We are pleased to present the first installment of our two-part feature on New Poetry from China, translated by Stephen Haven and Li Yongyi. Click on the titles below to view bilingual editions of new poetry by Tang Danhong, Zheng Min, and Yu Nu.
TANG DANHONG was born in Chengdu in 1965. She is widely regarded as an avant-garde feminist poet and innovative filmmaker, drawing critical attention with her presentation of female sexuality and her culturally charged documentaries on Tibet. She was awarded the prestigious Liu Li’an Poetry Prize in 1995. Her most recent collection of poems appeared in 2012, The X-ray, Sweet Nights.
You Might Have Been My Brother…
You might have been my brother, especially at dawn
Milky vapors rise into the sky,
That white adolescence wafting into my lungs.
But I woo that white air,
Let it grow wings of a peacock,
Naïve and overwhelmed with joy.
You might have been my apple, especially today,
But the mashed pulp soured,
Like a tuft of hair bleached in time.
Only the Adam’s apple allowed me to breathe,
To marry my feathers to your rooted tree,
But you saw through all this.
You might have been my ghost, especially tonight,
A shy corner of my ballet,
A painting, a flower, asking an exact identity.
How could I know she was there all the time,
A magnolia blooming in schizophrenia,
The vulva of an angel roving the sky
Crushing anyone who dared to stare.
Forgive the shout of the peacock’s tail.
Mercy to my lungs blowing white gales,
Always the anxious prisoner.
Cursing, they bent the morning by one meter.
I sobbed the height of a bud.
Nothing to do with the sun. Glowing clouds
And my skirt rotting just the same.
They swore at me.
Cursing back, I tossed spring flying.
Dreamed of sterilization in the icy snow of breasts.
It had nothing to do with them,
My womb’s nectar siphoned off.
No beauty without the curse of those flowers.
The sun beat me, bent the morning.
The sun’s hands reached for my battered brokenness,
The scattered glow of those clouds.
What did it have to do with me?
The night’s bud rotted a meter and a half.
Icy snow welled up my breasts.
The flowers lifted them.
Spring asked my forgiveness.
Then, I could endure it no more,
Howling, sniffing, squatting down,
The star-studded sky groping in agony.
Nothing to do with love.
This starred loss of feeling pain,
The sky mirroring me.
Each day the light of rebirth,
The agony of this ulcerous existence.
The excruciated heart held up
For the mercy of wings to nurse:
I’m rotting away!
Imagine the night into summer,
The summer moonlit, fresh.
Imagine you secreted by the future,
Without reviving, in the acute memory of pain.
You don’t want to mention
The decomposed shout of that person.
That was slime, that was pus, stuck between fingers,
Oozing from fate’s dark carcass.
Can you smell it?
No need to recall the frightened one,
Lips red with desertion,
Shy of betrayal’s glamorous gaze.
Imagine instead the one dashed dead against the rock
Of a human chest, a desperate phoenix,
The furious slide into hell.
Hell for the living loyal slaves.
Struggling to live, children conjure love,
Cannot soften their slapped faces,
Worlds sprouting out of nipped buds.
They can neither be digested nor vomited.
The summer nights wrapped in our breath,
Moonlight…white flowers…no mothers there.
I will not think of children,
I’m already withered.
In this slime of amnesia
Only slaves can force a smile.
ZHENG MIN was born in Fujian in 1920. She is a renowned poet, scholar and literary critic. She has published poetry since the early 1940s and eventually earned an MA in literature from Brown University. She returned to China in 1955. Her early work was discovered by younger Chinese poets as a major influence on the poetic revolution of the 1980s. She has written and published widely over the past 30 years, securing her iconic status in contemporary Chinese poetry.
Through the window, clam-tight, oozes
A dark cloud, flowing beneath the ceiling.
Leaves rain down, drizzling,
Burying my body, the flames not yet dead.
A snow-white dove flies out among corpses,
Looking down, midair, at the ruin of ugly walls.
After traveling thousands of miles, it lands
In the shade of a bodhi tree,
Hungry, thirsty, musing: which roof,
Which square, which church steeple, can take in
A wandering rain-cloud?
A child reaches out his soft palm
Feeding it corn,
These leaf-covered bodies.
Stone Statues on the Seafloor
In the still, empty room,
The setting sun’s gold, the clouds’ afterglow,
Ripple under the ceiling,
Spitting out cable-cars and tourists.
Statues, suddenly glimpsed in the mirror,
Countless geometrical skulls
Fished from the deep sea,
Still keep their expressions
Caught off guard, ancient times.
These extinct volcanoes.
Modigliani’s ‘Woman with Red Hair’
The fire-red hair,
A burning dahlia,
Roots in black soil.
That black velvet gown wraps
An autumnal body, its declining
Shoulder, half-revealed plumpish arm,
Its slim brown neck
Connecting thoughts and torso,
The waist lingering in girlhood.
Black eyes barely awakened,
By the confused Western début-de-siècle.
A downward locked-in glance,
No sleep in those young eyes,
Dislocated time. What erupts in that complexion?
She seems to feel the broad leaves of plane trees
The sun, an after-midnight ball,
Dahlias and roses,
Tireless dancers, singing,
Shouting like crazy.
Summer abandoned like a spent rocket:
The necklace hangs on her chest,
Beads, hopes, tears, wistful gazes,
The black velvet gown drapes
Her autumnal body, that dahlia,
Her red hair, burns on.
Traveling from her pink infancy
To the eagle claws of arthritis
She stares at time’s half-opened door
Leading to the evening sky,
Cold, quiet, vanishing in the afterglow.
Crossing Boston Suburbs with Snow
By the wind
So quickly veils
The snake, grey road, its leaden face
In winter woods,
The anxious car rustles by
Where we can see
Drilling our ears.
These dark woods.
We talk of childhood.
Traces in the snow
As if in a line,
Tracks left behind.
A few words now and then
About yesterday, here, there.
The grey snake threads through,
Snow squeezes in,
In a dream, the car heads for home.
Words rise above water
Sink into the chaotic ocean.
The grey rhythm of the whale’s back,
Childhood, Boston, snow.
The awakening woods
Utters never a sound.
Longing, A Lion
Inside my body there is a gaping mouth,
A lion roaring
Rushing to the end of the bridge,
As the ship glides by.
Looking down at the river’s rush
It hears the clamor of the times
Like an elephant’s trumpet in the forest,
Throws a backward glance at me
Into the cage of my body.
The lion’s golden hair dazzles like the sun,
The call of the elephant’s drum.
This charge blooms in me,
Lures me to the bridge edge.
Ghost Path, 1990
Every time I walk this path
You trip up my gait.
I tremble, not from the ghost cold,
But from your heat.
So young, so soon
The black lushness of your hair
Turned to cinder, dust,
Your scarlet lips
Drained of their last blood
And your taut bodies
Blown by winds,
No bones, no plaques for memory.
Where is heaven?
The chance that sneered at you?
If conscience cramped again,
Who could lift fallen apples
Back to their green limbs? Oh mothers,
Oh babies rolling in the womb,
In the leaf-woven shade,
Blossoms sprawling on walls,
Roses, white jasmines,
Pale yellow, dark purple.
What flower evermissed its rendezvous?
Your footfalls sound in the dark night,
Dream of those missing you.
I’m afraid to take this walk
But your call is irresistible,
Swollen in my chest.
Now, your blood-dry zeal,
Pallor of waiting death,
Mushrooms in the dark.
Translated from the Chinese by Stephen Haven and Li YongyiZheng Min is a renowned poet, scholar and literary critic, and has written and published widely over the past 30 years, securing her iconic status in contemporary Chinese poetry.
was born in Anhui Province in 1966. He is the soul of the “Inexplicability School” of poetry. His work is characterized by minimalist, absurdist, and surrealist short poems. He is the author of The Watchman
and one other collection of poems.
I wander around, floating above the spiritual,
Living stones and flowers. One thing
And another, one hand, another hand,
All stretch at the end of my communion.
Drilling with a cunning tongue
I maneuver at the center of things.
Ubiquitous as air, irresistible,
I gather clouds,
Reaching every nook with my food, water,
Flames refreshingly cool.
My conviction abstracts them
Into a deity I lobby.
They approach my devout cheeks
Heresy in their mouths.
I calculate, I crave these trappings:
Either I unravel them
Or they enclose me.
The clock chimed twelve.
I was hunting down a fly in my mosquito net.
Without using a hand
I was doing it extra simple:
Through empathy and a curse.
I said: Fly. I said: Blood.
I said: I cancel you out at twelve thirty.
Then I dripped into sleep
Like the seep of some elixir.
The clock chimed thirteen,
The buzz of the fly, enormous rings
Still dangling from my ears.
This fly in the box
Buzzing on a tape.
This bandaged watch
Clicking in ice blocks.
Couple of rotten pears
Breathing of wood.
Die with an alias
No corpse found.
Hide all this under a lid.
What are you doing?
I’m guarding the madhouse.
What are you doing?
I’m guarding the madhouse.
What are you doing?
I’m guarding the madhouse.
I write poems, pull up weeds, burn bodies,
Count stars, dress, weep.
Bending slowly in still life,
Still in life,
Slowly bending in
Life still: flames in broth,
Cat claws in deep winter,
A bow inside the body
Snaps in half.
Bottle with Water
Strapped up by a cord
The bottle gives no sound.
Insects whine and circle.
A hook grows.
A curved line eaten up.
A fish stewed in its own juices.
Sentences and solids.
He sits in an idea,
Dead knot in an open mouth.
Morning air pumped off, cannabis-induced despondency
Replaced him and her. Far away, his ball-playing days,
His cap floating on the river, his soft tissues
Like severed seaweeds. This happened in 1976.
I was living alone in the garden, barely ten, frightened
At night, trembling. Have you ever heard a flower
Bloom? I saw
A fish shuttling in formaldehyde.
Then I had the inkling of being bottled: He and she,
Eyes and bodies, gadgets of two blind beings,
Torn to nothing. The sorrow of flora:
They understand, they can’t speak—
A blossom emerges, a woman living by selling her blood
Hidden in blood, cowering, never seen again,
Just what I did these years later, uttered in rain
The November of that year, those well-tuned colors,
Shadows that shrink and expand. Under a stunned moon,
He stands, these decades later, the dust she breathed
Cornering him still, her face
Locked, not a single picture left.
Ever since then, I’ve trusted my senses only,
Her corpse deserted by birds, the flesh of all reason
Swinging on a sheet of paper,
That fiction surviving in the wind. Now I’m back
In that absent adolescence. No bones of his
Found in the garden. Two people
Buried speechless in one body.
Therefore I’m sure
I’m the scoundrel moon, seeing everything
In the grass, these many years, old tires in the path.
Translated from the Chinese by Stephen Haven and Li YongyiYu Nu
is the author of
The Watchman and one other collection of poetry. He is the soul of the Chinese Inexplicability school of poetry.This poem first appeared in Issue 10 of The Common. Click here to purchase.
About the Translators
is the author of The Last Sacred Place in North America
(2012, winner of the New American Press Poetry Prize). He has published two previous collections of poetry, Dust and Bread
(2008, for which he was named Ohio Poet of the Year), and The Long Silence of the Mohawk Carpet
Smokestack (2004). He directs the MFA Program in Creative Writing at Ashland University, in Ohio. He was twice a Fulbright Professor of American literature at universities in Beijing.
Li Yongyi is Professor of English at Chongqing University, in Chongqing, China. He was a 2012–2013 Fulbright Scholar in Residence at the University of Washington. His major fields of scholarship include Anglo-American modern poetry, classical Roman poetry, and classical Chinese poetry. He has translated fourteen books into Chinese from English, French and Latin. His translation of Carmina was the first Chinese translation of the entire body of Catullus’s poetry. He is the author on one collection of his own poems, Swordsman Poet Phantom.