Here are three poems from Ray Hsu in Vancouver that demonstrate wit plus a strange and beautiful talent for expressing mystery, vast spaces, ideas and ancient wisdom in a few terse lines. Ray is originally from Toronto but is currently a post-doc fellow at the University of British Columbia. His first collection, Anthropy, contained a poem on the death of Walter Benjamin (suicide on the Spanish border after his attempt to escape Nazi Europe, as he thought, failed) thus signalling at least in part Hsu’s aesthetic allegiance to the European mode of cerebral, critical, urban poetry of edgy juxtaposition as opposed to the North American penchant for lyric and nature imagery. Barbara Carey, writing in the Toronto Star, called him brainy and eclectic. She wrote: “It’s anthropology remade in the freewheeling, crisply detached style of postmodernism … Hsu’s work resembles that of Anne Carson, the celebrated Montreal writer and classics scholar who combines cultural references to the ancient world with a cool (in both senses of the word) contemporary voice.” His second book, Cold Sleep Permanent Afternoon, was published last year and continues his investigation into what he calls the “grammar of personhood.”
By Ray Hsu
Notes to the Border Guard
The man who would come to be called Confucius: I could see in his eyes that he
wanted something else out of the world.
As I began to move west from the vast plains to the borders of civilization itself into the
state of Qin, I would imagine him moving West too, away from sun behind him.
I told him about the other half of their souls and its depths. Sure, there was on one side:
the one of which Confucius knew, its intricate practicalities.
But on the other was a sprawling forest that sounded like an ancient poem.
When I look up I don’t see gods, but a different kind of order. He has one way of
comprehending this order, but it is among the bustle of this order that I sense another
It eludes the treasure hunters searching for wealth and luck.
When I spoke to the king, even with his warriors far below, I saw that he was afraid.
Or was it the warriors themselves that the king feared? They needed something to
believe in—a spirit or an idea—or else they were nothing to themselves.
I tell the king.
Then I see in the king’s eyes that he knows. Yes, he thinks. I thought that politics was
No one knows what will happen. But what I have told him is enough for now.
I know that he is a sensitive man, that he may already feel in the wind a hint of the blood
that is in his future.
At the gate, I resist the urge to turn and look back at the kingdom.
This government wants to be so much more. It dreams of all tongues speaking its
But it isn’t up for me to solve. Beneath my skin, I feel a readiness. It feels like an engine.
Stars in the blue sky before the night’s darkness
Before I start, you describe to me the brightness of the night sky. I am only an
amateur. Others supply facts, some bother with their points of view.
Some publish theirs as science, some make highly accurate predictions.
Somewhere light is not simply pollution. Different places, different skies: the
Texas Star Party, the Nebraska Star Party. Kitt Peak. The McDonald Observatory.
A sky with no clouds, as dark as it gets around here.
But you reach far out into the night to find me a dark sky. You remind me of Lao
Tzu: When darkness is at its darkest, that is the beginning of all light. What
colours do you find?
I turn on my red light. I put on my glasses, the mirrored kind you wear on
glaciers. No luck: the magnitude for tonight is less than before. It can only get so
dark. One more event horizon: the light we cannot escape. The sky brightens.
These lights are all too human.
You measure me a clear night so I can finally test my vision. Tell me where to
How to Be Awesome
“The internet’s completely over. … The internet’s like MTV. At one time MTV was hip
and suddenly it became outdated. Anyway, all these computers and digital gadgets are
no good.” — Prince, The Mirror
Week 1: Syllabus; Course Expectations
Week 2: How to Fake Your Way to the Top
Week 3: How to Spend the Day Playing Video Games
Week 4: Going to Events is More Fun Than Reading
Week 5: How Your Friends Can Get You Published
Week 6: How to Get Into Grad School
Week 7: Theft
Week 8: How to Avoid Professionals
Week 9: How to Predict the Future
Week 10: How to Teach at a Major University
Week 11: How to Become a Wizard
Week 12: How to Refuse a Prize
Week 13: Last Class
Hey, Ray, it’s great to see your work up on my computer screen even though the internet’s completely over. I especially love your 13 weeks (and I know some of them fairly well myself). The only way I can reply to your poems is with a bit of a poem–here’s the opening stanza of one of mine from Dementia Americana:
Let’s Get Started!
Symptomatic of the landscape
Is that it looks like this only
In retrospect; generally flat,
It will assume hills when needed.
The experience of foreboding,
As though one has been here before,
Is not unusual; terror
Does occur, but is less common.
Keith, you’ve quite raised the standard for comments!
Thanks especially for “Stars in the blue sky before the night’s darkness” where “Somewhere light is not simply pollution.” A surprising take on light and darkness and wondering where to look for answers.
Welcome to NC. I’ve been returning to your poems since they were originally posted. I am particularly struck with Notes to the Border Guard – “Beneath my skin, I feel a readiness. It feels like an engine.”
Every time I read this poem I arrive at this last line I am in awe of how you have brought something so big home.
The other two delight as well, but Border Guard really has me.
“You measure me a clear night so I can finally test my vision. Tell me where to
Beautiful lines (and poems), Ray. I appreciate the variation of form. Like Lynne, I was also particularly struck by the close of “Border Guard.” “Stars in the blue sky before night’s darkness” pulls me in multiple directions at … a feeling mirrored in the line “One more event horizon: the light we cannot escape.” Combustible work.
(multiple directions at once)
Notes to the Border Guard really pulled me in….
I spent half the night thinking about this line: “But on the other was a sprawling forest that sounded like an ancient poem.” Woven so deftly among depth…such meaning in each line. Double meanings; my layers, layered upon Ray’s intension. A delight of immersion!