When the City Goes Dark: Xi Chuan's "Power Outage"

Morning, pearly-skied. A light snow marks branches, rooflines, overhead wires and hydro poles. Bright lights are twinkling in the distance over the elevated highway where it approaches the crumbling Turcotte Interchange. Traffic is gathering.

I missed the famous ice storm that paralyzed Montreal in 1998, but still hear stories about how it brought people together in communities of friends, neighbours and strangers. I hear other stories too, about rivalry and greed, exploitation, isolation, but these aren't the ones that make it into the conventional accounts of the hushed beauty that lasted weeks and acts of generosity large and small. One thing that does come up, though, in any telling, is the sobering insight into just how dependent we are on the electrical power grid.
Living in the city, I depend on all the public services: snow clearing, garbage collection, clean water, heat and electricity. Paradoxically, the shared enterprise that provides them, the political and economic entity, allows us city-dwellers to live as though we're independent. What connects us allows our disconnection; we can remain strangers. We can go around in our cars, in line-ups, anywhere there is the stress of numbers, without much regard for strangers, for one another, as though our disregard doesn't matter.

Until the shared enterprise fails, and it does.

What got me thinking about this recently was a poem by Chinese poet Xi Chuan, "Power Outage," translated by Lucas Klein. (Read more about Xi Chuan and Lucas Klein's work here.)


How did I not know abut this poet Xi Chuan until now? As so often happens, I came across his work, and Klein's commentary on it, accidentally, in the archives of the now-defunct Cerise Press, while looking for something else. I forget what; Xi Chuan's poems have entirely replaced it.

Recently in conversation Phil Hall pointed to a source of continuing interest in lyric poetry: that the personal is political. This poem reminds me the reverse is also true.

There's no happy discovery at the end of Xi Chuan's poem such as there is in my sentimental framing of the ice storm stories. When the power goes out, the poem-speaker is cast into a disordered state. The darkness reveals small sounds far and near, traces of human presence in "wind chimes and a cat's footbeats," an engine that stops and a song that goes on. Loneliness and isolation are almost palpable.

Then "time turns back," and darkness takes on a deeper tone, as living crows converge around a plate of crow meat, and blackness engulfs the poem's speaker entirely. Despair acquires an odour and a name: power outage. The poem-speaker is pitched into an impossible, subsuming blackness. All he can do is summon a frustrated mutter as he recognizes his own wordless shadow.

I don't think Xi Chuan's poem is primarily about urban alienation, the paradox I first responded to in it. The failure of shared enterprise has deep resonance in the years after the Tian'anmen Square protests. This poem was published in 1992, three years after those protests were crushed. I'm aware that I'm reading it from cultural and aesthetic perspectives that are not the same as those it was written from. Yet it reaches across that gap, and connects me to these strangers, and to this desolation, with such bright power I can't stop thinking about it.


Images courtesy of Lucas Klein, rgbstock and stock.xchng