The reweaving of time, Bei Dao’s poetry

The Rose of Time: New and Selected Poems by Bei Dao

Edited by Eliot Weinberger, Translated by Yanbing Chen, David Hinton, Chen Maiping, Iona Ma-Cheong, Bonnie S. McDougall and Eliot Weinberger – New Directions, 2010, $16.95 (288pp)

A review by Paul Stubbs

Just as Hölderlin through his writings wanted to make ‘disappear’ the ‘divisions in which we think and exist’, so too in the poetry of Bei Dao we experience consciousness again as a hypothesis; a new world problem to solve through the regeneration of language. From poem to poem a battle is fought between image and word upon the coterminous continents of his imagination as, like a poetical glass-blower, Bei Dao breathes new eternal shapes into words. To Western twenty-first-century eyes, his poems may appear born of the American ‘Imagist’ or ‘Objectivist’ schools, but they are in fact new concentrated structures of his own Chinese language—elliptical and oneiric images turning over the lathe of the planet. This selection by New Directions brings together, for the first time, five previous collections translated into English, beginning with The August Sleepwalker, in which we encounter the early work, much of which initially appeared in the influential underground journal that Bei Dao co-founded in 1978, Today (or Jintian). The journal was banned after two years, but not before his name, and poetry, had been spread widely.

Debasement is the password of the base.

Nobility the epitaph of the noble.

See how the gilded sky is covered

with the drifting twisted shadows of the dead.

Lines from this poem acted as something of a clarion call for the youth (‘Let me tell you, world, / I-do-not-believe!’) and, thirteen years later, appeared on banners carried by students during the popular movements of 1989, which culminated in the Tiananmen Square massacre. A new poetry was born, described derogatively by the authorities as menglong shi, ‘misty’ or ‘obscure’. Bei Dao’s main concern was and still is freedom, yet ‘freedom’ in his poems is always what occurs in the aftermath of history, or where in the philosopher John Gray’s words there is ‘an interval between anarchy and tyranny’. Freedom is a constantly shifting shape, as if an ever-evolving breath trapped between new lungs was forcing each born civilization to act (or not) on its behalf. As Bei Dao writes of it: ‘Freedom is nothing but the distance / between the hunter and the hunted’. He portrays the concentrated world-worn despair of the humanist as an act of poetical authority, confronting man’s ethical-anthropological position on the planet by ventriloquising the still untold carcasses of history, thus opening up for them and us, an immense world dialogue. His syntax soon becomes as familiar to us as graffiti, while the structures remain throughout as logical as geometrical scaffolds; his language bears the eternal historical responsibility of the newsreel, but like a modern day Sisyphus, Bei Dao carries the ancient weight of his language back up the gradient and ever-steepening slopes of his readers’ minds, to construct a poetical monument of the times for ‘all’ times:

the wish to move the stone

is a mountain range rising and falling in history books

(‘On Tradition’)

He has understood that what ‘history’ or ‘time’ can offer is only really an old mask to wear, barely different than the one we have since birth worn as our own face. His cosmic sense of the sand-shifting of truth is evident throughout his poems, and having prepared and printed his own magazine he knows just how transitory and fragile the ‘word’ can really be in the world, the ‘written word’ that overwrites and underwrites the truth or facts:

Outdated newspapers converge into a decomposed ocean

(‘Old Snow’)

A word has abolished another word

(‘The Morning’s Story’)

after words slide beyond the book

the white page is pure amnesia

(‘Asking The Sky’)

the earth’s book turns the page of this moment

(‘Road Song’)

The post-revolution poem ‘Requiem’ from the 1991 collection Old Snow is his long-awaited verdict on past events. Yet, as a memorial or an act of remembrance it is defunct, revealing instead (and brilliantly) only the damning, inconsolable and metaphysical truth of our always terminal human condition: ‘at the end of hatred is hatred’.

It is not hopeless, it is human, the realization of the same planetary wheel on which generation after generation must clamber:

you are all the same age

love has founded for the dead

an everlasting alliance

you embrace each other closely

in the massive register of deaths

Bei Dao rearranges past, present and future, until they become only the one and same time-clot moving through the arteries of death, and because ‘history’ is something hereditary inside us all, he opens our eyes again to each different era, re-fleshing us as a statue brought to life in the past, or present, or tomorrow, but with a dreamlike tale to tell.

come, you barbarians

please join this legend

this moment reserved in advance blooms

humble flames

becoming a tiger in a foreign land

we’ve travelled everywhere

always setting out from the next tree

and returning, just to name

that sorrow of the road

(‘The Next Tree’)

In his recent book on Bei Dao, The Chinese Poetry of Bei Dao, 1978-2000, Resistance and Exile, the Chinese scholar Dian Li talks wisely of the poet’s ‘references to fixed expressions’ that often overlap or intermingle with the ‘appropriations of other literatures’. These are nominal depictions of how the sheer weight of historical and political information in the poems are condensed and fused into the language, each poem being a palimpsest of earlier poems, and each new page just another layer in the great shelf of what, each century, is being attributed to truth. It has also been said that the style of Bei Dao is that of a language pushing beyond its own limits, but this may be a superfluous statement, because for the true original there is no limit to language or to what it can perform, though these poems in some ways have bypassed language, having engineered for themselves instead a laboratory of metaphors and verbs, to create and perfect an innovative magnetised force-field of meaning to which the iron-filings of human accident and chance cannot help but be attracted.

After the early ‘post cultural-revolution’ poems, we discover a new pared-down Bei Dao, a poet who appears to be using his imagination as a poetical grinding-machine to crush a once giant language into merely its most necessary and essential word-sizes—such as these lines from ‘Silence and Trembling’, included in his 2000 collection Unlock:

the madness you set free

is the deep silence cast by truth

pride like the glittering of internal wounds

makes words grow dim

Even in the ‘worst of times’ in which this poet has lived, a language can learn to adapt, be reinvented. In the final section of this book, The Rose of Time, which also features poems written in this century, we see his range extended further; but he only achieves it by revisiting some of his earlier landscapes, where scratching back his old outline into the dirt, and readjusting the mask of his own face, he re-experiences the genealogy of self through family:

an eloquent wind brings floods

the logic of the alleyways runs deep in the hearts of the people

you sending for me become the son

I following you become the father

(‘To My Father’)

During the interregnum between the earlier collections and these new poems, Bei Dao has continued to pursue perfection, borne along on a flood of humanity and refuting myths, but in a way that has managed to continually free the human story. Each poem augurs its own liquidation of an ideological empire, preferring as he does to cage the predator in a predatory world. And using language like an advanced technology to redefine what makes us human in an inhuman world:

The great advance

is checked

by an ingenious gear

(‘At this moment’)

Onto his word-anvils he hammers and re-shapes governments, civilizations, traditions, thereby abandoning direct political statement or opinion, choosing instead to assert his own ‘subversive’ standpoint in the form of a lie remoulded into a truth. He achieves this via the alternative alchemy of his imagination, so that each poem is that of a discovery of an irrational truth ‘believed in’ by a society perhaps still lacking the necessary moral courage in which to act; exile from his homeland forced Bei Dao and his language into a corner, at times turning his own attempts to express himself into nothing more than a global glove-puppet: ‘I speak Chinese to the mirror’. But this concentrated sense of self-silence eventually allowed him to tannoy his own soul to the masses, in a way that is never hectoring or bombastic, but in a voice that churns up borders and tears down fences at the point where horizons meet and rejoin their national flags:

the poster hanging from cliff to cliff proclaims to us all:

The future belongs to you

(‘The Occupation’)

These lines may seem hard to comprehend today amid the proselytising fury of faith and the religious and political violence, fragmented and horrifying, ever-present in the world, but for Bei Dao, ‘freedom’ is something we can still attain—though it is often (as was the case in China) only through the human pursuit of seeking out the flawed truths of something as gigantic as totalitarianism or permanent thought-control that any imprint or scraps of freedom’s memory can survive: ‘Torn scraps of paper fluttering’ is how Bei Dao depicted freedom in the early poem ‘Notes from the City of the Sun’. Here and throughout his work, he has sought out those final shreds of literature as propaganda, the final contradictory scraps of modern papyrus, and has managed to pry them free of the human heart-wall, so as to let the true ‘dazibao’ of his time speak: his poetry.

While only a true sinologist or expert in the Chinese language could really inform us of just how fine an achievement this book really is, these translations seem to me an exceptional mirroring of Bei Dao’s poetics. It should be added, though, that The Rose of Time has been enhanced markedly by the editorial and biographical notes by the American writer Eliot Weinberger, whose anthology of new American poets, Outsiders and Innovators, has given him a crucial world insight into the marginal and poetical satellites that spin sometimes too far out of the corner of the public eye.

This collection is without a doubt one of the most necessary and important poetry publications of the last decade. Beyond that, it is a book by a poet who, in his poetical undermining of the absolute monotheistic devotion given at times to a leader, reinterprets and reweaves history for us as a means of salvation, thereby creating (by virtue of their demystifying liberation from time itself, and from conventional verbiage) a new tolerant and non-western literature for western minds:

many languages

fly around the world

the production of language

can neither increase nor decrease

mankind’s silent suffering.

By Paul Stubbs

(first published in The Wolf, issue 23, June 2010)

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