Hart has degrees in literature and creative writing. In the following essay, she examines the spiritual images in Yau’s poem.
If literary critics are accurate in describing Yau as a L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E poet, one who believes that meaning is not inherent in a poem and that the only meaning that can be found is that which is discovered by the reader, then that opens the door for reading spirituality in Yau’s poem “Russian Letter” whether or not the poet intended it to be there. Given the mention of “soul,” a spiritual interpretation seems logical. Only the poet knows for sure what his mood was or where his thoughts came from when he wrote this poem. But there are images in this poem, besides that of the soul, that conjure up a sense of the spiritual. Whether this spirituality is inspired by the poet, his language, his images, or the reader who ponders them is not the point. What matters is that if readers look close enough and allow themselves the freedom to explore their own interpretations, a sense of the spiritual can be discovered in this poem.
There is no direct mention of any spiritual truth that the narrator trusts or will use to counter the ideas put forth so far in this poem. The narrator only states a lack of belief or at least a limit to the belief that people are stuck in glue like flies. . . .
The first phrase in this short poem is the statement, “It is said,” which could be heard as of the voice of a preacher standing in the pulpit in front of a congregation and reading from some holy, or highly respected, book. The preacher’s finger might be pointing to a particular sacred passage in the book, suggesting that what he or she is about to say are the inspired words of scripture. One can almost hear the preacher’s voice ringing out over the pews, resounding off the tall ceilings of the house of worship. The preacher might pause to make sure he or she has the attention of the people and then repeat the phrase, adding the full course of the message. “It is said,” the preacher repeats, that “the past / sticks to the present / like glue.” This is how Yau opens his poem, somewhat like that preacher, as he has his narrator proclaim these words, which, for some people, might be a sacred precept, one that is completely honored and believed.
Looked at in another way, this statement could be simply delivered in a classroom, one focused on comparative religions or spiritual beliefs. The narrator could be explaining, as if he were a professor standing in front of a group of students, that the statement that “the past / sticks to the present” is similar to the Buddhist concept of karma, through which one’s past lives determine the present one, contaminating the present with past mistakes or blessing it with favors for good deeds performed in previous lives. Or the narrator could be pointing out that the belief of original sin. For example, according to some Christian faiths, babies are born with original sin, inherited from the disobedient first parents, the Biblical Adam and Eve. The original sin is stuck like glue to the babies’ souls and must be cleansed through the sacrament of baptism.
Yau’s poem continues with the statement that not only is the past stuck to the present but “that we are flies / struggling to pull free.” The past, in other words, is this huge strip of sticky paper to which all humans, in the present situation of their lives, are stuck. Not only are all humans stuck to the past, they are also struggling to flee from the negative effects of the past on their present lives. This sense of struggle is an underlying theme in many religions. Some religions teach that people need to free themselves from past weaknesses so they can avoid possible future temptations. Another spiritual belief is that this struggle to free oneself is a lifelong work, because even if people tend to get free from that sticky paper, they foolishly forget to look where they are going and fly right back into it. The practice of some spiritual beliefs...
(The entire section is 1685 words.)