Essays on Literature
Essays on Politic and Culture
INTERNATIONAL WITHIN THE LOCAL
Since when has the relationship between London and me changed? From a city that I passed by chance in my drifting journey to a kind of “settlement”. A bit more precisely, a “local zone ” I acquired in a foreign country. I was first stirred by that feeling in the fourth year after I moved into my present house. It was a cold dim afternoon at the time of year when autumn changes into winter. I looked out of the back window in the kitchen, as if unconsciously in search of something, and then I found it: in my garden where leaves were beginning to fall, leaving empty branches behind, an apple hung there again, almost at the same position on the same branch. Small and round as usual, green touched with red, it looked exactly the same as the one last year and the one the year before last. Like a ghost keeping an appointment, set off by the dusky sky, it was sending signals to me.
Seeing the last apple four times on the same branch makes such a difference to the way one feels about a place!
Not to talk about London as a whole. My foreign “local zone” in fact is not more than a few districts. North of the city is Stoke Newington, a place unknown even to many Londoners. Time has turned it into “mine”: when I no longer move out of a street after only three or six months’ stay, the street is not abstract to me any more. It stands out from the countless streets that I’ve rushed past, and stops. All those houses and neighbours put off their masks, recovering their living age. The tree at this street corner is covered with white flowers in full bloom every spring. It was so gorgeous in my memory that when that tree was felled for no reason, the “Tang dynasty at the street corner” in my poem collapsed with a bang at the same time! When a graveyard and a river valley naturally become my places of choice to saunter in, as a result the stretch of bright green soaked all year round, the alternate light and shade cast by floating clouds and the cry of wild geese in the stillness of summer night penetrate into me, becoming my own rhythm. In this way the seasons are connected to me again, allowing me to write: “the autumn that has never been really reached/has always been autumn”, and “the distant place that has never been really reached/has always been closing in under the feet” I’m also an apple. I can feel my skin burst, and a place embracing its own crowd, accent, scenery and weather pushes its way into my pulp. A postnatal umbilical cord turns me into a foreign “local guy”. But, how does this change come about? “Naturally”? Is it part of history? Whose history? The history of this city or of mine? Is the “local zone” I see the same as that of the local people? Can they see “my local zone?”... I asked myself these questions everyday.
Having a sense of localness in a foreign country far away from one’s native land is more peculiar than pure wandering. As a contemporary Chinese poet, twenty or so countries have slid past my soles since I first started my journey of exile in the late eighties. The pain of “rootlessness” is comprehensible, and the sorrow of “homelessness” is even a must. When I wake up every morning, the unfamiliar room always reminds me of another room in my dream: a little room called “Ghosts’ Home” situated near the ruins of Yuanmingyuan (Garden of Perfect Brightness) in the western suburbs of Beijing in China, which was obviously transformed from an old classroom. My desk was made from half of a glass teaching board, yet it recorded my whole experience as “a young poet”. In my bookcase, I kept with care two cinerary caskets, one of which was my mother’s, and the other, my old nanny’s. There they were, and I could always feel their loving looks. My innate “local zone” is unchangeable like my blood relationship. My writing once was unambiguously part of that blood, originating from it, belonging to it. But suddenly, all this has changed. The “local zone” I acquired pushes my innate one farther away. I am embarrassed to have to admit that “exile” is not a lifelong profession, and it offers no absolute value; it is instead a substance that can wear out and be substituted. Even my blood does not merit overstating: since a person can survive and write in any place, he/she does not have to complain that fate has thrown him/her elsewhere! Indeed only when external “movement” becomes “stable” will the internal “compelling force of movement” be exposed. The real question is not “how far am I from China?”, but “how deep have I dug into my inner self and language?” The local zone becomes infinite in size in my endless gaze, embracing my wandering across nations. It resembles the dispersing days that come into focus with a little fist-like apple. How treacherous is reversely formed space and time!
It is a new phenomenon in the history of Chinese literature that a number of poets who write in Chinese have been living in a non-Chinese-speaking environment over a long period of time, participating in literary activities held all over the world, and are even being given prizes for their works in translation. It is impossible for this situation not to affect our style of living and writing, either grounded on the sensitivity of poets, or the nature of poetry being derived from reality. This article, written for the Chinese-Italian-English edition of Where the Sea Stands Still to be published by Scheiwellar in Italy, is an example. The three language versions delineate the “international” journey of a book of poetry: the Chinese original has flesh-and-blood ties with my wandering from 1992 to 1993; the Italian translation is a continuation of my incessant discussion on Chinese poems with the translator Claudia Pozzana; while Brian Holton’s English translation much broadens the readership of this book. This “international incident” of poetry appears on the surface to run counter to the subject of this article: how come that we are moving farther and farther away from the “local zone” when we are supposed to be discussing it? But if you can think more deeply, you will realize that “local” is actually a pre-requisite of “international”. Only when different “local” experiences are compared will “international” experiences become solid, not idle talk. I mentioned the “point of destiny” in an article written nearly twenty years ago. What I referred to was the small village “Southern Shop of Yellow Earth” where I lived and worked with others in a production team during the Cultural Revolution, and where I had my first lesson in life — the tangling love-hate relationship between man and mother earth. Man, nurtured one generation after another by mother earth, seems to be imprisoned by it at the same time. Until hundreds of years are crossed out quietly, together with the three years I lost in there. Is this a curious coincidence? How do I know a place like that, where I was absolutely unwilling to be, but was cast into the den of destiny, will rear its head again later? The “point of destiny” has various incarnations. It can be a place, or a state. From 1989 onwards, Chinese poets underwent gradual changes in regard to their feelings toward exile: from reluctance, to acceptance, and finally to willingness. They are indeed a “foreign version of the production teams during the Cultural Revolution.” When we no longer only grumble at what we have lost, but discuss “what we have gained from wandering”, we will have a clear understanding of the situation. “Reality is part of my character” (London); it is also part of the resisting nature of poetry. In a sense, my international wandering has never started. There is always a stable relationship between the Chinese language and me, and between poetry and me. What I mean is the endless transformation of my language world by the external world, which manifests itself in my poems. Like the process of detaching, all the common factors of culture, language, nation, region, community group, politics, and school of poetry are stripped away, leaving only my connection with a specific stage of language in myself. On the one hand, this “local zone” has “international” nature as it sits on my orbit of wandering. On the other hand, it warns against the emptiness of “international”, insisting upon a dialogue on the specific feelings towards each place. An orbit composed by different “local zones” allows a poet and his poems to reunite.
The collection Where the Sea Stands Still includes all the poems I wrote from 1992 to 1993, the two years which I refer to as “the darkest period” in my journey of wandering. The hope of returning to China became slimmer and slimmer, and I could not see the end of days among a crowd of strangers,. Not to mention the pressure of survival, there was the problem of filling that dark hole of “why should we write?” and more severely, “how to write”? Gu Cheng was the one who vanished in this dark hole. His tragedy was a combination of historical experiences and perplexities of writing. Ghosts Come into Town, the poem he wrote in that same period, is best described as the collapse of the “continuity” of reality than as an exploration of a new aesthetic. I can clearly feel the quest behind the collapse. A poets really has to find a form that can induce reality, so that his language —and he himself — can go on living. This is exactly how the “necessary” relationship between form and content , which I always emphasize, comes about. Where the Sea Stands Still can be seen as my quest for such a form. In early 1992, I arrived in New York, a big metropolis where I had only a few friends. I could not but feel myself sinking in my room that overlooked the Hudson River. “so April sees the river flow like a mirage/the current’s forgotten colours see us as mirages” To me, the surrounding “darknesses are too many for life ever to have got there” I could not imagine that “darkness” in English does not have a plural form. As a result, the Chinese title 《黑暗們》heianmen was a noun phrase that I deliberately created, and when it was translated into English, I arbitrarily coined a new English word! The section House Like Shadow was written in my little study surrounded by pine trees in Yaddo, an art village in the upper part of New York State. “But last night will never again pass by you/dim windows all around opening only on one person’s pain.” It was really a release of atomic energy during the two months I stayed in there. When The Sky Shifts, we shifted too, from summer in the Northern Hemisphere to winter in the Southern Hemisphere. During the couple of months I was held up in New Zealand, I was really like “a broken leg walking the wall”; the leg was broken, and so was the road. I could do nothing but look down to the “sea of dead lambs”, like a tree forced by the void, bright sky “to tower above a pitch black foreground”. I imagine that this book as a whole is a long run-up for a jump; after many twists and turns, one will rush to the moment of take-off. The set of poems Where the Sea Stands Still is that take-off. It is at the end of the book, gathering, completing a stage of poetry and a stage of life; it is the finish that resembles the source. The “I” who wrote “stretch a hand into the earth to feel death” in China finally felt the sea inside myself. “Sea” was no longer a word, a far-away myth only. My own wandering moved it nearer, and recognized it. “the sea so sharp it snuffs you out makes you the you of this instant” I clearly remember outside Sydney in Australia, I was sitting on that towering, precipitous cliff at the shore of the South Pacific Ocean, and there came the sound of waves from beneath my feet. The end of rocks are just like days; “the end is endless itself.” The “rootless” life of an exile allowed me, imperceptibly but inexorably, to stare at myself setting sail — myself setting sail inside myself. Was that moment already destined by the last line of the poem, “this shore is where we see ourselves set sail?” This set of poems is significant in my entire oeuvre. Not only because I experienced the rare “resonant” state between poetry and the poet when I wrote it, as if daily life had entered my writing to provide the perfect imagery, but because the godsend-like form of the series: four chapters with four structures and on four levels, allowed me to enquire one level after another into “now”, then deep down to that situation underneath my feet. The space I constructed inside this form is like architecture, or even music. My conscious design was to create a music-like internal memory between similar sentence structures, and between the final lines with the same structure in each chapter. Therefore, it is not surprising to find a precise geographic description in the last section of that series; that which is the most accurate is just the most symbolic too: the road leading to my “home” from the Sydney University is exactly the road to “homelessness” in my life. “Everything not there vanishes more/is a poem…” This poem provides an affirmation for the confusion I experienced in my wandering: the “rootlessness” in reality is exactly the “root of my mind”. At last, I found that form of life.
The innate tragedy of contemporary Chinese literature lies in its simplification by ideology, and the difficult situation in which literati have no choice but continue to play a clearly meaningless game. In other words, most of the “works” are no more than sacrificial objects of ideology. They are written, published and plagiarized; yet they don’t have any literary significance, not to mention ideological value. For our modern world, communist ideas are long dead, long finished. There is no difference between the struggle made by Chinese people at “historical turning points” and the mock dragon war in a museum. Of course, this simplification also makes life easier for readers and critics who are unwilling — or unable — to learn. When the “communist” dragon and the propaganda on “cold war” co-exist in the same fossil, it will be quite easy to produce a political animation. Yet, where is the inherent richness of poetry? Where is the beauty of creation that fascinates poets? What is the real problem with poetry?
I divide all my works into three groups: Manuscripts in China, Manuscripts in the South Pacific and Manuscripts in Europe; all three titles are highlighting the connection between my places of living and my writing. In metaphorical terms, they are my own world map, with different places marked one after another by my works. I like the feeling that the places are alive, and can “imperceptibly” sneak into my words, hiding in there as ghosts. Therefore, a “local zone” is not simply the place I live, but necessarily the place I “include” in my writing. When I wrote Parallel with Death in China, the world of death beneath the yellow earth, which was well within my reach, was woken, and the broken-up terracotta figures were like black square Chinese characters reaffirming an immutable fate. Similarly, it was not until I recited Where the Sea Stands Still at the iron-grey shore of the Atlantic Ocean in Scotland that I found the series so blue for the first time! Poems do have a memory much deeper than mine. The sunlight dazzling as a shadowless lamp in the South Pacific Ocean, the transparent powder filling the air, and the scorching heat solidified from summer nights were all blue jade. They could be inhaled into my lung, dissolve in my blood, make their way out of my fingers and leave ink marks on paper. “Blue is always higher.” Whoever has looked down at the sea from a height will understand that this is not the poet’s metaphysical principle, but a physical truth. And only because of this precise description, my experience was concluded gracefully; it also opens the possibility for my long piece Concentric Circles, the first book in Manuscripts in Europe. Therefore, “local zones” never stay still; they grow with my poems. They show their “depth” continuously, observing like the eyes of a poet or an archaeologist.
In early nineties, when I answered the questions posed by Claudia Pozzana on the uniqueness of contemporary Chinese poems, I had noted two points which are not yet outdated: 1. the depth of survival of an individual, 2. the ideology and form of modern poetry created within the characteristics of Chinese language. What I mean by the “depth of survival” is not limited to its “political” sense; I indeed consider a Chinese poet’s inner experience in terms of the whole circumstances of a human being. All sorts of historical tragedy, the difficulty of cultural transformation, the oppression by reality and the faults in language all happen in my inner “self”. “I” converse with existence exactly through endless search of the limit of darkness in myself. Compared with this condition, the superficial subject of politics is not deep enough, neither is a stiff, painful posture, nor the play of imagery like “ difficult in such a simple way”, nor those horrible words like corpse, blood river, decay, or maggot. When James Joyce said, “No one who has not tasted exile will understand my work.” What he was talking about is the “depth” that I want — the “depth” so deep as to occupy the “nature of Chinese language” and renew its capability. I am not talking big to impress people, but actually want to note the “necessity” that I had mentioned before. In Parallel with Death, the three levels: the shockingly eccentric cycle of Chinese history, the absence of tense in Chinese verbs, and the large-scale trans-temporal collage created inside the form of a set of poems are the cause and effect to each other and can penetrate into each other. The Chinese title of another book of mine《無人稱》Non-Person Singular poses difficulty in translation at the very beginning: it does not simply mean “no person”, but the impossibility of identifying or naming a person who is obviously present. How cruel it is to that person when his/her existence vanishes for nothing! Where the Sea Stands Still expands the internal space of a word one level after another, from an image, a sentence, a poem, a chapter, a series, up to the whole book, all of which actually follow one hidden structure. The sharpest temporal quality of a wandering life is just embodied in this space. Rondo, seepage and loss are cancelled mercilessly. The sea “stands still” this way.
In retrospect, I found that there was a worldwide misconception about novelty”. As a matter of fact, “new” should be a natural continuation of “deep.” An unprecedented poetic image necessarily asks for an unprecedented form. People often talk about “cruelty” in my poems, but they should instead discuss the way of transmitting “cruelty” to readers. You feel that it strikes you because the poem has “written it out.” The poet created it within a language, and what exactly makes him/her exhilarated was the irreplaceable momentary delight in “finding” it! The enlightenment brought by the ancient tradition of Chinese poetry knows no bounds. Ezra Pound’s study of the “imagery” of Chinese characters, though focusing only on a few areas, had already nourished deeply modern English, European and American poetry; it even nurtured Chinese poets in turn. I set a target for myself and that is to rediscover the tradition of Chinese poetry. The formal “parallelism” in ancient Chinese poetry highlights the beauty of regularity and correspondence in Chinese characters; “ping-ze”, the pattern of level and oblique tones in classical Chinese poetry, constructs the musical quality of texts like composing music,; the “use of allegory” and the writing of “poems in reply to others’ poems” are concerned with, in contemporary linguistic terms, “inter-textuality;” while “seven-character regulated verse ”, which is regarded as the greatest formal achievement in Chinese poetry, is like a small purely man-made universe, revealing by way of the still-enigmatic Chinese grammar the metaphysics that controls language. There are so many issues for discussion. I know that my poems are quite difficult, but the fun of creation lies in highlighting pure poetic (pure formal) factors. What you can see is that every line composes an image, and overlapping layers of image imply a hidden structure, and finally the poem as a whole unfolds a musical space. “When you cannot understand, just listen.” (The Last Room in Goethe’s Life) Today, when the great tradition of Chinese formalism — the “elegant’’, artistic tradition — that had lasted continuously for several thousand years is tragically destroyed, I can only turn myself, through writing books, into a miniature tradition. Its growth already answers or omits many questions that puzzled us.
The four sections in this article deliberately echo the four chapters in Where the Sea Stands Still. They represent four levels that complete the internal exploration into a theme. London as my “local zone” corresponds to the eight and a half years of wandering before my arrival in there; while my poems of wandering thread together, deep down in words, wanderers of all ages, until they are one by one brought to my address. There is actually no boundary between geography and psychology. The word “international’’ is purely counter-factual. What is meant by “international?” Where is an “inter-nation”? Who lives between one nation and the other, and flaunts his/her possession of such a “territory” of nothingness? When we fail to understand each “local zone” of ours, the meaning of “inter-national” is empty, unreal to us. When we do not realize the nature of different languages, a fabricated “world language” can only be a stillborn foetus or a baby suffering from anaemia. When a poet does not possess the poetic tradition of his/her own language, so-called “international poetry” is either a fantasy or a lie, which does not even qualify for cultural exchange. “Local zone”, in explicit terms, is that deep stirring one feels when poetry, poets, inner self, environment and nature are suddenly “connected.” I am here, yet far more than just being in here. I am a book myself. When you open it, you can read that me of the past, that me with no independent existence, all non-mine “me”s. I chase and ask, and there is me at the “point of destiny.”
A real dialogue in all aspects can only begin in this way: when my China, my Sydney and all my “international” experiences of wandering are embraced in my “local zone” of London, forming the overlapping strata beneath, this corner of street will become the meeting point of lives all around the world; when Yi which gives off the fishy smell of yellow earth, Where the Sea Stands Still which looks like a solid piece of blue crystal, Concentric Circles which is colourful like Europe, and Notes of a Blissful Ghost which reiterates a savage, ancient beauty are all included in a newly born line, becoming the system of reference for criticizing its value (or non-value), these words on the line are another miniature conclusion of my life as a poet; when countless languages unfamiliar to me get to know my poems through the translations and I can see, by way of mysterious signs, the anxious or excited look of the translators, who have no choice but to have a linguistic dialogue with me, a dialogue in which two languages set off from their own “local zone” to explore the same poetic image, posing questions that directly ask about the “existence” of poetry, I can only compare such complete satisfaction to that feeling experienced by two persons showing off to each other the treasures handed down from their ancestors. Then, will the three language versions of Where the Sea Stands Still in this book bring three “seas” to the reader? Or the same sea flowing on three levels? Right, the accent from three kind of waves on three levels. I look forward to hearing the resonance.
In the Flaiano International Poetry Award Ceremony in Italy in 1999, my lecture The Questioner can be seen as a little ode dedicated to Qu Yuan, the historically renowned officer in the Kingdom of Chu during the period of the Warring States (475-221 B.C.), who was later banished to the distant south and finally threw himself into Miluo River to show his loyalty. Two thousand and five hundred years ago, he composed Heavenly Questions, a long poem interrogating “Heaven” with nearly two hundred questions. Up to now, his attitude as a “professional questioner” has not yet been out of date. The work is a basic poetic image itself, and because of it, the whole history of poetry becomes a set of concentric circles. Francis Bacon’s famous remark, “knowledge is power” is adapted into a more powerful dictum, “acknowledgement of ignorance is power.” The set of concentric circles also includes this moment when I am standing by the window in my London apartment. In the howling wind, I can clearly see inside that swinging apple on the branch tip, a core is forever deepening.
11 October 2003