Yu Xiuhua’s Moonlight Rests on my Left Palm is the author’s ruminative, forceful English debut. A pastiche of her various essays and poems, the collection chronicles Yu’s experience as a disabled single mother in a rural Chinese town, Hengdian. It was translated into English by the French writer, musician, and translator Fiona Sze-Lorrain.
First published in China, the 2015 book was a sensation among critics and the general public alike. Its success was bolstered in part by its introductory poem “Crossing Half of China to Fuck You,” which received profuse social media attention at the time of its publication. Nine of her poems were then featured by China’s Poetry Magazine, who said that “a patient with cerebral palsy who can’t work has a language genius beyond the reach of ordinary people.” Her multiple labels of oppression—her disability; her abusive relationship with her ex-husband; her rural upbringing compared to the privileged families of most leading Chinese poets—has fashioned her into a symbol of strength for many of her fans.
Throughout the collection, Yu grapples continually with her circumstances and how to portray them to readers. She is both aware of her public image and careful not to cater to it. Although Yu’s poems capture the quiet, slippery beauty of farm life, she refrains from casting her experiences in romantic overtones. While she has a clear love for her hometown, “labor has brought [my family] enough grief and sorrow, and grievances. I don’t see it as an ode to life,” she writes in the collection’s second essay. “The ‘exquisite bridges and flowing water’ one finds in poetry are not written by real farmers, but those who claim to love rural life when they most fear it.” Nature has been a perennial fixture in the Romantic poetry tradition, inspiring emotions such as transcendence, innocence, and purity—however, many of its most vocal appreciators are intellectuals of the upper elite, who do not work on the land for their livelihood.
Instead, many of the details about Hengdian are specific enough to veer on inaccessible. “…what poetry is, I don’t know, nor can I speak of it,” Yu writes. “It is simply an emotion that leaps or drowns.” While her poems refer repeatedly to certain key milestones of her life, she never fully elaborates on them to readers—a decision that entices the reader, only to ultimately frustrate them. However, rather than aiming to tease, Yu’s opaque verses seem completely sincere; perhaps the mistiness of each poem is its price of entry.
In her poem “Callosity,” Yu writes:
Bury you and your hands’ calluses
But you must keep this callosity: the road to the underworld is interminably
cold, so you can poke and play with it
If you turn back, I’ll recognize you more easily
Papa, you know you’re making things difficult for yourself
but you never say it out loud
Of life, disdained or respect, you never feel at ease speaking out
Yu’s tender message to her father loses some of its potency, stranded as it is in a void of exposition. Her allusions to heartache, grief, and dissatisfaction maintain their obscurity throughout the collection, never breaking Yu’s stream-of-consciousness style. Functioning the same as imagination, Yu’s poems do not discriminate between the real and the fantasy, treating all with the same degree of dignity. She speaks to this stylistic choice in her essay “My Crazy Love Feels More Like Despair”:
While my poetry received substantial media attention, some began to look into the narrative in my poetry: a woman writer had been publishing online stories about her travels. . . .later, an insider leaked the news that the writer was in fact a disabled person who couldn’t possibly have traveled to all these places. She had cooked up stories based on materials she found online. . . .
The incident had lingered in my mind for several days, as I recall past quarrels with others online, and how I insisted that nothing was ever invented or not factual. To some extent, I am a realist. I am not fond of fiction, but can understand this woman then: stuck in one place, she desperately longed to go out and see the world.
Her poems are filled with reference to various lovers, whom the reader assumes to be fictional. In “For You,” she writes that “at a plain teahouse, I like the you right before me, your plain gaze / Your beard, the look of last night’s tossing and turning saddens me / Much of what I hope to offer you is lost on the way.” The physical description of her lover, as well as her characterization of their relationship, are rendered with details just as vivid as those included in poems about her father, mother, and son. For Yu, the gap between her internal and external life is nonexistent. What emerged as a coping mechanism for her limited mobility enriches her poetic voice—surprisingly the product is neither whimsical nor romantic, but instead a realist portrayal of what it means to live with change, boredom, hardship, and devotion.
Yu has a particular sensitivity to reader’s reactions, not wanting her poems to send any unintentional messages. One of her greatest worries is the tendency of poetry to hinge on romanticization and notalgia—the latter which Yu examines at length when she writes about leaving Hengdian along with many of her former neighbors. “We have chosen to live better and faster in a new village, but we are dubious about we give up: How many marvels in our old life have we thrown away?” Yu wonders. “…This is why I feel so uncertain about my nostalgia, and can’t even deceive myself about it. It is a defeat that shadows me day and night.” She continues by writing:
I can’t tell if others are simply contented with nostalgia, and since they might not return to their hometown, the disappearance of which brings only an impersonal sadness to their inner lives and emotions. . . .what remains is poetic lyricism, a necessity for emotions. Such nostalgia opens their eyes afresh after their grief, but mine can’t. Here I am, a witness to the collapse or loss of something concrete, as I stretch my hand out to preserve it, but to no avail.
Yu has a similarly skeptical reaction to her portrayal by the media and her fans. “Although I respect the word suffering, I am skeptical of it whenever someone tells me that my life defines suffering. Yes, life is bitter and has its challenges, but it isn’t disastrous. . . .this is why I don’t think I have much “suffering” to share with others,” she writes. “It is unlikely for one to find, in my work and life, ways to get rid of suffering. All I want to do is live on with a fiery gaze and my teeth clenched.”
Yu’s rejection of typical poetic emotions, as well as the typical poetic roles, enhance the uniqueness of her poems. Indelible and inimitable, Moonlight Rests on my Left Palm is a read as fascinating as it is otherwise mundane.