Why did poetry enjoy such reverence in highly cultured times, the Tang, Hellenic Greece, the Ottoman period? Because no one had TV or the Internet? Probably. Today, words and viewpoints are cheaper than air, and poetry’s currency has plunged. But Burma had good reason to jail Maung Thura. Effective poets set off wildfires of individuality and freedom, a direct threat to those who rely for power on sleeping souls.
Contemporary Chinese poetry is dwarfed by the tradition which precedes it. Nevertheless, a clutch of artists continue to rely on wordplay as a means of expression. Views from riverboats, moonlight, and lonely horses have little part in these new poems, as they have in new China. These poets have refined their perspectives to a shiny glass, to shimmering windows. Through them we can marvel at pieces of China otherwise invisible to the eye.
RECITATIVE BEFORE THE ARIA, by Chen Dongdong
The dock is higher than the shore
To catch the ferry, a mailman pushes his bicycle
He pulls up gently on the rusty handles
The river is in compliance with the spring
Currents swirl, dirty. In the commotion,
A boat whistle offers a break from soot billowing
In the shape of a black uniform. Next comes
A short steep drop towards the river.
The bicycle, like a dog on a hunt,
Lunges downhill. The mailman dashes
After, pulled along, whose image
After ten years once again disappears
Into a cabin’s greasy gloom, where he turns
Into a dark-skinned Division Director
Straddling a motorbike, a tiger
Of destiny he rides and often gets fined.
Crossing this river, he can catch his breath.
Until the bow whacks the rubber bumper on the far shore.
The whole boat quivers. He’s quick on the kick-start.
That leaf-soft sail visible, moments ago, through his half-closed eyes
Is in a flash the wings on his plastic helmet
Hesitant, trembling, speeding in pursuit . . .
Scenery blurs. He guns the bike.
His acceleration makes of all that flies by
The broken stones of the past.
And the road rushing before his face
Is a registered letter he delivered
Once, ten years ago
LOTUS, by Shu Cai
I have spent many tranquil and desireless nights
Sitting, my legs crossed in meditation.
I breathe a human’s breath- in and out-
eh, world? It hardly exists.
Another world exists…
Other winds, other sacrificial lambs,
other faces, not necessarily lively…
In other words, they belong to another space.
I spread my hands,
the only two lotus I own.
You say they are growing- but in what direction?
You say they are traveling/on their way- but where?
I’m merely learning to forget-
that huge university not seen by eyes of flesh.
LOST WAY, by Yang Jian
wandering the wood
and the mind can’t help
lions and tigers coming forth
and those hungry ghosts
of childhood’s hell mirrored
as if alive now, parading out of the past.
At first he walks slow
Pretense of the benign and no worry in
One step and another and then the stalking
rushing rustle from behind,
as if pursued, so dare not
turn the face back to see it.
The wood darkening,
tigers, lions, and these ghosts of the heart
more vivacious, movie-like.
one foot eastward
and then suddenly where is
the road after all.
The real tiger may have ravaged him,
or was it his own fear.
The wood remains as its usual self
radiating in a gold-rimmed dusk.
The way clear enough
a vivid light-
only few recognize
and walk out on it.
MARIONETTES, by Cao Shuying
For years they have followed you,
the three ephemeral moons behind your back.
I imagined they were witches, skirts
floating footless above the ground.
And when your diaries take you home,
you see their feet pausing along the streets
of Chengdu to display their useless beauty.
Your back a thunderstorm,
Your eyes hidden behind mountains.
Tears shimmering a lake. Your forehead drizzling.
One two three. Three of them holding their breath
and pulling their strings closer and closer.
I remember the tails you left dangling
from dresser drawers, waiting to be pulled.
What’s is it? Do you feel bad, darling?
Why is your red sweater so tight?
Why do you look so shifty?
Three moons always there,
more faithful than your shadow.
In sleep you’re scared, feeling them inside you.
You bought many erasers to rub out
their eyes and listening ears.
When I hold you, they loom over me,
I see them perfectly. The plain one with a crystal ball
of steaming food. Through the steam
I see a roadstand, chopsticks clacking their heads together.
I see a girl’s dorm and the cheap red lamp
threatening her curtains drawn against the sun.
I see the lost clothes belonging to…who?
Hanging ripped on the throat of a naked tree.
The most beautiful of the three has marks on her swan’s neck.
The myth of Narcissus written all over her.
I know you’ve read her many times. Stars glow between the lines.
The embarrassing hyperbole of your smile.
Do I scare you? Yes.
They are right behind you.
When you bend to embrace me,
three lights drop with you,
their faces shining fiercely.
When you dance with me,
they float beside us like heartbroken leaves.
You are their marionette, your eyes
drawn backwards even as you face me.
Do I scare you? Darling.
Now let’s look in the mirror.