Christopher Bernard reviews Clara Hsu’s The First to Escape

Clara Hsu


A review by Christopher Bernard

Clara Hsu

Clara Hsu

The First to Escape
Poems by Clara Hsu
The Poetry Hotel Press
134 pp, $18.00

“It is always better, the ‘other world’
where each motion is a still frame,
perfectly all right to linger in.”
—Cafe Delirium

These lines may stand as a motto for the eloquent collection they encapsulate. We are not here the first, nor are we likely to be the last, to escape into the “other world” embodied in Clara Hsu’s poems, where we too can linger, perfectly right in the ever-widening senses of the term. Poems like these are enchantments to spirit us away, partly to help us escape the bitterly real world but above all to give us distance where we can see more clearly that world from which we have, from which we must, escape if we are to breathe, to live. Hsu’s poems are both entrance and egress, a welcoming and a bon voyage, a palpable breath of the morning air crossing our way across the white page, embers of candle ash in the snow.

“Begin with sadness that permeates
since the feverish hands cooled
Looking beyond
it must have been the wind”
—Wandering Night

Often the reader will find here a deep joy, sometimes delicately, sometimes wildly sensual; sometimes homey, domestic, calm; sometimes hard, with the earthy candor of genuine love, the deep affection that spurns euphemism. But sadness, the exhaustions of love and the instability of even the most modest happiness, also has its rights, to say nothing of its sacraments.

There is the questing for the self, that elusive necessity of being:

“the dreamer
doesn’t know it is she who commands
the dream to appear. It is she who has
been wishing. It is she whose wish takes
form tapping code into the great
unknown. It is her words….”
—Wandering Night

There is the merging of self with other selves in love, affection, contemplation, in the blending with the words of other poets, writers, of mystics, scholars, theologians: Li Po, Lao-tse, Shelley, Aquinas, James Joyce, Oscar Wilde, Jack Foley, Peter Sherburn-Zimmer, Homer, or an avatar of the great blind bard, insinuate their voices into these openly welcoming poems.

“Of august gold-wreathed
and beautiful Aphrodite I shall sing…

August night

the womb sheds
a replica.

She grew
already grown
sat ornery
on a Chinese chest
kicking the elaborately carved surface
of languid women in an ancient garden”
—The Juliad

There are journeys to far-off places (even as every place is far off if one looks at it in the right way) in the company of gallant phantoms:

“Come, Oscar,
The past two nights you snuggled
in my bed until well past midnight.
The day is warm.

I want to walk up calle del Pueblito,
the small street I came upon yesterday,
to have breakfast in the cactus filled courtyard.”
—Desayuno with Oscar Wilde

The poet creates herself and her world, a pebble, a letter, a syllable at a time, with quiet bravery and gentle hope, modestly persevering, with unself-conscious daring and a determination all the more certain for being without unnecessary bravado.

“I leave
to another there
and here.

Is it Prague,
stilted faces bleeding with history,
or Assos,
sunning in the Aegean,
saffron and paprika colorings
that I am acquainted with stones?”

A less steady aspect of many of these poems is the concessions they make to extensions of the modernist quest for unique form, to “make it new” at all costs. Sometimes the cost is a little high. I sometimes feel the poet straining for effect, trying just a little too hard to be modern, to be “postmodern,” to be new, to be refreshed and rejuvenated.

The renewal is genuine; the collection has an air of exuberant youthfulness rooted in more rueful experience that nevertheless refuses to stoop beneath its memories. The playful orthographies and spacings often work well, even superbly – at their best they add dimensions that could not otherwise be achieved; they are like six-dimensional chess, like non-Euclidean geometry; they are acrobatics, “awesome,” and one holds one’s breath while watching the verbal trapeze artist dare the heights, in the glare of attention, without a net. They show their debt to Pound by playing, to sometimes brilliant effect, off the orthographies of Chinese ideograms; this is particularly poignant and apropos, given the poet’s background as a Chinese-American, and her conflicted relationship with her “ethnic identity” (but a poet belongs to every identity, and to none – therein lies the poet’s freedom, a freedom, in a sense, from existence itself, like (as Baudelaire said) God’s).

Despite the flash and splendor, the more strenuously “modern” poems do not always avoid the effect of mere virtuosity, of shiny apples offered by a bright student to an over-indulgent teacher – sometimes the difficulty of figuring them out seems hardly worth the effort (the “vertical line” in “Philosopher’s Way” crosses a line I won’t specify). Hsu sometimes gives the impression of a child having discovered a new toy box – she has not quite learned yet how to use her new instrument with discretion. Not every candle needs to be a firework. The modernist fire is in danger of eating its own ashes; where there is smoke there is not always fire. And, to complete this mishmash of discordant images: It was the last Pound that broke many a poet’s back.

Nevertheless, what saves even the most awkward of these attacks on the new is the finely tuned ear, the gift for image and sense of cadence, the deft balancing of grammar’s tight-bottomed demands with the looser ways of the street, and that clear-eyed, sure-footed integrity of spirit which is all that “originality” means (certainly not “eccentricity,” which it has come too often to signify) – above all, the brilliant snap across logic that makes for startling insight – in short, what we mean by the fudgy empty little disylable “talent” – and this we have here in abundance in a tight handsome little chest of verbal treasure.

“Last destination
(meticulously mapped out)
blurred by rain water.

Police don’t know what has been committed
in a quiet room…

In the labyrinth, who is the sentinel?
When we run away we get caught

there are much more than sentences
subjects and subjugation

that the breath is the first to escape


my flying object!”
—The First to Escape


Christopher Bernard is a writer, poet, editor and journalist living in San Francisco. His books include the novel A Spy in the Ruins; a book of stories, In the American Night; and The Rose Shipwreck: Poems and Photographs. His work has appeared in many publications, including cultural and arts journalism in the New York Times, San Francisco Chronicle, Chicago Tribune, San Francisco Bay Guardian, Philadelphia Inquirer and elsewhere, and poetry and fiction in literary reviews in the U.S. and U.K. He has also written plays and an opera (libretto and score) that have been produced and radio broadcast in the San Francisco Bay Area. His poetry films have been screened in San Francisco and his poetry and fiction have been nominated for Puschcart Prizes. He has recently completed a play about Henry James and World War I. He is co-editor of Caveat Lector ( and a regular contributor to Synchronized Chaos Magazine.

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