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One of the Peruvian writer Sui-Yun's Four Short Poems (translated from Spanish by Jennifer Shyue) is written as addressed to "Eve, my eternal mother".

I hope I'm not being excessively dirty-minded in reading the verse about "licking the tip of evil" as a sexual reference: particularly in light of the poems as a whole being described as meditations "on sin and sensual pleasure", and the last two containing more blatant sexual imagery. But the rest of the poem is more confusing to me:

To turn away from evil
I’ve crammed my jars full
of somber recollections
calling to the unknown silks
radiating from my body

To turn away from evil
I’ve added every letter of your body
to my body, tattooing myself whole.

The "jars" presumably refers to jars of memory, being filled with recollections to remind the speaker to turn away from evil. But what are the "unknown silks radiating from my body"?

The last verse is even stranger: why would the speaker tattoo every letter of Eve onto her body? What does this represent? How does it (or for that matter the things described in the earlier verses) help her to erase sins or "turn away from evil"?

Do the jars, silks, and tattoos actually symbolise something else? Is there some biblical significance, perhaps relating to the original story of Adam and Eve?

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    My lunch break is over so I shan’t delve into this right now, but this book seems a promising avenue books.google.co.uk/…
    – Spagirl
    Commented Sep 17, 2020 at 13:22
  • @Spagirl That page isn't viewable from my location, but from surrounding pages I see it has something about Sui-Yun. Does it say something about this specific poem?
    – Rand al'Thor
    Commented Sep 17, 2020 at 17:37
  • Alas, it won’t let me see it now either. The book was called ‘Dragons in the Land of the Condor: Writing Tusán in Peru’ if that helps at all. The page I lit on made reference to Sui-Yun’s identifying more closely with the natural world than any national culture, and some reference to Christianity (possibly rejection of). I wondered if silks were a reference to Chinese traditional clothing.
    – Spagirl
    Commented Sep 17, 2020 at 17:50
  • @Spagirl I don't know much about the poet's background. She's described as Peruvian, but her name seems more Chinese. These four poems were part of a collection by "Asian Peruvian" writers, whatever that means. Might be some interesting background to dig into, if you're right that cultural references are involved here. (The Girl With The Eve Tattoo???)
    – Rand al'Thor
    Commented Sep 17, 2020 at 17:53
  • apparently there is a significant sino-Peruvian literary community. Which is just one of the many things I’ve learned today! ubcpress.ca/dragons-in-the-land-of-the-condor
    – Spagirl
    Commented Sep 17, 2020 at 18:02

1 Answer 1

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The parents of Sui Yun are Cantonese, and emigrated from to Peru as part of the Chinese diaspora. Sui Yun was born in the Amazonian city of Iquitos, forming part of the so-called “Tusán community”, that is, people of Chinese ancestry born and living in Peru. Imagery inspired by her Chinese heritage appears in much of her poetry, and one good example is the silk metaphor used in this poem. In Iquitos her parents ran a store selling imported Chinese products, and she recalls:

growing up surrounded by nature in Amazonian Iquitos, and by exotic imported merchandise: stacks of natural silk, brocade, porcelain, pearls, and the smell of sandalwood.

Dragons in the Land of the Condor: Writing Tusán in Peru, by Ignacio López-Calvo

In an interview with López-Calvo she explained that her parents’ store “was for many local people like a mysterious temple redolent of incense where they could find all sorts of exotic products, from porcelain statues of characters in Chinese mythology to Oriental curios”. Mann Lin 1 notes how when she was asked in a public interview about eroticism in her poetry collection Rosa Fálica, “she described the sensual intensity of her childhood: the silk that her parents imported from China and its delicate texture that she so enjoyed touching; the intense love existing between her parents; and the exuberant fertility of the jungle where she grew up” . Thus silk arises in her poems as a symbol of eroticism and love, and also as a callback to her Chinese heritage. It is possibly worth mentioning that in the original Spanish, the word translated as “jars” is actually “tinajas”. These are the kind of large earthenware jars used to store oil, wine, or grain. I would interpret the line similarly to the OP, as the poet filling these large storage jars with memories, those that are evoked in her by the feeling of silk.

It is interesting to note that an earlier form of the poem (available here, for example) differs from the one published here. The first change is that it lacked the dedication “To my eternal mother Eve”. In this case the final verse seems to be addressed to an unnamed lover, rather than to Eve, and the poet represents eternal love by tattooing her lover’s name over her body - a tattoo representing permanency (even in these days when tattoo removal is - to some degree - possible). The original form of the poem also contained some additional lines:

tatuando cada imagen,
cada aroma, cada signo en mi aliento.
Para apartarme del mal
he recorrido el polvo desdibujado de la sombra.

which goes further with the tattooing image: “Tattooing each image, each smell, each sign of my breath”, before finishing with another stanza “To turn away from evil / I have walked through the blurred dust of the shadow".

I contacted the translator of the poem, Jennifer Shyue, and she confirmed to me that the changes in the poem were made by Sui Yun herself - it was not an editorial choice made by Words Without Borders, or something that happened in translation.

Sui Yun describes her work as

My poetry is genital, because it arises from sensations in my loins… My poetry is an organic, synesthetic act; that is, it collects sensations, colors, sounds, aromas, textures, and images.

I believe that in this poem she is calling for us to turn away from sin by not considering sex and sensuality to be sinful. We should take pleasure in the act, embrace our lovers closely, and feel no shame - just as Eve did before the Fall.

  1. Maan Lin, Writers of the Chinese Diaspora: Siu Kam Wen in Peru, Doctoral dissertation, Columbia University, 1997

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