“how often I have chosen love
in the chestnut of november
when the night cracks open and is yellow
the dusk lifts the city up towards mid-air
how it stays there
pendulating and trembling”
— “how often I have chosen love” by Xiao Yue Shan
tw: sexual assault
Winner of the 2018 Frontier Poetry Chapbook Contest, How Often I Have Chosen Love contains such range within its 28 pages. These poems explore the intricacies of growing up, the heaviness of home and history, and a deep longing for understanding. These poems pulse in such a way that cannot help but grasp you. The multifaceted speakers, seemingly stuck between the reality of their adulthood and the nostalgia of their childhood, feel as if they are clasping your face and speaking right to your soul.
“easier if we cried” encapsulates How Often I Have Chosen Love’s sense of teetering on the edge of transition. It’s recollection of a conversation between two women imagines an internal monologue of a speaker hearing about a friend being sexually assaulted. The title of the poem itself captures a powerful message: we imagine that grieving our trauma would be so much easier if we could simply grieve correctly. The poem portrays an all-too-familiar denial and the feeling it meets: the longing we have to heal each other, “fruit broken with bruised, full bites.”
One of the most masterful aspects of Shan’s poetry is the complexity of the women throughout How Often I Have Chosen Love. In “the girls of harbin”, Shan constructs a lush ode to the balance of softness and strength in the women the speaker perceives:
“it is because the winter-earth has been thawed by blood, here,
that they say you will never hurt a girl from harbin. that she wears honey
on her breath but doesn’t talk sweet. that she’ll break a window
before she opens a door. that she eats ice cream in the dead of december,
licking a black sesame drip from a bare wrist. girls in harbin know to never
complain about the cold. they press it to their chests as a bouquet
of bluebells. or a blade under the sleeve.”
The dissonance of choosing a window over a door, of eating ice cream in December, of going against what everybody might expect these women to do is powerful. This poem portrays women who understand people’s perceptions and expectations, which is exactly why they are so skilled at subverting them. “the worth of a woman’s life in china” explains those exact expectations, detailing all of the ways in which women are used and drained, demeaned by “every man who has spit into her water.” Shan’s natural metaphors connect the experiences in this collection to a deep relationship with the physical world, grounding these stories into the earth.
A personal favorite of mine from this collection, “ornithomancy” is a stunning juxtaposition of nature and urban destruction that breathes new life into the beloved bird poem. “ornithomancy” is an Ancient Greek practice of reading omens from the actions and patterns of birds. Though the title establishes birds as a vital image in the poem, there are no mentions of birds in until the second stanza. Rather, the reader is given a city in “gauze” and “bandages” left with nothing but “camphor” (which is used for healing) and “paper houses”.
The first bird mentioned at the beginning of the second stanza is a wooden bird, “a carved sparrow trying to fly from / the pear-wood frame before its contractual, imminent / expropriation”. In the last three lines, the speaker observes the “shattering” of a sparrow’s wings “amidst chipped sprays of chrysanthemum / toothless eaves, pale tiles scattered like petals”. By using the word “shattering” with objects like eaves and tiles, contrasting with the natural element of flowers, it becomes hard to discern what is real and what is artificial. Is this itself an omen?
Throughout How Often I Have Chosen Love, every poem upholds the feat of choosing love in spite of all the reasons not to — danger, hurt, harm, loneliness, grief. Shan’s writing proves that tenderness does not equate to a weakness, but to a willingness, an openness to the kaleidoscopic nuance of the world around you.