Reviews / June 2016 (Issue 32)


Becoming Secrets: Yang Mu's Memories of Mount Qilai: The Education of a Young a Poet

by Lia Dun

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Yang Mu (author), John Balcom and Yingtsih Balcom (translators), Memories of Mount Qilai: The Education of a Young Poet, Columbia University Press, 2015. 296pgs.

 

What makes a poet? This is the question Yang Mu explores in Memories of Mount Qilai: The Education of a Young Poet, a collection of autobiographical essays that recount Yang Mu's childhood and adolescence in the coastal city of Hualien. The essays illustrate a turbulent period in Taiwanese history, from the last days of the Japanese occupation through the early years of the Republic of China, revealing how these events came to shape Yang Mu as a poet. At the same time, the book is a meditation on the natural beauty of Hualian and on coming of age, resisting the notion that writing serves solely as a reflection of history or as a tool of politics.

The first section of the book "Mountain Wind and Ocean Rain" delves into Yang Mu's childhood during the Japanese occupation through the end of World War II. As a child, he is oblivious to the way history is unfolding around him. When he and his family evacuate Hualian because of the frequent air raids, he notes that it "didn't really feel like we were evacuating, more like a happy spring trip instead." The evacuation is a crucial point in Yang Mu's development not because of the violence that occurred but because of the opportunity it gives Yang Mu to immerse himself in nature and to learn about the Ami people, an indigenous tribe living nearby. Later, Yang Mu's love of nature and his fascination with the indigenous cultures of Taiwan become central to his sense of his self and also to his poetry.

As he grows into adolescence, Yang Mu's personal development becomes more linked to changes occurring in Taiwan. He documents this blurring of the personal and the political in the book's second section "A Return to Degree Zero." With the beginning of martial law under the Kuomintang, Yang Mu describes nighttime visits from the military and the police, as well as the slogans that began appearing everywhere around the city. This environment causes Yang Mu to enter his middle school years "faulty with dread, with abounding perplexity, and an inexplicably scornful frame of mind." Unlike his childhood self, the adolescent Yang Mu must reckon with the world around him, integrating it into his identity.

One of the most important events in Yang Mu's adolescence occurs when a teacher from the mainland hits one of his classmates because he mistakenly thinks the boy is speaking Japanese. The school's principal had banned Japanese and later Taiwanese so that the students would speak Mandarin. Irate, the teacher calls the classmate "'a conquered slave without a country.'" Yang Mu defends the boy, saying that he was speaking Taiwanese, not Japanese. Flustered, the teacher retreats, saying "Taiwanese, Japanese, it's all the same.'" The experience deeply impacts Yang Mu, leading him to reflect on what inspires his art. He acknowledges the power of art derives from the spirit of nature but also notes that many other factors have shaped him and his poetry. Critical to art is the observation of humanity, and Yang Mu credits the incident between his teacher and his classmate as forcing him to become "more sensitive and detached in observing people."

Yang Mu further explores the relationship between the poet and the people around him in the essay entitled "She said what I sought was some kind of escape." Part of the essay recounts a conversation between Yang Mu and a woman assumed to be his lover. The woman challenges him in his belief that love is simply a means to achieve poetry. She believes that love is the "'motive force behind everything'" and finds Yang Mu's view of love "terrible." Yang Mu then backtracks and states that he was only talking for the sake of argument and later concedes that love is only "sometimes" a means to an end. It is obvious that the conversation has rattled him, as he must reflect upon what poetry's role is within human relationships. Are there forces in the world more powerful and important than the poetry he has decided to devote his life to?

The last section "Long Ago, When We Started" synthesises the various factors that have shaped Yang Mu as a poet. In these essays, he returns again to nature and the inspiration he draws from it, particularly from Hualien and its coast. However, he also goes into detail about people who were formative in his development. In the essay "Teacher Hu," Yang Mu writes about a teacher from Hunan who provided him with banned books. Teacher Hu talks at great length about his hometown, Xiangxi, and soon Yang Mu becomes fascinated by it as well. Because of Teacher Hu, Yang Mu not only becomes more aware of the world around him, but also expands his imaginative capabilities as a writer. It is through imagining Teacher Hu's hometown of Xiangxi that he begins to empathise with the feelings of homesickness that his teacher must feel living in Hualien. This in turn causes him to imagine the landscape of his hometown from a different perspective. In this way, the disparate influences of history, human relations and nature come together to feed Yang Mu's growth as a writer.

In the end, Memories of Mount Qilai does not provide any concrete answers to the question of what makes a poet. Nature, politics, love and war all leave their impressions on the young Yang Mu, yet the lessons he draws from these experiences are often different from what we normally associate with poetic "inspiration." Seemingly random occurrences have profound impact, while things that should be considered meaningful are either unimportant or have consequences that defy expectation. In the book's last line, when Yang Mu says to the ocean, "Good-bye … you are my secret," it is like he is acknowledging how difficult it is to sum up all of these experiences, and they become secrets because they are neither fully coherent nor graspable.

 

 
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