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An Artist of the Floating World

Bei Dao’s poetry of exile

The Chinese poet Bei Dao (b. 1949) is among the strongest poetic impressions of my lifetime, up there with Joseph Brodsky, Hans Magnus Enzensberger, Seamus Heaney, Ted Hughes, and Les Murray. No one else comes close. And among these Bei Dao stands out, simply because he is so unknowable for me. “An artist or intellectual who has inherited one ancient tradition has a difficult time living in another,” he has remarked, lapidarily. And not just living, but being identified, being appreciated. Brodsky and Murray may also be big and strange, but their antecedents, influences, reading, are to a greater or lesser extent open to my scrutiny. I’ve never been to China, can hardly imagine Chinese twentieth century history, know nothing about the Chinese language, and don’t hold with the mystical idea—think of Rilke’s “antennae feeling antennae”—that poets don’t need language to understand one another (such twaddle!). Still, I will never forget my first sense of Bei Dao’s clipped and angry reading in the 1985 Poetry International festival in Rotterdam, the poet’s first fateful appearance in the West. It may even have been an accurate characterization. I was happy to read in his essay volume, Midnight’s Gate, in a (for Bei Dao) rare moment of introspection (he is talking about “G.”, a Chinese painter friend): “I suddenly realized, in terms of our personalities, that though we had split in opposite directions there was one commonality—a fury in our hearts.” This punctual fury has endeared him to me for four decades.

In the 1980s and 1990s, “the circuit” threw us together occasionally, my little wheel and his much larger one. (I suspect such a thing as this circuit no longer exists. If it does, it’s a much less international, more anodyne product of patronage, celebrity, and calculation.) I heard him read at a theater in London, a second time in Rotterdam, in Prague; we lunched once en groupe in New York; I was at a conference he attended in San Francisco. I know a couple of his translators, Eliot Weinberger and Jeffrey Yang, and have met some of the other people who featured in his world and whom he has written about: the poetry impresarios Michael March and Martin Mooij (whose brainchild Rotterdam was), the South African poet, painter, and novelist, Breyten Breytenbach. I have his books, all the way back to the obscure Notes from the City of the Sun from Cornell University Press in 1983. For years, his distich, “Debasement is the password of the base, / Nobility the epitaph of the noble” was bandied about among my friends in London, whether as a password or an epitaph I can’t say. In either case, it never wore out. It does the thing poems are meant to do: remain news. “Debasement is the password of the base, / Nobility the epitaph of the noble” (“The Answer”).

Robert Lowell says: “Dates age faster than we do.” It seems clear to me that those who have read Bei Dao’s poetry and prose, perhaps have heard him read, understand something of his ancestry, his youth and development, and the multiple points of his subsequent exile, appreciate that he is someone of exceptional caliber and talents. (The sinologist Jonathan Spence, the generalist Susan Sontag, and the poet Tomas Tranströmer were all admirers.) It is perhaps Bei Dao’s misfortune that he was subsumed in the backwash of the Tiananmen Square crackdown of 1989, after which he was unable to return to his native land for many years (he happened to be abroad at the time). He became, to us in the West, the post-Tiananmen Chinese poet, a diaspora of one and a half (there was another, altogether less impressive poet called Duo Duo). We mixed up, as we are wont to do, the post hoc and the propter hoc. Now—dates age faster than we do—he seems to have missed his selling-point. The Chinese economy is overtaking America’s; we are in a new millennium, with its own problems. Ping-Pong diplomacy, Nixon, Tiananmen Square—all that was then. They tell us a dog is for life, and not just for Christmas. But why is a poet still here when the hook, the juncture, the occasion is passed? What is he for?

They tell us a dog is for life, and not just for Christmas. But why is a poet still here when the hook, the juncture, the occasion is passed? What is he for?

I overstate the matter—our use of and for foreign writers—but not by much. We should be grateful to the whims of history and rulers for occasionally sending us a poet like Bei Dao—Tiananmen give or take. As Harry Lime, the Orson Welles character in The Third Man says: “In Italy, for thirty years under the Borgias, they had warfare, terror, murder, and bloodshed, but they produced Michelangelo, Leonardo Da Vinci, and the Renaissance. In Switzerland, they had brotherly love and five hundred years of democracy and peace, and what did they produce? The cuckoo clock!” Incidentally, this is not an argument in favor of massacres, but rather for the accidental or epiphenomenal nature of civilization, its refusal of conditions or arrangements, whether adverse or favorable.

For twenty years, we may read in Wikipedia, from 1989 to 2009, Bei Dao was “stateless.” Stateless, as in the 1920s and the Nansen passport, the last time nations appeared, reappeared, or were wiped off the map en masse, the first great spate of political migrations. “Stateless”—the word easily slips into the place where Keats used “Forlorn!”: “Stateless! the very word is like a bell / to toll me back from thee to my sole self.” Separated for many years from wife and baby daughter and aging parents, he lived as an itinerant and a guest, by the year or the semester anywhere that would have him, mainly in Northern Europe; periodically in Berlin and Paris, but also in Denmark, Holland, Sweden, the North of England. He landed teaching posts in Michigan, in Oklahoma, and then on the West Coast, where he seemed to settle at University of California, Davis—if “settle” can be the word for the bleak look at the swimming pool, the four orange trees, and the tetchy lawn that gave the anxious householder nothing but chemicals, inedible fruit, and trouble, respectively, in the underwhelming paradise of “Backyard”—only to move to Hong Kong in 2007 as an honorary professor of humanities. In 2009, he was given—or, as they say, took out? like a loan?—American citizenship, a wise, if hardly sovereign insurance policy. But perhaps the Chinese no longer feel they have anything to fear from him, at age seventy-two: “o conspirators, I’m nothing now / but a common wanderer” (“A Portrait”). Or he from them.

As a relic or product of his time among us—like a web of shadows persisting once the person has gone—are his books: the fierce, stark, uncompromising poems of The Rose of Time, a New and Selected from 2010; the genial, even gossipy essays in Midnight’s Gate from 2005; the sounds and smells of the extravagantly sensual Chinese memoir of his first twenty years, City Gate, Open Up from 2017. (I can understand Weinberger’s listing “and, unexpectedly, Dylan Thomas” among Bei Dao’s influences.) In their different modes, the books are unalike enough to seem like the work of three separate writers.

Time’s Mist and Youth’s Mud

The poems seem to hang or float in a single, simplified, unidentifiable, almost abstract landscape. The feeling is rural, specifically coastal, generally solitary: trees, boats, birds, morning or night, moon, stars; some weather; interiors and exteriors. The poems are almost all short and in short lines, jagged, concentrated. It is rare for one to go over a page. They are mainly unpunctuated and lower-case. Fifteen or twenty lines—a hundred words—is maybe the average. There is something persistently pictorial about them, and at the same time there are no scenes one can disappear into, places where one can stroll to the horizon. Objects and bearings are put there, like stage props. The poems stare back at the reader, unflinchingly, confrontingly. One can feel the energy that has gone into their making, the hard masking-tape edges, the chips and curds of unmixed color applied with a palette knife. There is no empty space, no wash, no contextualizing, no aspic. No throat-clearing, no storytelling, little paraphrasable content. No photographic scenes, no subordinate detail. “Bei Dao generally does not care to date his poems,” writes his first translator, Bonnie McDougall. (And, by implication, not to situate them either.) They are not footnotes or lamentations, not the gewgaws many-places-behind-the-decimal-point, where so many would-be poems unfortunately and forgettably congregate.

Montage is the art, and Eisenstein is among the very few influences Bei Dao has named.

Bright, simple, important words seem to collide with other such. Love, time, wind, fire, glass, crows, words, children, years. Over a dozen are called “Untitled”—the rare poem-equivalent to “Composition.” (One is even called “Composition.”) They are difficult poems, neither collages nor surreal, but enforcing unusual or personal connections. They think in images, across categories, making a new, often violent reality that we may think of as dissident or expressionist. Montage is the art, and Sergei Eisenstein is among the very few influences Bei Dao has named. Meaning lies in wait, but so do darkness, brusqueness, haste, imponderability. It is rare, even, for a poem to be comprehensible all the way through. All this is fine, as it should be. They demand intelligence, initiative, nervous sympathy. As the poet himself puts it, “readers one by one clamber onto the shore” (“Mission”). The alternative: just remain fish, like our forefathers.

Bei Dao and some of his co-generationists were attacked by the Chinese authorities for being “misty poets”—the original Chinese term is apparently more aggressive, closer in meaning to “obscure” or “incomprehensible.” Like the French “Fauves,” they took the term and ran with it, as a badge of honor. The poems seem improvised, spontaneous, inspired, dictated. The translations, whether by McDougall, Weinberger, or David Hinton, are pithy and stinging. Single lines and brief passages emerge with the concentrated force of proverbs or slogans, folk-wisdom or dream-imagery. It is easy to imagine them appearing in wall-paintings or student “big-character posters,” as they did in the years leading up to Tiananmen. The unforgettable distich about baseness and passwords for a start. But also:

fruit that cannot make wine
won’t turn into vinegar either (“Head for Winter”)

perhaps only a graveyard can change
this wilderness and assemble a town (“Accomplices”)

the sky sways on its foundation of fear (“One Step”)

youth’s mud is left behind
inside the clock (“Untitled”)

a tin crow sits on a marble pedestal (“Daydream”)

the production of languages
can neither increase nor decrease
mankind’s silent suffering (“Language”)

a bow asks a string for directions (“Ramallah”)

darkness in which voles believe absolutely (“Background”)

Sometimes there are flashes of a ghostly humor: “there are times sunlight still holds / the exhilaration of two dogs meeting” (“Awakening”). Or “fish watch the city from underwater / among fresh bait underwater / there’s an embarrassing anchor” (“Journey”). Or “snow shows deep concern / for a foreigner’s small room” (“Old Snow”), on the experience, no doubt, of being housebound in Scandinavia. The ironical lurking gratitude (“deep concern”), the awareness of small feelings (“embarrassing”) and the elemental, apodictic quality of much of the writing all remind me of the newly exiled Joseph Brodsky of “A Part of Speech”:

Water is glass’s most public form.
Man is more frightening than his skeleton.
A nowhere winter evening with wine. A black
porch resists an osier’s stiff assaults.

Everywhere there are categories and distinctions, transgressions, corrections. The poet has an almost violent perception of disorder, a confined, law-bound, strangely trammeled existence, to which his response is an overwhelming desire for change, a spontaneous vehemence paired with a sense of his own limitless triviality. As Brodsky (again) said, poetry is a terrific accelerator of consciousness. Bei Dao writes: “Long live . . . ! I shouted only once, damn it / then sprouted a beard / tangled like countless centuries” (“Résumé”). There is a continual drama of power relations: “the ruins / have imperial integrity” (“Composition”); the desire to take effect: “my left hand turns into glass / my right hand turns into iron / I clumsily clap my hands / like a penguin on dry land” (“A Bach Concert”); a lapse into the ineffectual: “you are nothing but / a pictograph that’s lost its sound” (“Rebel”); the effect of the marginal, the barely existing: “stars (these small fists) / combine to form a massive demonstration” (“April”). A persistent mode is that of correction, of adjustment: not A but B. Or conflation: “I bought a newspaper / got change back from the day” (“Untitled”). Things seem as though they may be meant literally, but then volatilize, switching regularly between concreteness and abstraction. This surely is the life of the exile, to whom all experience is concrete / all experience is abstract. Before confused with after, here with there, a life of laws, infractions, exceptions, experiences one never asked to experience, all to be understood from first principles: “that moment was a wheelchair / and the days to come pushed me through distant travels (“Corridor”). One recalls, maybe, that the poet of Metamorphoses was also one of the great poets of exile (Ovid).

I said there are not many poems of Bei Dao’s that one—or I anyway—can readily follow from end to end and so I have broken them into pieces for sampling. Here, though, is one, by way of atonement, a piece almost apologetic in its great simplicity (“A Local Accent”):

I speak Chinese to the mirror
a park has its own winter
I put on music
winter is free of flies
I make coffee unhurriedly
flies don’t understand what’s meant by a native land
I add a little sugar
a native land is a kind of local accent
I hear my fright
on the other end of a phone line

The poem is both furnished and balanced. It has indoor pleasures—coffee, music, no flies—and outdoor anxieties—Chinese, fright, winter. The things in it are endlessly recombinant: mirror and telephone, Chinese and a kind of local accent, flies and sugar, sugar and coffee, Chinese and music, park and flies, winter and sugar, mirror and fright, music and sugar, local and unhurried. It is a poem of solitude, such solitude that one misses having flies to talk to, that one’s language exists in the space between oneself and one’s mirror, that one is so badly spooked by a phone call that the person ringing instinctively says: Oh, you sound so dreadful, is anything the matter? My fright on the other end of a phone line. Perhaps one then sees that the poem is actually composed (think montage!) in alternate lines: the I-lines and the other lines, five of each. The verbs of self, I speak, I put on, I make, I add, I hear—and then the nouns of other, the park, the winter, the flies, the native land, the phone.

Sights, Sounds, and Snacks

Ordinarily, a poet’s prose shows you round the back of his/her poems, what he attends to, admires, aspires toward. The allure—or the pretense, to use a harder word—is that one does nothing but read and write and think about reading and writing for twenty-four hours a day. That nothing else counts. Many of us are guilty. Bei Dao’s prose, as I’ve already suggested, does none of these things. It is startlingly unintrospective, or unanalytical. He has nothing to say on the poems of others, much less his own. In fact, he declares: “Kubin [his translator into German] is a poet, and poets have the right not to explain their work.” An early prose book called Blue House (2000) seems to have almost hilariously deflecting intentions: nothing personal, just profiles and anecdotes of far better-known and more vocal American poets: Allen Ginsberg, Gary Snyder, Clayton Eshleman, Octavio Paz. So enclitic, I think the word is, so modest, it almost seems vanishingly shy, like the work of a puppeteer, who refuses to talk with his bare hands. In the slightly later collection, Midnight’s Gate, Bei Dao is still hugely—and preferentially—interested in others, but at least they’re not all American movers and shakers, and his interest seems less strategic, less distracting, less—if I may say so—morbid. He writes about colorful Chinese individuals abroad, ex-spies, ex-foremen, family members; about drinking and gambling; odd, footloose Danish and Dutch poets; there are little excurses on Kafka and Baudelaire (“During the course of his life in Paris, he moves forty-two times, from 13 rue Hautefeuille in the Latin Quarter all the way to the cemetery at Montparnasse”); he offers amiable generalizations, on short people (Yasser Arafat), on the loneliness of New Yorkers. He is comfortable in his sentences and lets them follow their fancy: “Sunlight is, in fact, New York City’s real master,” “Once the work was finished, he had as much free time as a goldfish,” “A kind of dialogue exists among lawns, and like foreigners living in an English-language environment, unkempt lawns are always beaten in an argument.”

The poet has an almost violent perception of disorder, a confined, law-bound, strangely trammeled existence, to which his response is an overwhelming desire for change, a spontaneous vehemence paired with a sense of his own limitless triviality.

In an aside at a reading, Robert Lowell muttered: “Memory is genius, really.” To me, Bei Dao’s poems are the work of a genius anyway, a genius of juxtaposing, of simplicity, of acceleration, of tunnelling through emblem and image. But they left me quite unprepared for City Gate, Open Up, which is genius in another sense, in Lowell’s sense. Here is someone who lives so deeply in the physical world that I struggle for comparisons. Flaubert? Proust? Sounds, smells, sights, candies and snacks, a complete index of neighbors, record of moves, names of classmates, triumphs, fears, that sense of being one of very many, that other sense of being one. Chapters on strange domestic holdouts and privileges, such things as vinyl records and his parents’ furniture, an attempt to raise rabbits during a period of great hunger. Memories of hunger, and still-slavering memories of food. “With the meager change in my pocket, I’d often linger back and forth between the little picture bookshop and the little-eats shop: stomach rumbling like a motor, mind as blank as an empty pot. If I could have suffered only one of the two, I naturally would’ve chosen the latter.” The sounds are in his ear as he writes, and the charming folksy phrases of diaphanous modification (all preserved in Jeffrey Yang’s wonderfully energetic and responsive translation): “The causes were chicken-feather-and-garlic-peel trivial matters,” “My cousin met me with his head hung down, as silent as an oyster.” “That old relic of a bus looked a little savage on the narrow street, doors and windows quaking hua hua, billows of black smoke pen pen tu tu blasting out, any hint of clear blue sky instantly absorbed.” Elsewhere, in Shanghai, in 1966, “a bus turned a corner, pulled up to its stop, the ticket seller poked his head out the window, sang out his hawking cry, and banged his plank of wood against the bus’s side, echoes rippling out to the hills.” That plank, it seems to me, is indelible. Imperishable. Like its author.