Reviews / September 2014 (Issue 25)

The Persistence of Poetry: Han Dong's A Phone Call from Dalian and Lan Lan's Canyon in the Body

by Lu Jin

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Han Dong (author), Nicky Harman (editor and translator), A Phone Call from Dalian, The Chinese University Press, 2012, 108 pgs.
Lan Lan (author), Fiona Sze-Lorrain (translator), Canyon in the Body, The Chinese University Press, 2013, 184 pgs.


Han Dong's A Phone Call from Dalian and Lan Lan's Canyon in the Body are two fascinating poetry collections from the JINTIAN series of contemporary literature, a bilingual project "featuring new and innovating writing from mainland China and abroad." Literally meaning "today" and now a North American based literary enterprise, JINTIAN descends from the influential underground literary magazine of the same name published during the wave of avant-garde poetry in China in the 1980s. While the magazine was quickly forced to shut down, the impassioned voice of JINTIAN has persisted to this day. In its devoted, varied efforts to preserve, introduce and foster contemporary Chinese literature, JINTIAN represents an aspiration to fuse both past and future, nostalgia and hope, into an ever-present moment, the today of poetry.

The idea of casting both the old and new has certainly gone into the editing of this particular series. Innovative as they are, Han Dong and Lan Lan are by no means "new" writing figures in China, as both rose to fame in the 80s. Yet they are new voices to the rest of the world. And they remain new, for they continue to write. Each of these titles features the poet's recent, less-read work, as well as past, iconic musings, enabling the reader to see change or consistency, clarity or complexity within the writer's oeuvre.


A Phone Call from Dalian does not present Han Dong's poems in chronological order, but, with their publication dates available, it takes only a little leafing back and forth to restore the sprawling varieties into something like a paradigm shift. The handful of poems written in the early 80s gives you a poetics of explicit disbelief with still a latent earnestness. "Of the Wild Goose Pagoda" (1982) is such a poem, and one that made Han's name overnight. Tempted by the pagoda's official association with heroism, ordinary visitors, living a pathetic illusion, mount the tower only to experience an ordinary view:

Of the Wild Goose Pagoda
What do we really know
We climb up
Look at the view around us
And then come down again.

Possessing an anti-climactic truth-telling quality, the poem is narrated in matter-of-fact calmness, flouting the high-flown sentimentality that still feeds many forms of social and literary discourse. "Mountain People" (1982) and "So You've Seen the Sea" (1983) use essentially the same logic to question blatant ideals. Read together, they appear to be self-defeating—while the son in "Mountain People" regrets that his forefathers had not persisted in migrating toward the coastline, the other poem tirelessly repeats back: "So you've seen the sea/ […] / Just like this, and nothing more," an rejoinder that may well have been given by the tired forefathers in "Mountain People" who cared not to see the sea. I say there is earnestness in Han, not because his tone is kept cool, but because of the sly humour that keeps his criticism from verging into cynicism. The intended colloquialism of the poems never fails to evoke a laugh, yet his questions are real, valid questions.

The poems from the late 80s in this collection offer a more urgent earnestness, sometimes even solemnity. It is in the "real contentment" of "a ray of sunlight / Shining in a woodland clearing" ("Let Me Describe the Rainstorm" 1986) and in the "softer part" within him remembering "a lonely country life" ("The Softer Part" 1985). In lines such as

The city, at its brilliant core
Needs some of this luster
Placed on a table
Some shadows are needed
To heal their wounds" ("I Hear Cups" 1987)

one even finds an open lyricism, although on that is still more obvious in the original Mandarin lines, which, to my surprise, rhyme:


Healing luster and cooling shades seem to be the key therapeutic images of this period, combating the "darkness like a square" that explodes in "There is a Darkness" (1988), a deadly poem which Maghiel van Crevel in his introduction to the book describes as "incantatory" and which in 1989 became a prophecy.

Past the culturally and politically turbulent late 80s, his involved detachment turns into a paradoxical stillness, manifest in a fine string of short lines on still objects. "A Loud Noise" (2001) contemplates the relativity of motion and stillness; "Rain" (2002) becomes a "major event" when "nothing much is happening" and "Round Jade" (2003) sends off a "restrained glow" that "illuminates nothing." Han restores objects to their objectivity, their autonomous existence without human intervention—the thusness of the world. In "These Past Few Years" (2002), Han admits a self-contended acceptance of such a world and life:

I'm alive, but not looking forward to old age […]
I'm losing teeth—well, so be it […]
Words don't torment me any more
And I don't torment language either […]
I'm still Han Dong but now they call me "old man"
This old man's still haling, goes climbing every week […]
And half-way up the hill, he's on his way down again

Nothing gets more typically Han Dong than these last two lines, superficially retired but essentially life-affirming—at least the voluntary coming-down here is far more wholesome than the disillusioned dismount from the "Wild Goose Pagoda." The most recent poems in the collection see Han turning his poetical and quasi-philosophical gazes to the mundane and everyday ("The Chicken Seller" 2009, "The Worker's Hand" 2010) and other times weaving the specificity of locales ("A Phone Call from Dalian" 2008, "Visiting Shandong" 2009, "It's Foggy" [on "this city"], 2009) into his latest tapestry. These poems also beckon a memory of his Shenzhen poems of the 90s—crazy poems they are—as contemporary portraits of a mad, magnificent life in China.


While Han Dong's poetry is manly, controlled and ironic, Lan Lan's work is highly lyrical sensuous, delicate, with a tender sophistication. In Canyon in the Body, her poems are grouped thematically in five entitled sections, which helps paint the continuity of her mental landscape. "Indeed," a somewhat distressing opening section, lays bare an artist's gut-wrenching struggles with lies ("Verite," "Studying History"), crime ("Train, Train"), moral ugliness ("Shock," "What Is More Is Silence") and the nature of art ("My Pen," "Insomnia," "Poets Are Useless," "Death of the Cobbler"). On the one hand, poetry never ceases to provide the truth-seeking poet with moral energy; on the other, poets are known to be forever tormented by an irresolvable moral guilt, especially about the powerlessness of art in times of evil. "A Weight and A Balance" (space intended), the book's second section, finds possibilities of beauty, hope and solace in the artist's ongoing confrontation with an imperfect world. Blake, whom Lan Lan cites as an influence, is evident in lines such as "Each thing has a well (每種事物裡都有一口深井)" ("An Ear of Grain") and in aphoristic fragments like "A Few Grains of Sand." A worldview one may call "organic" seems also manifest as the poet latches her lone being to her "numerous kin" of the light and shade in nature ("Change"). Meanwhile, she takes refuge in motherhood ("I Am Other Things"), blood lines ("Reason for Everything") and the resilience and endurance of Chinese women—"In the land that never lies fallow / only a woman with a radiant basket / silently sows seeds" ("Reality")—as a means to anchor down an alienated soul.

Lan Lan is to me her most natural self with "Canyon in the Body," a serene and delicate section of countryside sketches, brooding wanderings and pensive dialogues with life. "Siesta" remains my favourite piece, as the poet magically paints: "Noon. The village slumps into / a bright late night." Silence could never be more satisfying. Silence is also in the "hushed waters beneath writing paper" ("Only...") and in the man who "is lost in everything / he's lost" ("Lost"). But when wind "blows away the canyon in his body" ("Wind"), mortality, not unlike the ideal of art, grants a hope that "nothing else can be lost" ("Singer"). The two remaining sections give much focus to love. In "A Tree in My Chest," natural wonders and human passions limpidly mirror each other. And in "Password in This Night," sex, marriage and childbirth are all bittersweet composites taken to decode and expand this most exquisite, enduring form of humanity. Sometimes, Lan Lan's language can feel a bit forced and obscure. Nevertheless, the book's powerful closing metaphor of the artist as blacksmith ("A Poet's Work") seems to promise that the poet's agonising struggle with language and art will extend beyond this day.

For both titles, the apt, delicious English translations add new possibilities to the aesthetic life of the poems. Despite a few missteps,[i] imagery and wit continue to surprise, and the original sensibility is eloquently transmitted.

[i] For Han Dong's title, "老婆" (colloquial address to one's wife) in "Mountain People" is translated literally as "old lady," which seems unnecessary. "酷似耶穌"(extremely resembling Jesus) in "In Shenzhen, To a Group of Friends" is confusingly rendered as "a sort of cool Jesus." The translator's footnote for "Making a Note" explaining the allusion to "慈母手中線" is inaccurate, hence her rendering "慈母"as "a foster mother" in the poem is perplexing. Finally, in the Lan Lan volume, there appears to be a jarring grammatical error in the introduction to the poet on the dust jacket.

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