Resisting the Plagues with Valerie Hsiung’s To Love an Artist – by Amanda Auerbach

Valerie Hsiung’s To Love an Artist (Essay Press, 2022) is divided into 11 untitled sections. The collection likens modernizing forces such as imperialism, industrialism, and capitalism to a plague, which destroys via circulation. These forces place objects, words, and people in a circulation that erases their local origins. The collection doesn’t mention the coronavirus pandemic explicitly, but it is as if the relatively recent start of the pandemic enables the speaker to return imaginatively to a time at the beginning of the larger plagues that created the world we live in today. 

The first section of To Love an Artist offers no less than a history of the English language and the British Empire. This part of the collection acknowledges that there is still some memory or capacity to recover the earliest origins of the modern way of life, whether through history, etymology, or science. For instance: 

When the first children of the farmers, the farmers who lived furthest from the ports, and in a place where perhaps even mercenaries dared not go for petrified they were by now of the deep woods, when these children left the farm and walked onto the road, the one road, the one that led into the city, they went selling beautiful objects. They made these objects from home. Crafts that were useful. Spoons made of copper. The first mineral instruments as such to absorb through a tongue (17). 

Some of the oldest words that have remained from Gaul to French (despite the Romanization of the national dialect), include agricultural words (18).

It took billions of years for the first sign of life, which was alone, on its own, on earth, alone as the only first sign of life on earth, a single cell, before some bacteria fucked its way to security and after that happened, well, things just grew rather quickly (18).

I include these quotations to display the ambitious nature of the first section’s history. Reverence for the ways of life that have been lost complements the speaker’s irreverence toward the form of the master narrative in which she participates. 

The remaining sections of To Love an Artist aim to preserve voice as an origin point for written words. Hsiung reflects on voice in this way in the context of the Chinese alphabet:

I always explain to native English speakers trying to learn how there’s no alphabet there in the Chinese. In that way, the chanteuse uses a dangerous Chinese alphabet in the voice (44).

The alphabet is dangerous because the voice that must convey it is the seductive voice of the chanteuse. But such an alphabet is also dangerous politically in that it refuses to be a commodity. Marx describes how commodities seem to take on a fantastical life of their own, entering into direct relation with each other. The characters of the Chinese alphabet refuse to claim this commodity-like autonomy from the voices that speak them. 

Like the Chinese alphabet that must be accessed through a knowing voice, Hsiung’s poetry similarly works to convey a devious voice behind the words:

I’d travel well with the story of the singer whose voice is in danger. I’d travel well with the song of the singer whose voice is not tepid.

If I would, intact. I’ve heard of a famous singer whose voice is gutted in malpractice. Thanks to my travel kit. I believe the singer, I just don’t believe the singer’s words (43).

Believing the singer entails the ability to distinguish the singer from the words, to know where one’s trust is coming from. This is the kind of trust Hsiung’s collection inspires. As a written collection, we clearly can’t hear a literal voice. But the words convey the sense of an intention behind them that goes beyond what is directly said. At a later moment, Hsiung asks, “Do we want what the saying says or how it goes what it does?” (55). The collection tells us things, uses words so that we might feel what it is up to. The collection tells us things so that we might feel why the poet takes an interest in leading us anywhere at all (this is the love that I’ll return to). 

 The book can in some sense be seen as a defense of experimental poetry—of poetry that is up to something different from ordinary language, which refuses to just say what it means. Rather than defending itself against the charge of meaninglessness, such poetry defends the speaker and those who wish to travel with her against the death that comes of standardization. Such poetry defends “waywardness” (38). 

As experimental as the collection is, one of its aims is to preserve a poetic power that is at least as old as the Old Testament. The final poem lingers in the attempt to stir up and sift biblical dust:

sometimes you feel that the dust is telling you to simplify everything into orange

grey and purple and in trusting it you are not deceived

sometimes you feel that the dust in telling you to simplify everything into orange grey and purple is commanding you to lie back to it to prove your freedom belongs elsewhere

as though dust were the temptation to never wander away as though dust weren’t a biblical kind of dust of wandering away (114).

Hsiung’s collection embraces a sense of waywardness that is also an inheritance. The poetry of waywardness Hsiung exemplifies is then not a distinctly modern, avant-garde affair, but an act of incanting older words in ways that will kick up the dust. The poem doesn’t aim to lend a new meaning to orange, gray, and purple, as language poets such as Leslie Scalapino aim to lend a new and peculiar meaning to such words as “creamed,” a meaning that can only live in a given poem and not elsewhere. Instead, Hsiung’s goal is to restore an older impression of the power of a limited set of arbitrary colors or organizing terms to configure the world anew. Perhaps this is the kind of impression that might lead one to adopt a religion. I don’t think that this is a religious book, but that it shares religion’s ancient purpose of fending off the plagues that bring physical and spiritual death with the limited resources that remain available.

To Love an Artist is broken into unnamed sections that function as various acts of starting over afresh, each offering the gift of now something new. What unites the sections is a shared motive. I have discussed the goal of warding off the plagues, but underlying this is a deeper pair of linked motives. The first is to render the self (an artist) loveable to herself and other artists. The second related motive is to love another artist. One passage that references being and having an ideal travel companion suggests that the way to show love and to earn love are one and the same: do radically one’s own thing. “Now, we can just entertain / ourselves separately alongside one another” (39). Hsiung’s version of the artist stimulates the words of the artist she lives beside rather than claiming her as a quiet audience. This is not just a book to read but to live and create alongside.