Monday, August 21, 2006



Anthropy by Ray Hsu
(Nightwood Editions, 2004)

[Review first appeared in idea&s 2.2 (Autumn 2005), edited by Diana Kuprel.]

In cosmology, the anthropic principle tells us that the universe we see is determined in large part by our own presence as observers: the universe had to evolve in the way it did for us to be here to see it. It is, in part, a statement about the interdependence of the observer and the observed. In Anthropy, the debut poetry collection from University of Toronto alumnus Ray Hsu, the metaphor for this principle is the photograph, generating a new world with each shift in focus: “even details / change, so that holding a camera meant your eyes / had to adjust to a new kind of light.”

Hsu’s book, which has been shortlisted for the Trillium and Gerald Lampert Memorial Awards, is built on such changes in perspective. The protagonist of the opening section, “Third Person,” is Walter Benjamin, the first great theorist of photography. The poem “Benjamin: Nine Epilogues” stages Benjamin’s flight from Nazi-occupied Paris, “where the People become an endless film.” Film, as Hsu puts it elsewhere, is an “extended funeral,” a reanimation of that which is already dead. But in one of the most intriguing poems in the series, Hsu imagines Benjamin sifting through photographs in an abandoned basement jazz club. In the collage of images Benjamin creates--reminiscent of his Arcades Project, a massive collection of images of and quotations about Paris--the occupied city is “rebuilt as a gallery.” Its very lack of order, the opposite of film’s one-way narrative, is what allows it to come alive: “the aura of the lamp grew into the strange / faces of the people he knew.”

What might have been a series of theoretical reflections on images thus becomes a kind of autobiography. In subsequent sections, titled “Second Person” and “First Person,” Hsu offers a mixture of dramatic narratives and first-person lyrics, in voices ranging from a Cuban musician of the 1950s to a son recalling his father’s going to work in the morning. The surprising result, to borrow one of Hsu’s own conceits, is a portrait of the artist that moves in reverse, collecting a lifetime of “separate epiphanies” and “working downward to a simple root.” Yet that root still remains elusive. The collection’s final poem, “Deleted Scenes,” returns to the metaphor of film to muse on the way the author’s subjects exceed any single perspective: “But there’s so much that’s left out. I would have let them go on.”

At its best--as in the poem “Pneuma,” which juxtaposes the Trojan War and the defense of a Chinese city--Hsu’s verse, like that of Seamus Heaney, achieves a balance between intense diction and efficient, understated prosody. But his most impressive achievements are his prose poems (an example, the poem “Concordance,” is available at madpoets/RayHsu/concordance.html), which give free rein to Hsu’s meditative voice, offering an intelligence that gently and almost imperceptibly disabuses its readers of every certainty.


Timothy Yu teaches English at the University of Toronto. His poems and prose have appeared in Chicago Review, SHAMPOO, and Meanjin, as well as in Galatea Resurrects #2. He blogs at


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