Naming a Fish (review of Anna Yin’s Wings Toward Sunlight)

Reid Mitchell

Anna Yin, Wings Toward Sunlight, (Oakville, ONT: Mosaic Press, 2011.)

“I am just an indifferent fish,
not concerned with extended life.
Air is what I swallow.
At present, I need only this.”

A few plain words from Anna Yin—nothing fancy, nothing unparseable—and we are already at sea. She only asks us for air, the not-empty space around us. She only asks to breathe around us but strongly suspects this will be denied. She presents herself to us as the eternal immigrant, the eternal foreigner, the eternal wife. So quiet, so humble, so intent on demanding her place through image and language and metaphor. At present she needs only enough air to create a world for us.

On terra firma, Anna Yin might best be characterized as a Chinese poet who writes in English. She is also a Canadian poet, but her sensibility and approach to poetry is grounded in China’s literary tradition, particularly the short Chinese lyric. She employs simple language, simple diction, simple syntax. But her poems are not simple. After all, dreams often use no words at all. Most of Yin’s poems have an easily accessible surface meaning, but at her farthermost extremes, she is mythopoetic. Our common, almost domesticated, natural world provides most of the symbols for her mythmaking.

In Yin’s poems, certain elements recur throughout, something shifting in association: rain,, rivers, wind, the night, houses, the moon—she is Chinese after all—insomnia, and, most tellingly, fish, fishily indifferent.

Yet in my dreams,
there is only one fish,
no river, no water.

As we read her poems, we realize quickly that that fish most often represents the poet’s own body. After we read sufficient poems, we recognize that her body incorporates her poems, and that to consume them is to consume her—this quiet, most undemanding of poets, with her simple language, simple diction, her modest voice that, like Emily Dickinson’s, might encompass the world.

These element, however, are not symbols that we can exactly systematize; they wriggle through any net. And as in dreams, these elements reoccur, recombine.

In a world where moon and nature watch, her speaker is often fearful. In “Late Night,” the “half-open eyes” of a tomcat make the half-naked speaker pause. She see that, “A spider on the wall”–one who perhaps remembers Robert Frost–”enjoys a moth.” The animal world is sensuous as well as dangerous. Who know which lust the sight of her body might arouse in that tomcat? After all, in “Mr. Tiger,” she offers to help the “slender figure/with golden and black stripes” escape, only, in a sudden revelation, to recognize that she has made herself “bait.”

The poem “Snow” necessarily reminds of us the poems of Li Qingzhao. Li Qingzhao is celebrated for her ability to employ reoccurring words in a short lyric. One of her poems begins “How deep is the deep, deep courtyard; another, more amazingly, starts with seven pairs of repeated words–”seek seek; search search; cold cold,” and so on. In “Snow,” Yin uses similar repetition to powerful effect: one word creates first a landscape of loss, then a emptiness.


I try to depict snow
from a scientific point of view:
transparent and unique.
But it reflect the whiteness,
whiteness and
whiteness that you leave behind.

Another theme that runs through the poems is that of hesitation. Yin never employs the saying “He who hesitates is lost” but it hangs like a moon above her stories. In “The Tea Grow s Cold,” the title of which itself is a warning against delay, the speaker’s hair is sent “flying” by the wind; her companion’s hand is lifted as if to touch it but fails the test. The two are left to watch the birds, a symbol of their desires, “flying elsewhere.” There is a Yaghan word, mamihlapinatapai, which means “a look shared by two people, each wishing that the other would offer something that they both desire but are unwilling to initiate.” That is the look offered in this and other poems. As another poem says

I fear to offer
for what appears to be an apple,
may taste like a lemon

Throughout the book, there is an engagement, even a quarrel, with another person, presumably a lover. An ongoing quarrel? The same quarrel again and again? It might be a man, a woman, the world, her soul itself. The speaker loves whomever it is and continually offers sustenance. In “A White Moon Looms,” she observes that “Rain falls on your lips,/dry thirst resists.”

The images break apart and reassemble. Her collection uses the language, the logic of dreams that come to us night after night, familiar but never quite the same, but inviting us to study their meaning again. A glimmer on the water, a shine of the moon disappearing on the ripples….

In the poem “A Fish in a House,” the speaker again confronts someone—a father, a lover, her creator. “You named me once,/then forgot.” She doesn’t complain. After all, “what’s the point of naming a fish?” But she later expresses concern. “I worry/I’ll out live you.”

This house is another water tank.
You don’t have any gills.”

In this unpredictable world, it certainly is not clearer that not-being-a-fish is superior to being a fish, or which animal is best suited for survival. With sleep comes dreams, and we slip into the waters of the unconscious. It would be handy, after all, to know how to live underwater. The speaker dreams she can save whomever this beloved opponent is, that the one sustained can become the sustainer, that the one nourished can transform into the nourisher:

When night comes, you dream
and I dream too.
There I teach you how to swim,
how to live empty.

—–Reid Mitchell

As a New Orleanian, REID MITCHELL is familiar how life changes when the world becomes aquatic. He currently teaches at Huaqiao University in Quanzhou, China. His poems have been published in Cha, Asia Literary Review, Pedestal, Softblow, Quarterly Literary Review Singapore, and elsewhere.