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.
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.)
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.
Images courtesy of Lucas Klein, rgbstock and stock.xchng