Yang Lian has been in exile since the 1989 Tiananmen crackdown, during which he was in Auckland on a fellowship. The Chinese writer, who along with Bei Dao is the most well known of the so-called Misty Poets of the late 1970s, is now a New Zealand citizen living in the U.K. But his verse is fraught with yearning for the China of his birth. In the preface to his most recent collection, translated into English as Lee Valley Poems, he alludes longingly to the wild-goose image in classical Chinese verse and its use by the great bards Wang Wei, Li Bai and Du Fu as an "emblem of the homeless wanderer." Indeed, it was the "chilly honk" of a wild goose heard through his open bedroom window one night, "shattering the dark green glass-like silence of London," that inspired this volume.
These days it's footloose Chinese novelists who get the most attention from readers writers like Ha Jin, who's been living in the U.S. for the past quarter-century, and Ma Jian, who calls London home. There's also a general preference for prose, which sidelines poetry China's most ancient and esteemed literary genre in favor of wrenching fables and misery memoirs about the Cultural Revolution. It doesn't help that translated Chinese poetry tends to come only in door-stopping hardback anthologies or hard-to-find volumes from university presses or small houses like Bloodaxe, publisher of Yang's most recent book.
This collection released last October in the U.K., but in the U.S. only last month is a difficult but rich one, fully repaying the reader's persistence. Divided into a section of short poems followed by a longer 25-part sequence, it is written in what Yang refers to as "the grammar of lunatics." Read: dreamlike syntax and half-formed thoughts. Those lonely Tang dynasty poets may be Yang's original blues brothers, but he's as much a modernist and symbolist in the vein of Mallarmé or Rimbaud, whose famous "The Drunken Boat" is recalled in one poem. Chinese cultural images seep in, as when Yang likens the ripples of a river to splintered porcelain, or more clumsily mentions "chopsticks of rain." But Yang is a poet, period, not a Chinese poet, and his work is rooted not in geography but his own imagination. "Apart from a line of poetry," he writes, "we have nowhere to exist."
To exist in Yang's lines can be a gorgeous but frustrating adventure. "My mind is a starry sky," he says in "The Journey." It's not a particularly inspired metaphor but an expansive one that hints at the world his work inhabits: a constellation of spectacular visions ("in your lungs/ a fatal heritage scatters snowflakes") whose meanings are impossible to wholly understand. Each poem is instead propelled by the "pull of dreams." Or nightmares: seagulls are nailed "like broken white crosses" to the sky and "water waves like a drowned hand."
Yang may risk solipsism, but his lines can be experienced as fuguelike trances that create their own sense of time and place. In the opener, "Where the River Turns," he describes how "the sky's fresh scent excites the dead/ as if answering to a conductor's cold and beautiful gesture." When Yang the maestro cues the violins, expect a concerto of exquisite, misty and otherworldly things.