Boundless Energy in Yi Lei’s Poetry

Guest Post by Karina Borowicz.

In tension there is energy, and the energy in My Name Will Grow Wide Like a Tree is released in fistfuls, waves, gusts, and flames. It is an energy that bursts forth from confrontations: between wild and tame, individual and universal, being and oblivion, exuberance and despair. And with these collisions and collusions it becomes clear that the lines we draw, the walls we build, and the boundaries we dare not cross are, despite their seeming solidity, in truth quite tenuous. They are maintained by belief, and we are free to escape. The poet declares, “I don’t believe in walls. May walls / Cease this very moment to exist. / I’m boundless.”

These poems are voracious for boundlessness, an unhooking of the self from the anchor of obedience to norms that emphasize divisions. The voices in these poems speak with revolutionary fervor about such acts of disobedience. “I am composing an explosion,” the poet says in “Besieged,” a poem in which the vertigo of broken bonds is at first frightening, then thrilling.   Throughout the book, a blissful freedom and expansiveness is found in surrender to nature and the sensual world, in merging the self with the other, and in artistic expression. Overstepping boundaries, however, is not without cost. To expand, one must break. The thrill in these poems is also a kind of searing pain.

Co-translator Tracy K. Smith says she tried to capture the original’s “rhythmic and emotional insistence.” Sound play and patterning give these poems muscle and a heartbeat: “Weary, wary, watching you / Watch me. Your gale-force gaze / Wants to topple me. I give.” One can’t help but feel windblown after reading this book. It’s a force of nature.


My Name Will Grow Wide Like a Tree by Yi Lei, translated from the Chinese by Tracy K. Smith and Changtai Bi. Graywolf Press, November 2020.

Reviewer bio: Karina Borowicz is the author of three collections of poetry, most recently Rosetta, which won the Ex Ophidia Prize. She writes about the craft of poetry at karinaborowicz.com/blog/.

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