“There is no international, only different locals”: my essay The International inside the Local is summed up by this statement. What is ‘local’? Are its contents geographical, psychological, historical, language-based or even linguistics-based? How can a poet write a poem entitled “The archaeology of the now”? The poet archaeologist, as if uncovering layer upon layer of earth, seeks the ever more deeply-hidden self, and the poem, like an archaeological manual, records the experience of excavating ever deeper within one site. And for us, the depth we reach through the process of comparing poem with poem (especially with the poet’s earlier work) confirms the value and the status of that poem, to the point that ‘local’ doesn’t at all signify a specific site, but must point to all sites, as being the ability of the poet to excavate his own self. The poet says, “Give me a single breath, and I will grow roots, penetrate the soil, probe shingle and magma, and hear the sea through every artery and vein of groundwater, sharing the voyage of every navigator since the dawn of time”.

So, on this summer night, through the open window of my bedroom, direct to my eardrum comes the cry of a wild goose, shattering the dark green glass-like silence of London, and in the timbre of every chilly honk a secret world is uncovered. What I want to know is, what is that’s touching my heart so much?

Is it this city of London? It’s one of the countless foreign towns I’ve drifted through. Originally, as with other temporary resting places, the Stoke Newington postcode, still unmemorised, then discarded, shrunken, fixed and buried in my CV, became just a line of letters no-one paid any attention to. But against all expectation, I went on living there. Some years after the city had become gradually familiar, as “of their own accord” my eyes began to look for the last apple on the branches of the same apple tree each November: I suddenly realised that my relationship with London had changed. It no longer rubbed shoulders as it passed me by, but it had come to a halt, to turn into the first ‘local’ I had had since I left China. Even stranger than simple peripatetic exile, this superficial standstill doubly demonstrated life cannot help but move.

Was it through writing the collection Lee Valley Poems in London, These external places are converted into my inner self, to become part of the ‘I’ of the text. In fact, even the word ‘exile’ is empty: if it weren’t for the substance of poetry, we wouldn't even be worthy of our own experience. The blood-dripping funnel image which I had to create, comes to include the garden I look down on from my kitchen window as well as all the gardens that sink deep in the autumn rain. The line “confirming the wind goes away also along itself”, which I had to find, comes to express the street before us, blown with dry fallen leaves, as well as all the streets the wanderer’s road has followed. As the psychological roll-over of time is folded into geographical space, these images become more local the more they point to the theme of human ‘placelessness’. Apart from a line of poetry, we have nowhere to exist.

Or again, are China and Chinese language what the cry of the wild goose summons? At present, I jokingly called them ‘my own foreign country’ and ‘my foreign mother-tongue’. Since long ago, fleeing from home has been seen in China as the cruelest experience that anyone could undergo (and please note that the expression ‘flee from home’ literally translates as ‘turning your back on the old well [of home]”); so the wild goose that follows the seasons north and south as it migrates become the emblem of the homeless wanderer. Those skeins of geese which form the Chinese character 人 [person] are always going home. Yet the sight-line of those who watch them fly away can never return home. Skimming through the ancient poetry of the Tang dynasty [618-960AD], we see the wild goose as practically synonymous with heartbreak and longing. Witness lines such as these: “Returning wild geese enter an alien sky”, or ” When the wild geese return they bring many letters from home” by Wang Wei [701-761AD]; “When the wild goose is lost in blue sky” or “The wild geese guide the sorrowful heart to far away” by Li Bai [701-762AD]; “The heart flies into extinction with the wild geese” or “Leafs fall as the wild geese go south” by Meng Haoran [689-740AD]; “On the autumn frontier the wild goose cries once” or “When will the wild geese bring a letter?” By Du Fu [712-770AD]. Du Fu, who was by far the most adept at describing the hardships of the wandering life, has a poem simply titled A Solitary Wild Goose, which contains the couplet “Who pities a shard of shadows / lostto each other inside many-layered clouds?”: long ago, he set down a definitive description of the situation I which I find myself today.

Classical Chinese poetry emphasises allusion, which, via the means of ‘inter-modularity’ [1] allows all tradition to be contained in a newly-written text. With the cry of the wild goose, I am drawn into the Tang dynasty at the instant of hearing, making Lee valley’s waters flow twelve hundred years upstream – and isn’t that a kind of ‘distance’? or actually, a “nearness” pressing toward to me? I could almost greet all the Du Fus as they hurry past the corner of the street huddled in their long scholars’ gowns, just as I greet my well-known and familiar neighbours.

Poetry includes all of that. Here ‘distant’ and ‘deep’ mean the same thing. The poet may travel far, but never really leave the autochthonous ground of his own inner self. The world slips by him like an abstract setting, and the distance between its fluctuating changes exists only in the direction of the internal inquiry. The poet’s standards shift as the poetry imperceptibly moves them towards the vertical. That is to say, so-called ‘depth’ solely indicates the poet’s comprehension of existence, as seen in his writing: Heidegger’s statement that “All great thinkers have spoken the same thought” is pointing out this idea about ‘existence’. The value and the joy of poetry can be described as fishing in the deep sea of existence. In comparison with the substance of this, the pursuit of changes in subject matters, novelty of form, individuality of style, even political correctness or identity games – these are all shadows, aims which are too superficial and which will weaken the meaning of the poetry. Sticking with ‘the human condition’, a poem contains a definite set of concentric circles: Tang poetry, China, foreign countries, London, the Lee Valley, my tiny study, the specific moment of writing a word, the non-time implied by the tenselessness characteristic of the Chinese verb, these are all in the ‘I’. When they are no longer merely knowledge, but have become the poet’s ‘thought’, then a poem has connected with the energy source of itself.

I know that today, when the post-modern is so pervasive, there are dangers in discussing or even raising the issue of ‘depth’. But today’s reality is tense, full of the smell of gunpowder even more than was the cold war. Today’s art theory has been able to stand before the sediment of the twentieth century and reflect on its superstitious faith in novelty of from. Today’s philosophical question – the precise antonym for ‘today’ – is just this: how can we abolish the mirage of time, and face anew the emptiness and darkness which have been eternally co-existent with human nature? In a word, the energy to do so comes from the awareness of the predicament. If an inopportune or out-of-style idea can continue to create good poetry, then that is the nature of poetry.

I didn’t know the wild goose that cried to me on that summer night, but I have heard in it the skeins of wild geese that have flown over every poet in every era, and they have never migrated from that clear and melodic voice.

Yang Lian
10th January 2006