of winter sun –
descended from heaven
only in times of greatest fortune 


Her betrothed smiled
as Lei Zu’s story panted its drama
from beautiful spaces
between her lips
like the plum blossom
he saw that day
taken by the wind
graceful, announcing
its own history (‘Firebird’)

Leber should be commended for her facility for the short line, which underpins her poetry’s enigmatic kinesis. The writing is beautiful, but the way in which it is beautiful matters. The images are lush and condensed, calling upon, perhaps un-intentionally, the Orientalist’s cultivated taste for ‘exotic otherness’. The aestheticisation of the East has been instrumental to the West’s ongoing project of reductive essentialism, but again I’m hesitant to frame Leber’s work solely in this way; that is to say, I do not mean to suggest that The Yellow Emperor is complicit or epistemologically violent, and in fact I wholeheartedly reject a suggestion that writing about the ‘East’ in this inquiry-driven way should be prohibited. Perhaps in these considerations of aesthetics I am wrongly distracted by the worn Oriental signifier, ‘plum blossom … taken by the wind’ at the expense of Lei Zu’s story that ‘panted its drama / from beautiful spaces / between her lips.’ The line is in fact most instructive for its momentary cue to listen; in a way, moments such as these can be knitted together as embedded clues to a more productive way to think about Leber’s mythographical process.

These allusions to listening are hardly concealed; in many places throughout the text they are rather exhortatory. The act of listening is celebrated as art in the later poems, especially in ‘True Listening in the Palace of Treasures’, and ‘The Gateway to the Ear’. But one of the finest directives appears early in the collection. ‘Young Emperor Asks His Minister: “When a Physician Comforts the Dying Why Do You Listen to the Wrist Pulses?”’ is the longest title of the collection and to me it is one of the more satisfyingly named. The title is a fine example of Leber’s capacity for spontaneous and loose-fitting poetic gestures, which after the dominance of precise, imagistic clarity feels welcome for its contrasting lack of restraint. The poem stages the reply of Qi Bo, the emperor’s minister of medicine:

When the pulse of the dying liver arrives
		it is taut like touching
			the string of a drawn bow

and at the point of death the pulse
		of the heart stands still
			as if restrained by a belt or

a hook. When the pulse of the dying spleen arrives
		it is sharp and hard
			like the beak of a crow

Leber claims the spectacle of the Yellow Emperor as motivation for her poetic inquiry, but Qi Bo steals the show here, speaking some of the more compelling and nuanced lines in the collection. This poem is a lovely demonstration of the appositeness of Chinese medicine to poetry, both of which share a preoccupation with the expressiveness of the body. Suggesting a flowery logic of correspondences, Qi Bo’s answer reveals the intimacies embedded in the diagnostic art. Western medicine has long abandoned the practice of the describing pulses be-cause of its perceived lack of objectivity. Chinese medicine maintains its ambiguous, metaphorical language in order to express a highly complex reality.1 In its read-ing, or rather, listening for symptoms in the language of the pulse, Chinese medicine produces a notion of the body as a site of ‘fullness’ or plenitude; in contrast to the Western clinic, which produces the body as a visual concept. At the risk of reductionism, I find Leber’s poetic rendering of the practice provocative. To the reader in the West, its counter-discourse restores some dignity to a body that is routinely framed as a site of tension and humiliation. Somewhat unexpectedly, Leber’s aesthetic recourse to an ‘originary’ scene of Eastern mythology throws a challenge to the Orientalism inherent in Western procedures for knowing the body.

Given that I know very little about Chinese medicine, it’s probably glib to contrast it so positively against this limited representation of Western medicine – just as it would be too simplistic to view Leber’s project as itself a form of Orientalism. But these parameters should be mentioned, as I frame this book precisely in terms of my uncertainty about where to place it. The Yellow Emperor will reward readers keen to follow a bold experiment in mythological reconstruction, and Leber’s strengths in stylistic execution and research, which is breathtaking in scope, are manifest throughout the collection. It’s a potent work of narrative verse that raises many questions about history, particularly global histories in practices of ‘othering’; it’s also unique in its consideration of the body as an articulate source of communal history. Most importantly, the work is imbued with a sense of Leber’s diagnostic proximity to the body in birth, life and death. Employing this intimacy to reimagine mythology is a thought-provoking experiment, and a wild one, in which the daring of the inquiry is only just concealed by the discipline of the poet.

  1. Pat-rick Douaud, ‘The Expressiveness of the Body and the Divergence of Greek and Chinese Medicine’, Anthropos 95.2 (2000), pp. 612-613
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