TEXT review

The work of surrender

review by Ruby Todd


Michelle Leber
The Yellow Emperor: A Mythography in Verse
Five Islands Press, Parkville, Victoria 2014
ISBN 9780734050069
Pb 90pp AUD25.00


‘Who knows if “the Yellow Emperor became a god by absorbing the yin juice of twelve hundred women?”’ [1]. So asks Michelle Leber in the note that prefaces her new collection of poems − citing just one of the countless colourful claims which the collusions of history, art, folklore and myth over centuries have staked on the god-like figure of the book’s title. As a subject about whom apparently everything is speculated yet nothing substantiated, the Yellow Emperor − a legendary Chinese ruler of the 27th century BCE − offers vibrant grounds for the ‘poetic inquiry’ [2] that constitutes The Yellow Emperor: A Mythography in Verse. Suspended at the fertile and altogether uncertain point between ancient reality and cultural invention, Leber’s is a richly-formed effort of research and imagination. Unsurprisingly, Leber’s own long-term practice and study of Chinese Medicine flows through the collection, not least in the form of translated references to evocatively-phrased principles of Chinese Medicine, and names of acupuncture points, such as ‘evils come like swift winds and rain’ (25), and ‘returning current’ (22).

Structured in five main parts, and comprising predominantly of free-verse stanzaic poems, The Yellow Emperor traces an expansive movement across space, time, and the perspectives of the emperor’s various intimates. In ‘Women Would Believe’, the emperor’s mother, Fu Bao, is imagined in the nine months of her pregnancy, months pervaded by the fervent, folkloric cautions of others:

Third month—
For a son
practise your archery
an old woman’s counsel
smooth river-rocks falling
from her lap
offered as apples.

Fourth month—
Unknown woman:
do not eat rabbit. (20)

A cast of characters, from the moon goddess Chang-O to the emperor’s various ministers and wives, are summoned in the course of the collection, creating a charged atmosphere of wide-ranging voices, directed toward the god-like ruler of their collective interest. These voices frequently impress as a kind of disembodied murmuring, in which observations of natural processes give way to philosophical questions and glimpses of human truths, imparted with serene resignation. Such a voice, belonging to the emperor’s imperial envoy, is heard in ‘The Messenger’:

My dear emperor, the day has brought
its vestiges to pasture—
Sun is blinking death from its eye.

Your thoughts are already
debating carrion like flies.

Have you forgotten words
To return the dead?

This ragged night, the north wind
will stride past. (27)

A sense of meditative observation, in which the vivid physicality of the natural world animates and is animated by an equally vivid reality of the mind, pervades poems such as ‘Unburdened By Memory Or Storm’:

Wide-eyed one,
you must know the exterior
to know the interior—
pluck sleep from the burning snow
of your next thought,
let the hunger of empty fields
be a clever traveller
in your imagination. (24, italics in original)

In the midst of myth, Leber’s poems remain close to the earth, affirming the primacy of wind, rivers, trees and valleys, and the world of the senses. Similarly, her poems evoke the essential presence of other-than-human beings − wolves and ants; owls and rats, as seen here within the same poem:

as night picked up
its axe, he came to worship
the howling owls and
whistling rats,
the company of little sages. (24)

Elsewhere, in ‘Lei Zu and the Discovery of Silk’, Leber attends to the perspective of a worm:

On a leaf above, one worm
cocked its head, praised her behind its eye,
the mystery of adoration
difficult for the air of its short life,
returned to its patch. (36)

Through spare, vivid images, Leber deftly conveys a sense of the immediacy of history, the materiality of myth, and the way that the singular detail can convey a truth that is timeless and universal. A kind of lyrical fatalism underpins many of these poems, colouring observations of the natural world, as in ‘Culmination at the Point of Deliberation’, a poem of reverie spoken by the emperor’s first wife, Lei Zu:

There are things to understand:

the nerve of the eagle
tumbling its appetite to earth,

the necessity of raising
fugitive birds for feasts.

That for each death
there is circumstance. (39)

In ‘Lei Zu and the Discovery of Silk’, the delicacy and drama with which Leber handles her mythical material is displayed alongside lustrous imagery:

Was it a hand that released her sash
or the wind that swept it eastward?
It fell like a snake,
an arrow aimed at the river.

Did her gown open in its own time
or did the peaks of her breast-points swell
to breathful bounty so all clothes
became impossible? (36)

Amid the shifting perspectives of Leber’s poems we are also offered the emperor’s own. In ‘Penetrating Inside’, he addresses his courtesan Su Nu with playful passion:

My jade stalk
could fill a field.

Call me and I will kneel
valley side

at your most inclined
twin-bud boulder. (52)

Elsewhere, Leber imagines the emperor in his later years, in moments of expansive meditation, his thoughts shadowed by the passage of time and the fact of mortality. In ‘The Great Kiln’, taut images convey the emperor’s quietist rapture in face of the end of things:

In my ninetieth year—
observing my minister
of tripods at his furnace,
I applaud flames
excelling in their duty
of baked vessels.

Moths fly out of my whiskers
to settle on the hearth, it is then
I grasp the notion that all life
is slanted toward the sun.

How on these shaky legs
does a man at his height concede to
darkness over pastures?
When height is fleeting?

Surrender with each step
towards fire. (71)

In navigating the seemingly infinite and often contradictory accounts of history and myth from which the Yellow Emperor was created, Leber at once demonstrates vision and restraint. By summoning a constellation of perspectives and voices traversing time, space, and emotional registers, Leber honours the vibrancy of her material, while eschewing the reduction that a more unary or linear narrative approach might have risked. Preserving the emperor’s presence as a radiant enigma, even as we are witness to his most intimate thoughts, and around which the voices of his intimates converge, The Yellow Emperor invites us to slow down, lean in, and look closer; to ‘[s]urrender with each step/towards fire’ (71).






Ruby Todd is a PhD candidate and tutor in Creative Writing at Deakin University, Melbourne, and a writer of prose and poetry. Her current research investigates the connections between elegy, ethics and ecology.


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Vol 19 No 1 April 2015
General Editor: Nigel Krauth. Editors: Enza Gandolfo & Linda Weste
Reviews Editor: Ross Watkins