The Poetry Project

On Duo Duo and Wang Yin

Review by Simon Schuchat

Here are two new translations of important and wonderful Chinese poets, by two of the finest contemporary translators of Chinese literature. A northerner and a southerner. One was already adolescent during the Cultural Revolution, the other a primary school student. The whole poem can never be translated, of course; the musicality of Chinese does not translate, while English’s tension between Latinate and demotic, between written and spoken, is entirely different from Chinese’s interplay of phrasing between written and spoken, imported and revived terminology. These two poets speak to the reader, without the formality of direct address in classical poetry, but without losing the paratactic and indeterminate potential of the classical tradition. That acknowledged, both Lucas Klein and Andrea Lingenfelter, consistently achieve the impossible and bring the poetry into English. They recreate voices for the poets themselves, which do not resemble their invisible interpreters. Both books have useful introductions, with biographic, anecdotal and critical context.

Duo Duo (the pen-name of Li Shizheng), the elder of the two, was already a prominent “Misty” poet when he boarded a plane to London to participate in a poetry reading. An accident of itinerary: it was June 4, 1989, and he didn’t return to China until 2004. WORDS AS GRAIN covers the entirety of his writing life, pre-, during, and post-exile. Exile is a common state for poets, in any tradition (Ovid in Romania, but equally Su Dongpo in China’s far south) but that doesn’t make it welcome:

meaning nothing about it will ever be recalled
nor will anything be worth recurrent vanishing

the painted eyes on the boat look ahead
on the road, only horses return

just then, rolling clouds
suddenly catch up with the pipe organ roar

every instant of defeat surges into it
keys no longer need to speculate, thunder is never empty

the ocean doesn’t only count sand, some people
still write letters, but no longer send them –                                      

                                                (WHOSE FORGOTTEN WEATHER IS THIS, p. 165)

But his poetry is more than the exile’s lament, and beyond either the hopes of the early reform era or their subsequent crushing first by armed force and then by raging capital. Surrealist poetry, loosely speaking, seeks to produce or transmit an emotional message that resists paraphrase or explanation, jumping over logical connections. Duo Duo, especially in his more recent poems, is situated in:

this other zone between intuition and exegesis                                    

                                                (from THE PASSING OF THE BIG SNAKE, p. 35)

So, he is something of a surrealist.

tonight a piano made of ice and a goldfish’s universal meditations are in synch
but the obtuse sea knows only how to rise alone

                                                (from TONIGHT WE SOW, p. 6)

This might be illuminated by the final line – “tonight is the night of our divorce” but is it really clear? There are three persons here – the piano, the goldfish and the obtuse sea. What’s going on?

Like poets anywhere, Duo Duo rails against language:

words being what’s said, words’
remnants, saying everything

                                            (from DRINKING BLOOD IN THE WORDLESS ZONE, p. 40)

And he writes beautifully of love and marriage, directly addressing the other in the sequence “The Desire of the Rose Now the Same as the Desire of Swords” (pp. 112-122).

Wang Yin, eleven years younger than Duo Duo, is Shanghainese, with a day job as art critic and journalist at Southern Weekly, a leading liberal newspaper. He has traveled internationally, but not as an exile. (One of the added delights of GHOSTS CITY SEA is a portfolio of Wang’s photography, with images from around the world, Chicago as well as Thailand). As Ms. Lingenfelter notes in her introduction, he is as much at home in Paris as in Shanghai. His journeys have a place in his poems:

that expanse of blue, that expanse
of color so close to blue
is just an expanse of blue, with grey-green wind
blowing at the usual time, like a painting delivered before a wedding
people come to the seashore, stop in their tracks
butterflies knocking against a glass wall
facing tall cliffs, they have nothing to say
trying not to lose their way, they wander even further off the path
this is only one piece of the world, one piece of a heart

                                            (from THAT EXPANSE OF BLUE, pp. 49-51)

In China, no less than the rest of the world, the poet cannot avoid politics. Back in 2008, Wang Yin, in a teahouse with other poets and his translator, responded to the question: “to say [my poetry] is political is wrong, but to say it isn’t political is also wrong.” Words are always carrying extra weight: the storm is more than just meteorology:

wings broken by the storm
are the color of bile

                                            (from THAT EXPANSE OF BLUE, pp. 49-51)

at last there is yesterday
at last there is fury
dreams now have a core
revolution resembles something like normal life at last
this day and last night are buried together entwined at last

                                            (from AT LAST THERE IS YESTERDAY, p. 11)

Shanghai (literally, “above the sea”), that marvelous city, is alive in Wang’s poetry:

today’s heavy rain poured down last night
a gift from heaven, cold and beautiful
the city is harboring grief
traces of glass turned to ash in a violin case        

the naming of the airship repeatedly postponed
I still don’t know the color of its sound
we’ll have to journey to the end of the world
for the angels’ tears to blur the sea

the secret on my lips is close to madness
it’s neither key nor spark
it’s not the shyness of starlight, much less
tonight’s heavy rain that falls into tomorrow

                                            (TONIGHT’S HEAVY RAIN POURED DOWN LAST NIGHT, p. 35)

Beyond this lovely selection, next July NYRB Poets will issue A SUMMER DAY IN THE COMPANY OF GHOSTS, a full-scale selected poems – so think of this as a preview of Wang Yin’s coming attractions.

Simon Schuchat

16 November 2021



#268 – Spring 2022