“I Was Born to This Poetry”: The Book of Mirrors by Yun Wang

Reviewed By

While viewing many poetry readings on Zoom over the past two years, a poem read by Yun Wang stuck with me. The poem was “Black Horse,” from her poetry collection The Book of Totality (Salmon Press, 2015). The poem tells a fantastical story, spanning time and place seamlessly, that spoke to me not only of the writer’s depth of knowledge, but also of her uncanny ability to make a coherent whole of disparate parts. Her latest collection is The Book of Mirrors (White Pine Press, 2021).

Wang was born in China and came to the US for graduate school in 1985. She is an astrophysicist at California Institute of Technology, currently focusing on developing space missions to explore the universe. I was not surprised to learn that she is a cosmologist who studies the nature of dark energy, which is postulated as the mysterious cause for the accelerated expansion of our universe. Wang’s rich mind brings mystery into her poems. To get an idea of the expanse and reach of her work, you might think of cosmologists Michio Kaku, Stephen Hawking, or Neil deGrasse Tyson. Then add to that the cosmology of poets such as Wallace Stevens, John Ashbery, or Arthur Sze, or the magical realism of Frida Kahlo’s paintings, or S.G Sebald’s novels.

Interwoven motifs populate these poems: planets and outer space; fables and fairytales; music and poetry; flowers, birds, and cats. The individual poems’ titles are poems in themselves: “Walking on Mars,” “Muse with a Brown Paper Bag,” Neighbors in Bathrobes,” “Frida with Hummingbirds,” “The Beetle from Outer Space,” and “Thousands of Years in a Glance.”

The Book of Mirrors is a book of many mirrors in that a mirror is not only a remove from the substance it echoes, but also may reflect an abstract rendering of its subject. Wang’s mirrors reveal a blend of lyricism and magical realism. The poem “Flowers in the Mirror” starts with the line, “She bolts the door to meet the man inside the mirror,” and from there, she proceeds to dismantle the narrative:

Love is an illusion, born of misunderstandings. She dreams in the empty house. Aliens land in L.A., and uproot palm trees to use as toothpicks. She is a tiny fish on a silver platter, screaming, voiceless.

The book’s title made me think of John Ashbery’s poem “Self Portrait in a Convex Mirror,” where he describes the conundrum of looking beneath and beyond the surface of things by comparing, “a dozing whale on the sea bottom / In relation to the tiny, self-important ship / On the surface,” adding, “But your eyes proclaim / That everything is surface.”

Wang also frequently compares the incomparable, but unlike Ashbery, she brings an emotional voice and a slanting narrative to her poems—poems that encompass and thrust together concepts and objects. Where Ashbery’s tone is often that of an amused or detached onlooker, I find Wang to be deeply involved in her poems.

Another haunting mirror is found in “The Mirror’s Edge,” a poem that conjoins myth, metaphor, and parable as it recounts the story of how a woman’s freedom is stolen by a man’s exploitation. Starting with the line “She slept with the bear to relieve herself of the burden of purity,” the story weaves romantic notions (“White petals blew in the wind as church bells tolled”) with female surrender (“It hurt but she did not make a sound”). In this familiar story, the woman is foisted into a subservient role and purity is shown to be a myth:

White petals were trampled into mud.

Bears do not turn into handsome princes. He turned into a half bald man
with a leather bound journal, in which he noted her various imperfections.

I confess to having little knowledge of Chinese poetry, but Wang’s voice seems to have achieved the musicality of the ancient Chinese poets she has studied. Her book of translations, Dreaming of Fallen Blossoms: Tune Poems of Su Dong-Po, was published by White Pine Press in 2019. You can listen to Wang read from these poems in both Chinese and English accompanied by Alice Pero on the flute. Su Dong-Po’s poems are considered timeless, a quality I also find in Wang’s work. Asked about her relationship with the Chinese masters, Wang says, “I was born to this poetry,” describing how her father used to recite “poems like these” to her when she cried as a baby.

Wang’s poems often combine formal elements with narrative in a unique pattern of alternating evocative lyrics—often in italics—with story. Examples of gorgeous lyrical lines occur in nearly all these poems. Many stanzas occurring in the midst of narrative poems are small haiku-like poems, such as this one in “Nocturne”:

A silvered portal opens
to the hidden garden
of unearthly green orchids

And in “Ever After”:

The Universe is an invisible dark web
knotted into sparkling galaxies

This combination of narrative followed by lyric is also seen in “The Lovers of Teruel,” where a a thirteenth century—and possibly true—legend of star-crossed lovers à la Romeo and Juliet, is paired with a haunting image:

She thought him dead
As bells tolled
her wedding to another man
he materialized
and requested a kiss
She refused
He collapsed at her feet

They once flew down
gargoyle corridors
Laughter chimed echoing
off Mudejar towers    

 There are cautionary poems as well, poems in which Wang encircles the Earth within the cosmos, subjecting our planet to her ecopoetic gaze. This stanza in “Superstition of a Caged Bird” shifts the focus in three lines from the beauty of the natural world to the imprisonment of the human spirit:

I hear the gossip of flowers
insatiable in their lust
Consider the cages that are our bodies

But in “Contact,” it is corporeality, not magical reality, that she addresses:

Dolphin males die young
Mercury rains into the ocean
Females pass the poison to babies
through breast milk

The last section in The Book of Mirrors contains more contemporary and personal poems. The book is dedicated “For my son Sam,” and a Sam appears in some of these poems, along with dreams of the speakers’ parents. In “Sam’s Plan,” we hear the voice of a young child, grasping to belong to a universe that aspires to be good:

Little machines will help people
Each is good and where it belongs
One will harvest lightning for electricity
Another will make sandwiches

I will invent the machines
When I land on that planet

The fusion of Wang’s gifts into these poems make them exceptional in so many ways. They are musical, historical, cosmological, magical, narrative, and lyrical all at once.

Risa Denenberg lives on the Olympic peninsula in Washington state where she works as a nurse practitioner. She is a co-founder of Headmistress Press; curator at The Poetry Café Online; and the poetry reviews editor at River Mouth Review. Her most recent publications include the full-length poetry collection, slight faith (MoonPath Press, 2018) and the chapbook, Posthuman, finalist in the Floating Bridge 2020 chapbook competition. More from this author →