Translated from Chinese by Fiona Sze-Lorrain
(Storrs, CT: World Poetry Books, 2019)
My Mountain Country, a collection of poems from three of her books in the original Chinese, tempts the Western reader to identify a bucolic romanticism in her work and perhaps even a modern Eden in China. Yet if we are to do that, it would have to be an Eden as spoken by Eve — a Chinese Eve. Doing so might well fail to appreciate her native Chinese worldview, so let us keep that in check for now. Across the three volumes collected here in three corresponding sections, we get closer to a particular mind with a particular set of experiences that enriches us with the soft edges of her difficult and poignant moments.
Ye paints her words across the rich canvas of rural family life and the wellsprings of flora and fauna. Whether squaring off with a tiger keelback in “Realgar” or extolling the virtues of a river that arises from literal springs in “Hymn to the Spring Water,” the speakers in Ye’s poems confront and reflect on the natural world with an intensity that presses right through the images they cast.
Unlike symbolized Western nature, Ye sees nature as its own spiritual realm. It’s as if nature “is what it is” but also something enveloped in our spiritual lives as well. In “Backyard,” we find the speaker returning to her backyard after a long absence from it. Fallen leaves are leaves but also “a golden floor.” The poem reaches further into metaphor’s spiritual realm, where the metaphorical eases into the metaphysical:
I raise my head, watch the dusk through forking branches; within it
I see pigeons hover to and fro, or multiple
scratches on my heart…
The pain transcends the physical into the spiritual but the spiritual also, compellingly, swirls back into the physical as the poem continues: “On shattered tiles, my feet sink and I fall / into my body cracks.” This is no naturalist poetry in the same tradition as Tu Fu or the resonant Li Po but something entirely else, as a female intuition dominates these poems and it resonates and questions the basis of the physical world in ways more in common with Western cinema (The Matrix) than in the contemporary American poetry so thoroughly embroiled in politics and social justice.
This is not to say that Ye foregoes the political completely; she merely doesn’t approach it head on. There’s a lesson here to Western writers who have seemingly forgotten the power of subtly in political discussions. Even the contemporary Chinese poet Bei Dao, whose politics are never on the backburner, surges with rage and defiance but manages to raise up rather than flail sadly into the morass of contemporary rhetoric.
In “A Broken Heart Takes the Night Train” and “My Mountain Country” we see shades of politics rather than the poet battering the reader over the head with it. “A Broken Heart Takes the Night Train” evokes the sadness of a sister perseverating on the privileges she has had that her brother encouraged her to pursue:
But she plunged headlong
into her destiny—a whirlpool—never turned back
or stopped to reflect:
from Jinhua to Lishui, over a hundred kilometers
how did her unemployed brother
find his way home?
While the sister pursued the privileges of a meritocratic system that posits benefits upon those do well on “entrance exams in Jinhua,” her brother was left behind for good. Here the personal and the psychological ramifications of privilege rippled out into regret as suggested here:
heartbroken soul can’t control a night train
a deplorable life, such scrutiny
Of course, the scrutiny resonates doubly: she must suffer the self-scrutiny for ditching her brother and the scrutiny she will inevitably suffer when she rises in the ranks of the privileged. The politics are intricately woven into the personal life. For all the political and social rage in the West, it would benefit from these subtle lessons. After all, it’s not the policy or its figureheads or ideologues themselves that people can care about, it’s the people and their woes that people will make change for.
“My Mountain Country” evokes a “country” at once imagined and real. The speaker begins by noting her place in the country:
One spring, in my country greenhouse
I appeased my body waves
and observed stars at night. In the courtyard, I searched for lunar craters
big and small with a high-powered telescope
One by one, timeless impact craters mirrored Southwest Zhejiang
No joy, no sorrow
in the valley where I lived secluded
The message is clear. While she may be speaking about the emotional deadness of the cold observations of the moon, she coincidentally lambasts the entire coastal province of China for its emotionlessness, which now, due to economic reform, has become one of China’s wealthiest provinces. In the meantime, the speaker observes a red-billed blue magpie whose presence in the idyllic mountain country no doubt stands in for the speaker herself. It, like “all things on Earth suffers the pain of fission,” and while it may not suffer the deadened life of the province, it does recognize the truer, more dynamic cycles of nature. The sweetness is bitter but maybe not, she suggests, if you live in your own imaginary country. Maybe the imaginative space, the space that poetry offers us after all, is what matters most — at least if the observable political world deadens us.
It may be that we no longer have writers native to a particular culture but writers from a particular culture who speak to the world as a whole. Maybe we have always had that, and the internet, all sectors of the virtual world, the porousness of national boundaries, international travel and trade, among other global forces have simply blurred our vision of and in the world. Whatever the case may be, Ye rises to the challenge of speaking her region and her people’s language and language itself, our original virtual reality, through to the heart of any human animal.
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PK Eriksson is a poet, critic, and English teacher from Chicago. PK loves this life, Earth, and the intimacies words sing. PK’s poems and reviews have appeared in The Adroit Journal, Anomaly, The Literary Review, Quail Belle, The Santa Fe New Mexican, among other publications. @pkeriksson10 for twitter.