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Poetry: Opening Up

Yang Siping, ed., Denis Mair, et al., trans.
Current Chinese Poetry: Chinese English Reader

In a letter I received from Denis Mair, primary translator of the new bilingual anthology Current Chinese Poetry, edited by Yang Siping, he notes that “10 or 15 years ago a large state press like Shanghai Literature Press would not have gone near these poets. Things are opening up. But…the in-house censor chopped out a few of my favorites.” By “opening up,” he is not referring to poets, for example, giving frank expression to eros. There’s none of that. Recent Chinese films, such as Summer Palace and Lost in Beijing, have been banned because of their sexual explicitness. Rather, I think, he’s referencing the cris de coeur lamenting sweatshop conditions in the rapidly industrializing cities. Moreover, Mair is getting at the ability to publish such verse, not write it, in that the only unflinching protest poems about working conditions were written by one of the few poets in the book who live outside China, the U.S. resident Wang Ping.

Wang, in typical agit-prop style, takes the voice of a worker in one piece, saying, “From the chicken-wired window, we watch our boss / In his limo, plump kids and new wife behind tinted glass.” Wang is not a one-note writer, however, and in a poem about a sour Chinese expatriate who is dourly watching a little immigrant girl in a Park Slope playground, she skillfully shapes a poem that gives voice to multiple political perspectives.

It would be inexcusable, of course, to judge this or any volume of verse exclusively according to its awareness of socio-economic conditions, and I don’t mean to do so here. It would be more acceptable, I think, to look at the Chinese compositions in relation to contemporary U.S. productions.

One glaring similarity is that both countries create a good deal of highly allusive, atmospheric writing that, through arresting, resonant lines, calls forth a strong mood without necessarily conveying to the reader a discernible subject. In differentiation from U.S. poems of this type, however, the Chinese accent is usually on natural settings or their evidence in urban landscapes. Lei Pingyang writes, “The sun has set and you could say my link to the sky / Is broken.” Ma Song speaks of the time “when fruits sit lotus-legged in fruit trees.”

In places, this natural imagery is tied to romance. Liang Xiaoming dreams of “The straight-stab-to-the-appendix of her pineapple smile.” Just as often, the theme is a melancholy yearning, one unlinked to any particular loss or grievance. Many of these pieces, in a less explicit way than in the classical Chinese poets but in the same vein, hint at things that cannot be said. Fear of censorship, perhaps, drives them to keep such details unwritten. The truth is, much American verse is even more inexplicit, which suggests that U.S. writers have internal censors even more vigilant than Chinese state bureaucrats.

Let me end by marking a clear separation. I recently heard Robert Hershon remark that poets like himself, who have a tendency to tickle their readers’ funny bones, often are slighted by critics and their poetic peers, who look down on writers who disdain the attitude of constant high seriousness. Among humorous poets, he alluded to Kenneth Koch and Sherman Alexie, and might have added Sharon Mesmer, Sparrow and Ron Kolm. Even given all these counter-examples, using comedy in poetry is the exception in the U.S., while it is welcomed and quite prevalent in this book. It ranges from black humor, as in Mai Cheng’s lines: “My grandfather, inside his grave / Proofreads his burial inscription,” to joking with metaphors, as does Yan Li in this excerpt: “Now in our metropolis / People settle accounts in square meters / They even use bricks to make change,” to the mildly absurd of Mo Mo: “A cloud’s agitation infected the ocean waves / They have dashed apart the collective wedding of sharks.”

Overall, what this thrilling collection’s poets share with their U.S. counterparts is a desire, as the editor puts it, paraphrasing a poem in the anthology, “to light lamps within stones, within a river’s current, and within language.”


Jim Feast


The Brooklyn Rail

JUNE 2009

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