In Sky Lanterns, contemporary Chinese poetry illuminates complicated terrain

Literary / Even for the well-versed poetry enthusiast, Chinese poetry can begin and end with the short bangs of “The River-Merchant’s Wife.” But we’ve traveled far from Ezra Pound’s translation of that eighth century love letter. The road from Cho-Fu-Sa veers and switchbacks to the White Terror, the Cultural Revolution, Tiananmen Square, sweatshop labor, and Richard Gere’s plea for a free Tibet. Not to mention, the trees dressed according to season and the everyday vicissitudes of light. Edited by Frank Stewart and Fiona Sze-Lorrain, Sky Lanterns: New Poetry from China, Formosa, and Beyond illuminates this complicated terrain with stunning and provocative poems, prose, and photography.

“Ancient Enmity,” the opening essay by Bei Dao, a poet in exile since 1989, acts as a manifesto for the work that follows. Standing apart from society, writers must confront the oppressive nature of both the “official language” of the past and the “lingual rubbish” of the present: “Writers must recognize this reality, and through their work restore the freshness, plenitude, and incisiveness of language–and its power to contemplate and name the world anew.” The poets in Sky Lanterns accept Bei Dao’s charge.

Yi Lu’s poem “Is There Such an Eagle” is an example of renaming and remaking through image and interrogation: “Is there an eagle who admits in its cherry-sized heart / there is no lightning no storm no hail / just an urge of warm blood.” The eagle in this poem transforms into a creature strangely tender and afraid. Wei An’s “Life on Earth” startles with its attentiveness to descriptions of the natural world juxtaposed with surreal twists. The translator’s note that he found it difficult to translate “the unguarded expressions of emotion and the direct discussion of truth, beauty, and goodness” illustrates the root of Wei An’s power. And Bei Dao’s “incisiveness of language” cuts painfully in Barbara Yien’s “The White Terror” simile: “Efficient as the cleaner in a gangster / film who wipes cerebrum / from linoleum, then vanishes.”

This issue of Manoa is fierce and luminous. The editors have assembled an impressive collection that indeed names “the world anew” through language and the quiet and exquisitely detailed portraits of the Lisu people by Luo Dan. Even though he captures this ethnic minority in their rural landscape, the photographs echo a moment in Lan Lan’s poem “Unfinished Voyage,” in which she catalogues the daily sights and sounds of the city, before arriving at the poem’s heart: “Before the window, / I’m thinking: I love this world. There, / a fissure opens, my chance is here.” As I turned the pages to face the Lisu–for example, the young man staring from the middle of a blurred stream, his shoulders composed of angles of light–I couldn’t help but feel a fissure open.

My chance to love this world is here.

Sky Lanterns: New Poetry from China, Formosa, and Beyond,

ed. Frank Stewart and Fiona Sze-Lorrain

(University of Hawaii Press, 2012)

Paperback, 155 pages, $20