By the mirror


For the month of October, I’m going to be writing about some of my favorite things. This is one of my favorite paintings. Its English title is “By the mirror” (1996), by Yang Feiyun, a Chinese figure painter, and it’s a portrait of his wife. I’ve never seen the painting in person, only images of it, which, I suppose, says something about my relation to it. But I like to think of my first encounter with the image as akin to the first time one sees an original work in person—footsteps slowing to a halt, gaze transfixed, lips parted, the mind with its buzzing incapacity to describe what the eyes are seeing.

This painting reminds me of Manet’s Emile Zola portrait, except less formal, less intent on providing the viewer with evidential information. I love the plant, the dying branch that bows under the weight of its leaves, curved perfectly under her hand. The mirror, reflecting not the plant nor the woman, but the wall, casts an eerie atmosphere across the greyed background. The woman’s pose—obviously posed, but also natural in its intended effect—makes her seem as though she’s lost in thought at the very instance of the painting’s reveal to the viewer.

What I love most, oddly, is the sweater. The texture, pattern, and colors remind me of an old blanket that I used to sleep with, now full of holes and frayed edges. It is as if its memory has been repurposed into the newness of this painting and this woman’s clothing, unknowingly nudging the past into present.

One Art

There’s a certain staleness that literary analysis/criticism acquires in the early years of education—I remember, in middle school, thinking that writing essays was such a dull task. If “creative writing” (poetry, fiction) was freedom, then literary analysis essays were the handcuffs. I don’t think the five-paragraph drill helped in lessening the apathy.

But, no longer! I’m still figuring out why it’s changed for me—perhaps a result of the classes I’ve taken, the books I’ve read, the professors I’ve met—but there’s been a shift in the air. I’ve discovered that the structure of essays does not need to feel formulaic: rather, there can be a certain elegance to it, an elegance only achieved after embarrassing drafts and relentless practice. I’ve found that this elegance also contains a soft spot, a hidden area of the unknown. I think that spot is where the writer’s voice shines brightest. Within that little area, imagination can run wild among the harvested fields (the close readings) and drift along the river (the thesis)—nothing is left out of reach of the possible.

I’ve just finished reading Anne Carson’s Eros the Bittersweet, which is itself a shining example of literary criticism. Carson references a thought proposed in Plato’s Phaedrus: “Socrates conceives of wisdom as something alive, a ‘living breathing word.'” This is a tricky thing to embed in written text, especially literary analysis, which is essentially dead written words about a dead written work. But I like to think that literary analysis is also gifted with the ability to breathe life back into text: it is a conversation between minds, an exploration of microcosms and brave new worlds, a reach back into history to assemble a space for voices to sound, a space for those voices to continue echoing gently into the distance.

Nowadays, when I write fiction and poetry, it’s less so with the ambition of creating a polished, finished product and more so with a desire to feel the thrill of creation. Literary analysis, though? I’ve been doing it for years (granted, poorly at first), yet I feel like I’m on the brink of discovery. There’s so much space to learn and grow. Perhaps what I want, simply, is to write essays. Beautiful, breathing essays, full of logos, pathos, questions, answers, and all the intricate complexities that offer a taste of more life.

Construction and Deconstruction in One Art

Elizabeth Bishop’s poem, One Art, unfolds deliberately like a paper fortune teller with a hidden message, ready to instill a catch in one’s throat. It is a poem about loss, but it is also a poem that is afraid to confront loss. Although tightly woven in form, this little villanelle reveals glimpses of instability, specifically regarding the speaker’s psyche. The poem is a simultaneous act of construction and deconstruction: line by line, as the poem unfolds, we bear witness to the collapse of the speaker’s emotional architecture. At the same time, the speaker attempts to create a world where loss is an art, only to find that that world has its limits. The revelation at the end, then, is that the poem redefines “loss” as not only the process of losing something or someone, but also as a process of accumulation, of collecting and re-organizing the heaviness of experience. It is within the liminal space of poetry that one can understand how the speaker, through an attempt to create an art out of losing things, ends up deconstructing and re-contextualizing herself to confront a significant loss.

The opening phrase, “the art of losing,” implies a practice. “To master” an art can only be achieved through steadfast repetition and work. Indeed, the word “art,” though nowadays commonly associated with that of the visual and expressive type, denotes a certain technical proficiency and skill in doing something as a result of continual practice ( But why the art of losing? It is rather odd to talk about loss in the context of practice: practice implies the addition of something, whether it is a collection of experience or an accumulation of skill. Loss, conversely, implies subtraction from one’s life. Already, there is a tension in this attempt to turn “losing” into a building of skill and technique.

Such is the tone set by the first line, and from the start, the poem is stripped of a particular emotional luster: the speaker sounds detached and somewhat didactic, expressing a matter-of-fact attitude, especially in the following lines: “so many things seem filled with the intent / to be lost that their loss is no disaster.” There is an an air of indifference, and the speaker affirms that things will disappear at some point—it is to be expected. That expectation is taken a step further in the phrase “filled with intent,” which implies the potential of construction within the space of loss. In the next stanza, the art of losing is reduced to a quotidian task: “Lose something every day.” Thus begins the practice. Here also emerges an interesting feature: the formation of the poem runs concurrently with the speaker’s explanation of the art of losing. As the speaker builds a case for the “art,” a literal “art” is being created before the eyes of the reader. The form of a poem emerges, one word after another. This relationship between content and form allows the speaker to appear as though she is constructing something. Therefore, the art, or practice, that the speaker introduces isn’t simply an accumulation of skill in losing things—it is also an act of creation out of loss. 

However, there is a peculiar quality to the construction of this practice within the space of the poem. In the third stanza, the speaker instructs, “Then practice losing farther, losing faster: / places, and names, and where it was you meant / to travel. None of these will bring disaster.” What’s significant about this is that there is no consequence involved. Spatially, none of it is real (i.e. not physically present in the speaker’s immediate physical space). The “places” and “names” all exist in the mind, in imagination, and so naturally, none of it “will bring disaster,” because imagination, in and of itself, has no consequence. This allows the speaker to distance herself both in presence and in emotion from these things.

Even when the speaker introduces the “I” perspective, there is considerable restraint in showing any sign of personal sentiment. No sooner after confessing, “I lost my mother’s watch,” the speaker interrupts herself with an exclamatory “And look!” It is as if the speaker doesn’t allow herself time to linger on the mother’s watch and simply presses on with the examples. Following that, the speaker says, “My last, or / next-to-last, of three loved houses went.” What’s odd about this line is the use of the word “houses”—the speaker opts for an impersonal description, rather than a more emotionally layered word such as “homes.” There is something being repressed on the speaker’s part, and later we find that this repression is the key to unlocking the deconstruction of the speaker’s emotional architecture.

The only substantial hint of personal sentiment, up until the last stanza, is when the speaker says “I miss them,” referring to the “realms” once owned. But even this is unconvincing and seems offhand with a “but it wasn’t a disaster” tacked on afterwards. The “realms” and “continents” are so removed in scale that it’s difficult to understand how an ordinary person would miss them. Unless, of course, the speaker is imagining herself on a larger scale as a ruler or an all-powerful figure. Perhaps the speaker tries to take control of the situation by amplifying this practice of loss into an act of creation at its greatest potential, on the scale of rulers and sovereigns. “Cities” and “rivers” and a “continent” are difficult to lose in a single day. These possessions would take weeks, months, years, to slip out of one’s grasp, and the temporal expansion brings to mind the acts of divinities, perhaps even of a God-like being (because losing a few cities and rivers wouldn’t be so terrible in the grand scheme of things). Naturally, the space of writing and poetry allows for the construction of these imaginings. This also hearkens back to the first line of the third stanza, which says, “practice losing farther, losing faster,” as if that advice was intended not only for the reader, but also for the speaker. However, the speaker’s attempt at assimilating this perspective of grand-scale creation is not strong enough to uphold the true weight of the poem. With what follows, we are faced with an inevitable collapse—

—and at last, we arrive at the heart of the matter. The speaker hesitates. A single dash, like a breath caught in midair, punctuates the beginning of the final stanza before words begin to fill the silence: “Even losing you (the joking voice, a gesture / I love) I shan’t have lied.” How strange, and how heartbreaking, it is that speaker can only confront her own loss after talking of cities and continents. In a way, though, it is still an expression of expansion: the “you” is greater in meaning than a city or a continent.  This “you” character is also enough to shake the speaker’s once-consistent voice. Repeated lines and phrases are changed, such as “the art of losing’s not too hard to master”—the addition of the “too” adds a note of uncertainty. In the last line, it is as if the speaker struggles to complete the poem: “though it may look like (Write it!) like disaster.” The stuttering “like”s and the interruption of a self-encouraging “(Write it!)” both emphasize the speaker’s wavering belief. It is possible that the art of losing “may” actually appear to be a disaster.

Additionally, the “you” and the “I” are physically separated by a caesura in parentheses, and a spotlight is cast upon the subjects: why insert an interlude between the two? Perhaps the speaker, in mastering the art of losing, must first separate herself from the “you” character. This suggests that loss is about redefining oneself in the context of what’s no longer there. One must deconstruct the self and all of its associations in order to cope with loss: it is like disassembling a machine to figure out how to get it running again without a certain part. Through the first five stanzas, the speaker tries to show that even though certain things are no longer present, it is no matter—there is no fear of losing one’s identity. But the last stanza hints that the speaker has not quite figured out how to re-contextualize herself without the “you.” Thus, it is only through the creation and construction of this long, winding list of detached, withdrawn losses that the speaker can steadily build enough repressive energy to break down her own emotional barriers. In other words, the speaker had to go through the course of this construction, to concoct this “art of losing” in her mind in order to arrive, ultimately, at the heart of the matter. The significance of this journey, then, is that it remains within a fixed poetic form (the villanelle) that offers something rigid for the speaker to try to organize a reaction to an insurmountable emotion, and that, in turn, allows the reader to witness, within the containment of the poem, a deconstruction and a revealing of something deeply intimate.

Loss, aside from any metaphorical sense, is a physical subtraction. In terms of one’s own experience, loss becomes addition. Someone may lose a pair of keys or even a house, but when those physical objects are subtracted from that person’s life, what replaces them is the consequence of dealing with those losses. Unfortunately, the repercussions are often messy, unbearable, and disorienting. Especially losing a person: the gestures and physicalities of the body no longer exist, save for in memory, and that absence translates into burden. The feat of this poem, then, is that it provides a structure for meaning to be organized in the aftermath of loss, even if it ends with the confession that, inevitably, we are gracefully broken by the absence of what once was.

The Field

Here is a story that takes place in a dream.

Her eyes were deep at war. Charcoal with a glint of bronze.

“Just a bit further… just a mile, or less.”

She walked clear through the field, over to where a thicket of shadowy green trees covered the cool ground. There was sparse undergrowth, and a jumble of moss-covered rocks bordered a small spring that pooled into a clean pond. This was the place where she had liked to rest and stretch herself across the ground, watching the birds and insects and small animals that rustled and scampered and chirped about. She had liked to face the sky and look up through the moving greenness overhead and count the insects flitting in the hazy soft sunbeams that stood like slanting, glowing bars between ground and treetops. Somehow, she had liked the movement of the little creatures in this place more than the movement of the rest of the world. Everything was intense with life and vibration, a patch of life’s wonders condensed into less than a few square feet.

The memories came like a wind’s stroke against her cheek. She recalled the smell of grass during dry spells. The gossiping trees and the old thin roots underfoot. Rich earth, thick with weeds and crumbly soil pressed under her weight with every step.

Now, she rested beneath a thick elm, and lifted her dark gaze to a red and black bird that had just come to the grove. It twittered on a thin branch, hopped back and forth, and cocked its head. She tried to whistle at it, but her whistle came out too airy, and the bird fluttered away.

It eventually came to her that something else was moving through the field.

She picked herself up from the base of the tree.

Calmly, she turned about and faced the little side path that cut off at right angles through the field. The moon was absent, and no wind stirred the sifted earth. The path dipped slightly where feet had trod and packed the soil beneath into a firm layer. She took a few steps, and the crumbled dirt spurted up in front of her boots.

She plodded along, dragging a scuffed trail behind her. A little bit ahead she saw the expanse and she breathed deeply.

“Just a bit further.”

Something moved in the grass.

“It’s you, isn’t it.”

There was no response, but she didn’t mind, and she continued to walk into the emptiness with the weight of her thoughts swaying like an ocean lullaby.





There is no good place or time to write about loss, but it is one of those necessary things to write about. Inevitably, the emotional heft of it grows unbearable, and so words become a (temporary) repository for that heaviness.

I feel guilty writing about my grandfather. What is it to mourn someone you did not know very well? To want to grieve? When I think of him, I think of a few blurred memories, a bicycle, and sheets of drawings. Mostly, it is a blank wall with spots of paint peeling. I spent summers at my grandparent’s apartment in Beijing, most of which I cannot remember. There are videos and pictures from those days; if I close my eyes and breathe slow enough, I can catch strains of movement, all marked with impressions of a buoyant childhood.

What I remember of his death, years ago, is when after he died, my parents flew to China for the funeral and left my sister and I at home, because school was in session. We were only vaguely aware of what it meant to lose someone. I remember when my parents returned, my mother showed me pictures of the ceremony on her phone. She spoke of it in a very calm and dignified manner. I don’t recall my father speaking much of the whole ordeal, if at all. And I remember—I remember a part of me pressing painfully inside, as if struggling to burst out. Where were the tears? Where was the mourning, the anger, the sorrow? 

“Why does tragedy exist? Because you are full of rage. Why are you full of rage? Because you are full of grief.”
(Anne Carson, Grief Lessons: Four Plays by Euripides)

Perhaps it was too gradual of a death to feel any type of shock. Perhaps we were waiting for it. All the signs were there. Was I more attuned to this Western notion of lament, hearkening back to funeral rites and wailing laments and faces crumpled into hands? Of youth lost to time, of life too grand to equal death?

“We don’t forget, but something vacant settles in us.”
(Roland Barthes, Mourning Diary)

Grief works its effects in different ways for different people, and I suppose that it is a slower process for me, and that I have only been able to cope with it gradually, laboriously. But in a perverse and perhaps ugly way, grief is also a solace. How upsetting it must be to live a life not worth grieving over once it’s gone. Even more heartbreaking is that millions, billions of people die in this exact way, because it is too painful to care. Unremembered and forgotten—like in that one book of The Iliad, the one everyone usually skips over, the one with all the family names and places people are from—the fact that we forget the sheer scale of that war. No matter if it was real or not. The fact that Homer only had space to tell a handful of stories of this select group of heroes, and the fact that thousands of histories are swept away in the whirlwind of the epic. (Alice Oswald has an answer to this called Memorial. It is poem that retells the Iliad from the perspective of its two-hundred-some minor characters, briefly mentioned or otherwise).

Death is an obsession in a lot of canonical Western literature. An attempt to prepare for the unfathomable. I read poem after poem on the subject of loss, and I read these Greek tragedies that shouldn’t feel cathartic but they do. It is like partaking in this tradition of learning how to cope. Much in the sense of a tradition, it is both individual and communal.

“We were promised sufferings. They were part of the program. We were even told, ‘Blessed are they that mourn,’ and I accept it. I’ve got nothing that I hadn’t bargained for. Of course it is different when the thing happens to oneself, not to others, and in reality, not imagination.”
(C.S. Lewis, A Grief Observed)

I wasn’t close enough to my grandfather to have his death break me. For that, I am both devastated and grateful.

Back home, in my room, there is a watercolor painting of a forest. It is by my grandfather. Someday, when I move into a place of my own, that painting will be the first piece of art that I hang up on my walls. I imagine it being across from a window, so that light will catch the glass behind its frame, and only by shadowing it will I be able to see the painting without reflection. Someday, I will look at that painting on a fine autumn evening, and I will think, all these years, this has been in my life. It always was and will be.

Haley Heynderickx: I Need to Start a Garden

The thoughts in this review are my own. The album was released today, and I couldn’t wait to write about it, so apologies in advance if some parts aren’t as fleshed out as they could be. I might revise this at some point, but for now, here are my impressions.

Haley Heynderickx’s debut full-length album, I Need to Start a Garden, is one of the most captivating things I’ve listened to in a long while. I first heard “Oom Sha La La” on Spotify and was whisked away by the attentive energy in the song, the way it leapt from simmering confession to cathartic release. Upon listening to the entire album today, I was struck first by the lush instrumentation and rich blend of sounds—“Show You a Body” has magical moments of this where a shimmer of strings, chimes, and piano fills the silent spaces between Heynderickx’s sparse guitar-strumming and deeply inflective voice.

The arrangements, though, are cherries on top of the icing on top of the cake: the real home-hitter is the sparkling humility and affection that saturates the album. (Even though Heynderickx has described her music as “doom folk,” I think it’s never without a tinge of hope or redemption). And I must say, the cohesiveness of these songs is immensely satisfying. Often, and lately, musicians tend to disregard the form of the (LP) album as an opportunity to tell a specific, intimate story, instead using it simply as a means to assemble a handful of loosely related singles. While there’s nothing inherently wrong with the latter, it seems that there’s so much more to be gained from inviting the listener along on a coherent, tightly woven journey.

There are garden references sprinkled throughout the album, as suggested by the title. But the album isn’t just about plants and bugs and dirt, though it harnesses that type of imagery for its metaphors—it’s about the cyclical passage of nature that intersects with our linear experience of time. It’s about love and self-love. One may think back to a well-known garden story, Adam and Eve, and draw a few striking connections: the garden is an old tale, one of the first human tales, yet it is deconstructed and reborn with every passing generation. Growth and decay are inseparable in gardens. In “Show You a Body,” Heynderickx sings with her folk-laden voice, “I am humbled by breaking down.” It is only by confronting this inevitable process that one can understand what it means to live.

With discovery comes a sense of loss, but sometimes loss is the first step toward empowerment. “Worth It” is perhaps the most uncertain song on the album, but also the most daring. When Heynderickx sings, “maybe I’ve been selfish all along,” there is a moment of doubt and resignation. But the song builds and builds, and midway, she is daring you to plop her into a box, literal or metaphorical, because no matter how small the space, she will take root anyway. By the end of the song, she concludes, over and over, as if willing herself to believe: “Maybe I, maybe I’ve been worth it.”

“The Bug Collector” is a delightful favorite of the album. It’s subtle and has a soft humor about it. The guitar accompaniment has a witty clarity to its sound, and the trombone warms your heart. It’s such an inane thing to be afraid of bugs, those little fuckers (re: the lyrics), but my god, if someone caught bugs for me, I’d swoon. “And I try my best / To prove that nothing’s out to get you.” That’s like, love right there.

A similar type of fondness is present in “Jo,” which has some of the most tender lyrics in the album: “And you tended your garden / Like heaven and hell / And you built the birds’ houses / To see if it helped at all.” Heynderickx’s voice shines in this one—it’s dynamic, haunting, desperate, and intimate. Here, the garden imagery blooms into bountiful potential, acting as refuge “like honeycomb / holding the bee in the folds.”

But again, the love that tends to I Need to Start a Garden isn’t limited to relationships with other people—it’s also about allowing oneself the space to dream and be a little reckless“Untitled God Song” plays with imagination, rethinking God as a mother-like figure with “thick hips and big lips.” It’s an introspective, meandering piece that traverses great distances, from those tiny details to unmistakable grandeur: “When you’re drunk near a sunset, look straight in her eyes / She’s the quick glimpse of heaven, / forgetting her headlights are on.” The instruments, a blend of percussion, trombone, and electric guitar, swell into a brief moment of symphonic harmonies, and the effect is kind of breathtaking.

Following this, we arrive at “Oom Sha La La,” the surprising and charming crest of the album. From the lofty, giddy headspace of reimagining God, Heynderickx slips back into a world where milk turns sour and olives get old. While there’s something humorously tragic about the line, “The brink of my existence is essentially a comedy,” there’s also, in a perverse way, an admission of self-acceptance. After Heynderickx sheds her singing voice and belts, “I NEED TO START A GARDEN,” the beat that follows is colored with shock and satisfaction. As listeners, we witness a rare occurrence not only in music, but in life: the revelation of growing into oneself.

The album begins with “No Face,” which is a gorgeous lament on the space between people and the “bridge between worlds” that haunts relationships, no matter how small or brief. It ends with “Drinking Song,” a soft chantey (not in form, but in spirit) tinged with apocalyptic hope. By the last verse, that impenetrable space between people has been reduced: “Yet everyone is singing along, / The good and the bad and the gone.” It’s a soft-spoken conclusion that you don’t want to end, at least not for a little while longer.

There’s a video of Heynderickx performing at Paste Studio, and in it, she spontaneously invites people to sing along to the chorus of “Oom Sha La La.” In between verses, she says, “Luckily the whole point of this song is to be embarrassed, and to see how much you can get away with being embarrassed.” Similarly, if you’ve never done it before, starting a garden is a clunky and awkward process. Once you accept the initial disappointment and potential for failure, though, you are gifted with the opportunity to make something beautiful, and to share that beauty with others.

In many ways, I Need to Start a Garden is a strange album, filled with strange characters and even stranger landscapes. Heynderickx’s quiet triumph, then, is in making these songs familiar to us, and imbuing them with enough sincerity and grace to make it seem as though we’ve known them, in our hearts, all along.