Notes on Reversing

Emily Lee Luan

A few years ago I became obsessed with 回文詩 (“the reversible poem”) / obsessed with reversing.

回文 means, more literally, “returning text.” It’s a Chinese poetic form in that classical Chinese poets wrote reversible poems, but also in that Chinese is a language that allows for reversing. As Jeffrey Yang writes in the introduction to Michèle Métail's Wild Geese Returning: Chinese Reversible Poems, “The lack of articles and grammatical inflections—adjective and noun declensions, verb conjugations, agreement—along with the language’s monosyllabic morphemes lend Chinese its predisposition to reversibility.” Each character a branch that has the potential to lean left or right, to gather or give leaves to what comes before or after.

With a Chinese reversible poem, you can read:

Image1 (1)Image2

In other words, our eye moves this way

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and then back up again


Another form, the 反覆 (“to turn and return”), allows a poem that looks like this,

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where each letter represents one Chinese character, to be read like this:


and so on…

Famously, Su Hui, of the Jin Dynasty, embroidered a multi-directional poem of 840 characters—a poem of separation and regret, woven for her husband— that can be read circularly, horizontally and vertically, by quadrant, and by color, to create hundreds of poems.

Unlike the rewinding of a video, the feeling of reading a 回文詩 is like watching the tide rush out. The difference is that the tide takes a slightly different, albeit familiar, pathway back to the body of water it comes from.

This line is taken from the reversible poem《影對寒燈一結愁》(“In the Dark, Facing the Lone Lamp, Melancholy Suddenly Arises”) by Cao Fengzu of the Ming Dynasty:


Michèle Métail and Jody Gladding translate the line (from left to right) as: The man saddened by his unhappy fate is desolate in a corner.

And in reverse: In a corner, turned toward his sadness, the man’s fate is indifferent.

In either direction, 命 (life, fate) takes on a different adjective—an unlucky fate, one’s fate (here, one might even read 人命 as “human life,” the particular becoming universal). Sorrow is a verb in one direction, and a noun upon reversal. The man turns toward the corner, and then toward his sadness, the corner becoming his sadness. The rhythm, as we move right, beats 1-2 1-2 1-2-3. On the way back, the rhythm repeats: 1-2 1-2 1-2-3.

I wanted to write a returning text in English. At first, I rewound:

The fog descends as the moon does in the ancient poems
My father makes me radish cakes for breakfast

Radish cakes make me my father as the moon does
In the ancient poems the fog ascends

But I was just walking backwards.

To really reverse, I had to free my mind of the mechanics of conjunctions, conjugation, articles, the meaning-making of linear form. I made my own rules of poetic reversal: each end word must begin the next line. Upon writing one stanza, choose words that will appear in the second stanza but in reverse order. I laid eight words in a circle and wrote a poem with only those words.

Then I let the rest rush in. The form began working when I began to feel the poems floating me back to some origin—not quite water, but close to where I’d started. That’s not reversing; that’s returning. The point is that you cycle endlessly.

Michèle Métail, Wild Geese Returning: Chinese Reversible Poems, trans. Jody Gladding (The Chinese University of Hong Kong Press; New York: New York Review of Books, 2017). 

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