Vol. 22, No. 5,514 - The American Reporter - September 7, 2016



by Clarence Brown
American Reporter Correspondent
Seattle, Wash.
October 22, 2003
Ink Soup
COOL POEMS

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SEATTLE -- Let me first, as the Brits say, declare my interest. The author of this book was a student of mine (Princeton, '98), and what is more, I read "The Book of Motion" first as his Senior Thesis in the Department of Comparative Literature.

Here is a note from my journal for mid-April, 1998:

"The thesis, by Tung-Hui Hu (who when he was in my class asked to be called Way-Way Hu), is the most astonishing I have ever read. It is a splendidly elegant work of poetry and prose called THE BOOK OF MOTION. It is typographically as remarkable as in all other ways." And a day later:

"I've been reading Tung-Hui Hu's Senior Thesis with mounting amazement and delight. The thought has occurred to me to write a column about it, quoting liberally, but I am rather anxious about the propriety of that. Perhaps I could ask his permission to do it later, after the term is over."

Many terms have ended since then, and I am now anxious only about jumping the pub date, which is at least some time this month. Way Way, who kindly sent me his book but does not know the exact date of publication, is at Berkeley, working toward a PhD in architecture, having picked up an MFA at Michigan on the way.

If language is important to you for reasons beyond the everyday convenience of being understood, get this book. Every page is a celebration of the oddity of the unique human distinction. Like all genuine poets, Way Way is a trickster. He will start a prose poem as if it were the answer to an assignment (What I Did on My Summer Vacation):

"Summers we used to go down to Atlantic City and tell people their fortunes..." But read this last work in the book and plot the course, if you can, by which he arrives at the final line: "After that we were quiet as starlings in a cage."

The adjective for the poems here is, alas, "cool," though I'd be glad if those of my readers younger than forty misunderstood me. They are cool in terms of emotional temperature and icily controlled technique, as were the poems of the Russian poet Mandelstam, about whom I have written. Cool? Try this (again in prose):

"That year the city ground to a halt and the stars rarely came out at night. Wild dogs roamed the dockyards and alleyways, growing bony with idleness, no longer hunting anything. One prisoner escaped because the guards were too tired to catch him. I watched him run down the valley, arms stretched outward, his silhouette against the horizon: he was the first constellation we had seen in years."

Or these two sections from "Migrations at Night":

  • (5) "A dark forest with barely / any light. Overhead the only / source of comprehension / illuminates several ink stains / on trees sliced paper-thin."
  • (7> "The stars were getting dimmer. / One time we worried the sky / would fade away altogether. / Birds kept losing their way / and would tumble out / of the sky in a hail of wings, / beaks, scrolls, until finally they / stopped daring each other / to close their eyes at night."

"The Book of Motion. Poems by Tung-Hui Hu. Athens: The University of Georgia Press. 2003. Clarence Brown is a cartoonist, writer, and Professor Emeritus of Comparative Literature at Princeton University.

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