In the early books of the Chen series I recall poems associated with relationships or pastoral scenes. I remember grand vistas and potent emotions.
In Don’t Cry, Tai Lake, which I reviewed in my last post, there are quotations from classic Chinese poetry. In a moment of melancholy Chen recalls lines from Su Shi of the Song dynasty:
It is nothing but a dream, / for the past, for the present. / Whoever wakes out of the dream? / There is only a never-ending cycle of old joy, and new grief. / Someday, someone else, / in view of the tower at night, / may sigh deeply for me.
But Chen’s poetry does not live in the past. He provides current imagery in his poetry when he thinks of the lovely Shanshan and their developing relationship and her efforts against fierce opposition to save Tai Lake:
In a trance of blazing poppies
or in the cooling shade, deeply covered
with moss, you have forgotten
the night we spent on the bridge,
beyond them converging
into music on your retina, while
you conducted with your cigarette
a tone poem of the sleepless lake,
when you no longer belonged
to a place, nor a time, nor yourself.
When another white water bird flies
from the calendar, may you dream
no longer of a pale oyster
clinging to the grim limestone.
(Where are you now, as dawn taps
at my window with her rosy fingers,
as the fragrance of coffee and bread
penetrates the wakening mind,
and as the door, like a smile,
welcomes flowers and newspapers?)
His poetry becomes powerful when he turns to contemporary industry. What startled me and stayed with me was Chen’s poetry describing pollution:
The morning comes to the lake
in waves of toxic waste, waves
of poisonous air, surging to smother
the smile in the waking boughs.
she walks in a red jacket
like a bright sail through the dust
under the network of pipes, long
in disrepair, spreading cobweblike,
dripping with contaminated water.
The broken metal-blue fingernails
of the leaves clutching
the barren bank of the lake,
the dead fish afloat, shining
with the mercury bellies trembling,
their glassy eyes still flashing
with the last horror and fascination
Soon, the spring is departing again.
How much more of wind and rain
can it really endure? Only the cobweb
still cares, trying to catch
a touch of fading memory.
Why is the door always covered
in the dust of doubts?
The lake cries, staring
at the silent splendid sun.
I should not have been surprised as I was at the power of modern images.
The only book of poetry I have reviewed on this blog is Anthem for Doomed Youth, an anthology of World War I poetry, by participants in the Great War. I found those poems powerful and moving. Several describe the modern mechanical efficiency of killing.
John Hobson closes his poem The Machine Gun:
Here do I lie,
Hidden by grass and flowers,
With my machine-gun,
Ghost of modern war.
The sun floats high,
The moon through deep blue hours,
I watch with my machine-gun
At Death’s grim door.
There is insight into modern life through poems that is beyond what prose can tell us.
****Xiaolong, Qiu – (2009) - Death of a Red Heroine (Second best of 2009 fiction); (2011) - "X" is for Qui Xiaolong; (2011) - A Case for Two Cities; (2012) - "X" is for Qiu Xiaolong Again; (2012) - A Loyal Character Dancer; (2013) - Red Mandarin Dress and Reflections on red Mandarin dresses; (2015) - The Mao Case; (2016) - Don't Cry, Tai Lake