Poetry in translation / July 2011 (Issue 14)

Five Poems

by Zhai Yongming, translated from the Chinese by Andrea Lingenfelter

Abandoned House

There, the steps are a deep purple
There, the plants are red sunbirds
There, the stones have human faces

I often pass by there
In a variety of nervous postures
I've always been feeble come dusk
And that abandoned house shuts its eyes tight
As I stand and stare
Watching rays of daylight slide from its body in agony

Muttering to myself, heart racing
My footsteps circle, while the nameless and contagious sorrow
Shooting from the rooftop passes through my brain
Like a name too lofty to reach
Like a gift savored in solitary splendor or a painting
Like a piece of glass sparkling with refinement but heavy with death

There, everything is like a rumor
And heatstruck lamps offer their conspiracies
There, all will be proven: nothing will remain

I arrive          I approach           I trespass
Nursing a temperament I’ve never revealed
Living like an urn filled with ashes

Its proud days lie buried in dust, untouched
And just like this abandoned house
I am myself

Climbing the Heights on the Double Ninth

        ----People all around adorned with flowers, but someone is missing

The problem of longing for family           the problem of brotherly love
The most touching problem of all is
Climbing the heights
When you’ve reached a pinnacle
And raise a cup

Today I am alone    who is there to talk to?
Taking in a distant view        what people call the North Bank
Is that a single white ribbon joining the River, or are there two?
Wherever those twined currents go         I'll be content

Beyond the North Bank          are beautiful women without number
Every man who climbs these heights          will think of them
Even if in the next thousand years          mammals
And humans         merge into one
Maintaining the balance of Nature

Today I raise a cup alone     while River and mountains change color
This figure, "Nine Nine"        is once again
Reborn in my veins
Faraway peaks above and below
Plunge naked into my heart
It's useless but all I can do is
Enjoy the glorious sunshine

Longing is miserable        Being drunk is miserable too
How many sighs in the soughing of the wind?          Who will answer my echo?
Wine poured down the throat          flows into the body's deepest reaches
Problems of desire and mortality
Problems of separation and health
Also change inside the throat          and flow into the body's deepest reaches
They become nimble          yet meticulous
They're drunk          and they're everywhere

Zhai Yongming notes that she wrote this poem after climbing Xisha Mountain in Nanjing on the Double Ninth. The Double Ninth is a festival that takes place every autumn, on the ninth day of the ninth lunar month. The original meaning of the festival may have been related to driving away bad luck, but it has long been an occasion for outings, especially hikes in the hills to some viewpoint, for chrysanthemum viewing, and for drinking chrysanthemum wine. Traditionally, people also wore zhuyu flowers on this day, for good luck. The epigram is taken from a poem by the Tang dynasty poet, Wang Wei (699-759 CE), "Missing My Shandong Brothers on the Ninth Day of the Ninth Month" (九月九日忆山东兄弟).  

I'm Drunk and You're Dry

the glass arrives right on time
you're not drunk              but who would want to
grasp so treacherous a vortex?
and what’s the point, anyway?

all the instant smiles I see
are so faint               so intelligent
because I'm awash in my own drunkenness

every kind of alcohol fears me
that's why nighttime        is best
for going out on a limb    for snatching from drunkenness
that chemical reaction     you know so well
my perfume                        and you know even better
each and every glance I've stolen

suddenly I'm flushing red
but you get bluer all the time
if it isn't alcohol       it must be
a wound
shoring up the strength
your sobriety softly sucks away

love is like wine
some breathe its vapors            while others imbibe
and bring it into existence        and let it draw blood
and bring us pain                     only intoxication
lets us place our faith in another's folly

The Fifth Month

This is a day full of suspicion, she arrived at this place
And the moon revealed its savage light, seeding heartrending secrets

Walking in the dark, the phosphorescent night, natural and unadorned
She made the whiteness well-defined
So many nights, one after another, her hands
On your chest keep their mystery
Broadbean flowers are eating up Tranquil Village with great care
Falling asleep is incomparably sweet for others

Along the river, a strange tree is sneering faintly
Someone sighs at anonymity, but she doesn’t mind
Entering your living body
Gives certain things a shape; are they alive?
A suffering tree alters its appearance overnight
The scarecrow guarding the wheat fields is startled
His roots have disappeared beneath the heaving earth

She goes, she returns, with a dream-like quality
At the corner of two low walls
A gigantic pomegranate
Displays its lusty colors
Walking languidly, despising all the winds
With a hand in all kinds of evil, she’s always been like this
The tender and intimate voice in your heart
Grew faint long ago
For the other insomniacs, in the fifth month, recalling
Planchette and incantations spreads an unconscious fear


The Testament of Hu Huishan

— With gratitude to Uncle Liu Jiakun
who built a memorial to Hu Huishan;
but who will make memorials
for all of my classmates?

Where do they lie        I cannot find them
No one remains who knows their names
They too had mothers and fathers         mothers and fathers who also burned like flames
They too had umbilical cords                   umbilical cords that took their parents' lives
Winding towards the ground
They too had milk teeth               but no one remains to save them

There won't be another school          where we might study
It’s gone forever             and it's not in Heaven
Nor is there a mother or father to weep for me
They're gone forever     and they're not in Heaven

This is the longest fissure on the face of the earth
It swallowed us all             and all that remains
Are huge numbers       numbers large enough to make an even greater number of people
When the grade of concrete used for my memorial
Is better than that of my school could my frail body
Lift up the mighty earth
Could I turn my body           and release energy from underground
Visible to people on the surface

The bodies of my entire class lie crushed
The corpses of those boys and girls sticking out
Like flowers in the crevices between stones      thrusting out their final bright beauty

We who are now silent
Can no longer show others
The sort of force that turned our school to rubble

This I can feel: above my head
People are no longer suffering          except for my parents
The earth no longer quakes           except for chance flashes of lightning
Flowers will bloom again      cool breezes will blow again       songs will be sung
Those two months of anger are past

My name is Hu Huishan
Born October 11th, 1992
Died May 12th, 2008 at 2:28 in the afternoon
I lived for 15 years, 6 months and 23 days,
And was cremated on May 15th, 2008
My name is Hu Huishan
When I was alive I liked literature, and dreamed of becoming a writer
I haven’t left much behind       for my mother and father:
Photographs, book bag, notebook, milk teeth, umbilicus . . .
I’ve left nothing for anyone else

My name is Hu Huishan
If only I’d never been born      never been mourned
Had never been held in my parents' arms
Had never caused them all this pain
If only the beauty that remained      was a 15-year-old's smiling face
Instead of just a place name, the name of a town
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