The Universe of Shelly Bryant
“Shelly writes as if possessed”. So says Jason Gantenberg in his introduction to Shelly Bryant’s third collection of poetry, Voices of the Elders (Sam’s Dot, 2012). Since 2009, Bryant has churned out an astonishing nine collections of poetry—but it is not just her prolific output that marks her as one ‘possessed’. Her poems seem to be conduits for vast and intellectual themes: her books are experiments with intertextuality, mythology, sci-fi, posthumanism, and language, just to name a handful of them. The nuanced ways in which she perceives the world are rendered into volumes of short but rich verse, each one corresponding to a wider thematic scheme in her oeuvre. Her poems have often been described as puzzles, but the joy in reading her work can be found not only in solving them but in discovering how they interlock with each other across collections. Her books are planets in a stellated universe with Bryant as the invigorating centre.
Bryant, who is originally from the US, is also an acclaimed translator of Chinese books into English. She has been living in Singapore since 1993, and in recent years her translation work has her splitting her time between Singapore and Shanghai. It is perhaps her background as a cultural and linguistic ‘hybrid’ that motors her poetic universe, especially considering that the primary structure with which she works is the Wuxing. The Wuxing is an ancient and multi-faceted Chinese philosophy concerned with the relationships between the five elements of wood, fire, earth, metal, and water. In an essay that Bryant co-wrote with Lily Sun, titled “The Flow of Forces in Poetry” (Aoife’s Kiss, March 2011), she explains that no single element within the Wuxing is “negative” or “positive”;
Rather, each has its place within the whole system. Each interacts with the others, and all five should ideally remain in balance with one another. Rather than viewing the five elements as separate or competing systems, they should be seen as five phases in a cycle. Each gives birth to another. Each is born of another. Each can destroy another. And each can be destroyed by another.
While the Wuxing is used to explain phenomena in the natural world, Bryant values it for the idea that harmony can be born out of conflict or tension.
This “systematic approach to the world,” “enabling one to view a specific detail while always keeping in view the bigger picture of which it is part,” is, in Bryant’s outlook, compatible with the poetic pursuit. She and Sun indicate that:
Poetry has a particular love for juxtaposing contrasting images or ideas, then worrying over them—either in the writing or the reading of the poem—until a sort of harmony is found. At its heart, the poetic process is about noting competing forces, drawing out the tension this creates, and following this path until some sort of resolution is found. The Wuxing always has this sort of interrelationship in mind, and in this way provides a paradigm that is useful to the poet.
Understanding the value that the Wuxing lends to poetry also offers an insight into Bryant’s praxis as a poet, as nearly all of her poetry collections are based on the elemental cycles of the Wuxing. Since 2011, with the publication of her second collection of poetry Under the Ash (Sam’s Dot), Bryant has been intent on mastering the five elements in text. As of May 2018, Bryant has completed the first cycle—Wood—with five volumes that each corresponds to an element in the Wuxing, and has produced the first two books of the second cycle, Fire. In an email interview, Bryant confirms that the order of her Wood series is as follows:
• Under the Ash — Fire
• Voices of the Elders — Water
• Harps upon Willows (Alban Lake, 2013) — Earth
• The Lined Palm (Alban Lake, 2014) — Wood
• Pine the Passing (Alban Lake, 2015) — Metal
The elemental order to which these books correspond is that of “defeat”: fire is extinguished by water, water is restrained by earth, earth is broken by wood, and wood is cut by metal. It could also go on as a cycle with fire as the next element, as fire melts metal. There is no absolutely correct order amongst these elements, however, as the Wuxing encompasses a multiplicity of interrelationships. Accordingly, the elemental order in subsequent cycles will vary. The first two volumes in the second phase, Fire, are titled Numina (Alban Lake, 2016) and Nymph (Alban Lake, 2017), and adhere to the elements of fire and water respectively. While fire and water are also the first two elements in the previous cycle, Bryant intends for a divergence in order—namely, metal, earth, then wood—in the remaining three books to better serve the central myth with which she is working. She explains:
The Fire series functions quite differently, coiling back in on itself as it revisits a particular story over and over, like smoke swirling above a fire. The structure is meant to reflect the element being explored, and I allowed that to lead the ordering of the books, rather than simply some order that I imposed on it.
The central myth in the Fire series is that of Vulcan, the Roman god of fire. He is the rejected son of Jupiter and Juno, king and queen of the gods. The circumstances behind his expulsion from Mount Olympus, home of the gods, are disputed: some myths claim he was so ugly his own mother tossed him into the sea; other stories suggest that it was his father who threw him out for siding with his mother in a parental quarrel. What is common to all these accounts is that Vulcan always ends up at sea, where the sea nymph Thetis finds him and raises him as her own. This incongruity between the elements of fire and water—or Vulcan’s misery and Thetis’ comfort—is what Bryant probes to find a process of healing.
the burden of history
you called it
before we had heard
of epigenetic scars
of our parents’ tears
of methyl groups gumming
the double helix
nature or nurture
you did not ask
it was both
in equal measure (“Scars,” from Nymph)
These are the ‘scars’ that Bryant chooses to braid Vulcan’s wounds into; throughout the Fire cycle, he struggles with the anger, sadness, and pain at being thrown away by his own parents. Bryant juxtaposes the monstrosity of his circumstances with his desire to heal and make amends. Although the elements within the Wuxing strive to achieve harmony, the empathy with which Bryant characterises Vulcan transcends the formal imperatives of the Wuxing. Rather, Bryant’s use of the Wuxing here emphasises Vulcan’s search for peace as the promise of finding resolution through conflict.
In addition to the formal advantages of working within the Wuxing, Bryant also calls this structural choice a personal one. As she shares in the interview:
People who know me well would probably tell you that is just the way I think. I tend to see things in very structured, orderly ways, quickly pulling many threads together and weaving them into a pattern in my mind [ . . . . ] I would say a love of structure (not always rigid, but a structure that can be toyed with and rearranged and restructured at will) is a huge part of the pull poetry has on me. It allows me to rearrange ideas and images in new configurations, examining all the possibilities as I go along.
While this is evident in the intertextuality of Bryant’s work—that is, her weaving of Western mythologies and Chinese philosophy—language is also something that Bryant consistently investigates and permutates.
Bryant has invented two poetic forms for her purposes, the four-point and the 3x3x3. In her introduction to Harps upon Willows, Sun Li writes that the four-point form was specifically designed to explore the earth element in the Wood cycle (5). The poem “Exile” is reproduced below:
even the score
How one would read this form, according to Li, is by starting from the four lines physically closest to the title, then following how the words lead to synonyms, until “eventually [the reader reaches] a domain virtually foreign to the other, like outcasts to the corners of the world” (5). What Bryant accomplishes with the four-point is an unearthing of poetic space “from multiple perspectives [ . . . ] to prove what lies underneath, embedded” (5). Similarly in the 3x3x3, the distance that meaning travels is mapped through repeated reconfigurations of words. “Progress,” from The Lined Palm, exemplifies this. Note how each permutation alters the pathos of language to offer a multiplicity of feelings towards technology and artificial life:
Science and technology are persistent concerns in Bryant’s oeuvre, even amongst the two volumes of poetry that do not fall into her Wuxing cycles. Cyborg Chimera (Sam’s Dot, 2009) deals with artificial intelligence and questions of free will while engaging with the genres of sci-fi and speculative literature. Unnatural Selection (Math Paper Press, 2015), which is the only poetry collection that Bryant has published in Singapore thus far, grapples with similar concerns and the same genres. In it, she chronicles the fracturing of human-machine relationships from the perspective of robots who are enslaved to men. She also asks if it is not actually man who is enslaved, given his increasing dependence on technology. Through shifts in imaginative perspectives, Bryant takes us on a journey that climaxes with an android uprising and concludes with an elegiac synthesis between human and machine:
to the doctor symptoms are told
aches and pains in words unfold
a request is made to see the organics
only to find it has none
but is all made up of metal and wires
programmed chips and the like
all the same its odd neurosis
is met with an elaborate diagnosis
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
its imagined hurts in clinic treated
hypochondriac droid thus is cheated (“Check Up,” 60)
Although Unnatural Selection and Cyborg Chimera are not part of the Wuxing series, the way Bryant vacillates between ethical and empathetic positions produces a complexity reminiscent of the elemental interrelationships. The extent to which the Wuxing distinguishes both Bryant’s poetics and worldview suggests that this Chinese philosophy does not merely describe a way of life, but has captured the essence of human experience. Bryant and Sun concur in “The Flow of Forces,” reminding us that “poetry is not only about the world in which we humans live—it is about us”:
Poetry is a distinctly human endeavour. Where it deals with the natural world, it does so from a very human perspective. It seeks to impose a form of order (language) on the wildness of all that we observe. In this way, poetry is very like the Wuxing in that it is a framework by which humans can explore the complexities of the world around us in all their contrasts and harmonies, their tensions and balance.
The seemingly disparate realms of Western mythology, Chinese philosophy, science and the speculative collapse brilliantly into Bryant’s universe of poetry. They leave constellations behind, rewarding those who take the time to trace their shapes with new ways of looking at the world. Like the elements of the Wuxing, these planes of thought are never isolated from each other; in the process of intermingling, they achieve harmony.
Bryant, Shelly. Cyborg Chimera. USA: Sam’s Dot, 2009.
—. Harps upon Willows. USA: Alban Lake, 2013.
—. Numina. USA: Alban Lake, 2016.
—. Nymph. USA: Alban Lake, 2017.
—. Personal interview. 21 April 2018.
—. Pine the Passing. USA: Alban Lake, 2015.
—. The Lined Palm. USA: Alban Lake, 2014.
—. Under the Ash. USA: Sam’s Dot, 2011.
—. Unnatural Selection. Singapore: Math Paper Press, 2015.
—. Voices of the Elders. USA: Sam’s Dot, 2012.
Bryant, Shelly and Lily Sun. “The Flow of Forces in Poetry.” Aoife’s Kiss 36 (2011).
Leong Weng Kam. “Nothing’s lost in translation for this poet.” The Straits Times 5 Oct 2015. Web.