CYCLING WITH THE DRAGON
BY ELAINE WOO
NIGHTWOOD EDITIONS (SEPTEMBER 2014)
96 PAGES, $18.95 (PAPERBACK)
REVIEWED BY YILIN WANG
Cycling with the Dragon, the debut poetry collection by Chinese-Canadian author Elaine Woo, opens with a poem that links childbirth with the creative process. Woo then goes on to present characters who are often marginalized figures, such as children, women, racial minorities, or impoverished individuals who dwell at the fringe of society. While the characters are each experiencing distinct stages of their lives—childhood, youth, marriage, childbirth, grieving, or aging—all their experiences are both personal and universal.
Woo skilfully mingles descriptions of marginalized characters with cultural observations and haunting images of nature, suggesting that individuals are inseparable from their surrounding cultural and physical environment. Her characters struggle with others’ misunderstanding, particularly racial or social stereotypes, like the belief that Chinese people eat dogs or the ignorant question “why are so many criminals Asian?”. Trapped by challenges and circumstance, they turn to literature and nature for strength and comfort. In this way, Woo’s poems extend far beyond the individual and cultural, morphing into meta-poems that showcase the power of language to heal and inspire.
Woo’s style is highly evocative and experimental. While some of her works are conventional lyric or narrative poems, she often breaks new ground by playing with formal elements like shape, visual appearance, line length, and rhythm. “My Dessert” takes on a circular appearance, “Peace on Earth: Cacophony” consists of quotes surrounded by speech boxes, and the crescent-shaped “Arc” combines descriptions with the stage instructions of a screenplay. Her avant-garde approach could be hard to grasp at first glance, but provides an excellent framework for portraying minority figures whose viewpoints deviate from the mainstream culture and often face judgment or misunderstanding. Woo is not afraid to take risks, to push the boundaries of form, and to choose the unique over the familiar.
With her background as a Chinese-Canadian poet, Woo depicts minority experiences and challenges with raw and heartfelt emotion. Her ability to play with diction, imagery, and form allows her to bring a distinct voice to explore identity, gender, family relations, racism, nature, and the creative process. Like a skilled conductor, she has put together a well-orchestrated symphony: a myriad of underrepresented voices from different backgrounds, interrupted by clashes between cultures, accompanied by pastoral scenes of nature, and punctuated by odes to books and stories. And like a mesmerizing song, her book is one to be savoured slowly, again and again, creating a deeper impression with each re-reading.
This review was featured in issue 19.3
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