A few weeks ago I was visiting my grandparents in the tiny town of Kewanee, Illinois. Their house, because it is the same house where my mother grew up with her brothers and sisters, is crammed with the detritus of several childhoods and adolescences. While looking through a closet, I found a sheet of paper hand painted with beautiful calligraphic Chinese characters. It surely belonged to my uncle, but curiosity, and the feeling that it might otherwise remain in that closet forever, compelled me to take the sheet back to Providence against what some might consider the standards of being a good guest. None of my friends who speak Chinese could read the characters, so I took the mystery to Xue Di, Brown’s resident dissident poet. He of course sent me to Wikipedia, where I learned that what I had was a famous line from 7th century poet Wang Bo. It translates to: “When one has a close friend, the far ends of heaven are next door.”
Such a sentiment is the exact opposite of what you will encounter in Flash Cards, a collection of poems by Yu Jian. Born in 1954, Yu Jian has been writing since the early 1970s. For those who know what such things mean, he is considered one of “The Third Generation Poets” that followed the “Misty Poetry” movement of the early 1980s. Part of the Zephyr Press’s Jintian series dedicated to making available contemporary Chinese works, this is Yu Jian’s first collection to appear in English.
The world of the poet presented here is one of constant alienation, dissociation, and feeling out of place. But all this in a sea of people—everyone is forced together by necessity, but this does not create a feeling of connectedness. The far ends of heaven are not next door: everyone is crammed together and one does not have a close friend: one has 1.3 billion people. The poems are described as constituting “a primer of modern Chinese life,” and it is hard to escape the fact of the political and social reality from whence they emanate while reading these poems, especially when several seem to reference it directly:
Morning in the park
Thousands of retired women are exercising
They’ve given birth their children are grown
scattered across the wilderness of life
The Dishes have been washed
With leisure time they want to do something for themselves
In the winter sunlight
a thousand mothers are dancing
One of them gave birth to me
Mother I call out
They all turn their heads
This is surreal, and it is skillfully ambiguous whether it is meant to be funny or horrifying (as those seem to be the main things surrealism can do), but it is quite real as well. A commentary on a nation’s desire for children it cannot have, a single man’s obsession with his own mother, a meditation on the indistinguishability of the self in a communist regime . . . It’s as if Yu Jian grafted the stereotype of the Westerner who thinks all Chinese look alike onto himself.
Of course, the only possible outcome of this is clear: poems about being yourself and poems about how poems can let you do this. A general warning sign for me when reading a book of poetry is if the poet spends too long writing poems about writing poems. In this case, the stakes are higher so it is more forgivable: in America, the concept of dissident poetry is somewhat laughable (“You mean like America?”) because though you may be jailed for indecency, you will not disappear. I do not think Yu Jian is a dissident poet (because if he were I feel like it would have been mentioned somewhere prominent), but he recognizes that poetry as self-expression in China is not just about solipsism:
The poet is hosting a meeting
but she doesn’t know how to begin
Her poems are far away
planted at Black Leopard Farm
Time’s up everyone is looking at the clock
“Stand up, everyone” she says
“Let’s sing the national anthem”
The implication that nationalism is what fills in the gap left by poetry (or art in general) is powerful and important. This is what gives Yu Jian a feeling of belonging: not the forced comradery of communism, but that “A letter traveled a thousand miles / not to explain Ulysses / but to let me know / that somebody understood / my words.” Unfortunately, a large portion of this book passes by without making much of an impact. Many poems muse on daily life and present it enigmatically, but the exotically oblique meditativeness that seems to dominate our view of Chinese poetry rarely extends past the surface; each poem gives the strange impression of being both mysterious and making perfect sense, though the latter sensation often comes to dominate, and not in a good way; ambiguities are too tidily resolved. Perhaps this feeling is strictly my own, but I think it may come from a tension in how we view works from China: on the one hand we think of political oppression and work produced in exile, and on the other we imagine quatrains seeped in nature and Confucius. The reality of Chinese literature must be different and the oversimplification comes from my end, yet Yu Jian writes,
On the garden’s eyelashes
a butterfly is catching the twilight
The evening paper has arrived
Among reports of murder and the stock market
is a poem about the butterfly
What can we do with this? Can a poem about a butterfly also be about the economy (like this one)? The question is not even Chinese: can you be philosophical while writing about the actual world you live in? It has been done, but the tension between these two strains is not dealt with satisfactorily here: most “political” poems are abstract to the point of toothlessness while the “poetic” ones feel weighed down by inescapable ideological readings. For now, I’ll read the paper and then get to that poem about the butterfly.
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