Zhai Yongming 翟永明 poetry translations

The Poetry of Zhai Yongming 翟永明


Zhai Yongming was born in Chengdu, Sichuan province, in 1955. She as one of the instigators of the “Black Tornado” of woman’s poetry that swept China’s poetry scene in 1986-1989. This came about as a reaction among other woman poets to the official publication of poems from her series and other poems during this period. In fact, was written in 1984, and poems in the series appeared in Sichuan’s unofficial poetry journals and others outside the province in 1985. The series was officially published in book form (with other poems) in 1989. Since the 1980s, Zhai has maintained a position as one of China’s most prominent poets, being a frequent guest at conferences and festivals in Europe and North America since spending over a year travelling in the West with her then artist-husband in the early 1990s.

1) I Have a Broom [我有了一把扫帚]

2) Woman [女人]

I. #1 A Premonition [预感]

II. #3 An Instant [瞬间]

III. #6 The World [世界]

IV. #7 Mother [母亲]

V. #9 Anticipation [憧憬]

VI. #10 Nightmare [噩梦]

VII. #11 Monologue [独白]

VIII. #14 July [七月]

IX. #17 Human Life [人生]

X. #18 Silence [沉默]

XI. #20 The Finish [结束]

3) Peaceful Village [静安庄]

I. The First Month [第一月]

II. The Seventh Month [第七月]

III. The Twelfth Month [第十二月]

4) The Black Room [黑房间]

5) At This Very Moment [此时此刻]

6) The Red Room [红房间]

7) You've Cut Off My Hair [头发被你剪去]

8) Landlord! Landlord! [房东!房东!]

9) Death's Design [死亡的图案]

I. The First Night [第一夜]

II. The Third Night [第三夜]

III. The Seventh Night [第七夜]

10) I Spur the Horse, Flourish the Whip [我策马扬鞭]

11) The Marmot [土拨鼠]

12) I Stand at the Intersection of Perpendicular and Horizontal Streets [我站在直街横街的交点上]

13) A Beetle [甲虫]

14) September [九月]

15) In a Southern Region [在南部地区]

16) Family Affairs [家事]

17) Saturday Afternoon [星期六下午]

18) Zhai Yongming: China’s First Woman’s Poet? (essay by MD, 1995)

I Have a Broom [我有了一把扫帚] (1982)

I have a broom

that is to say

I've a colorful life

fresh air and

a path that is my own

I'll ignore neighbor's ridicule

the obstruction of relatives and friends

I have a broom

I've work

I sweep away today's and yesterday's garbage

clear away the filth in the streets

and in people's minds

I put on new work clothes

Looking in the mirror, I now understand

the mildness of my mother's eyes

I'll never again have to cast perplexed looks

into the street

into a corner

at the colors of billboards

neither in the pained wrinkles of my mother's brow

must I dodge fears of my inability

With the blessings written out by my mother’ s eyes

I brandish a broom

and move on greeting the morning breeze

behind me, a clean street

From Woman [女人], a four part 20 poem cycle) 1984

#1 A Premonition [预感]

The woman in the black gown comes carrying the night

her darting, secretive glance exhausts me

suddenly I remember this is the season all fish die

and all roads pass through the traces of birds in flight

Like a corpse, the mountain peak is dragged off in the darkness

the heartbeat of a shrub nearby can be heard faintly

giant birds look down on me from the sky

with human eyes

all winter a consciousness rises and falls, cruel and male

in a savage, unheard-of weather

I've kept an unusual calm throughout

as if blind, and so I see night in the day

a childlike frankness, my finger prints

can provide me no more sorrow

Footsteps! a sound getting older

dreams appear to know something of this, in my own eyes

I saw a block of time that had forgotten to flower

weigh down on the dusk

Fresh moss in their mouths, the meaning they besought

pours knowing smiles back into the breast

the night convulses, or doesn't, like a cough

choked back in the throat, I've already quit this dead-end hole

#3 An Instant [瞬间]

Stand here, just stand

and become one with the twilight spitting blood

take back the stained-black sun for me

as patient as death is this stone

spellbound, suddenly you know the sky is already far-off

at the last moment the stars pull out, until

the night is cast off and I fall silent

All the years are hijacked in an instant

you arrange the movements of the constellations and stars on my face

a silent sneer, as if sustaining a whipping

Endure this stretch of sky, smoother than the human body

more frigid than metal, only I

heard the ticking as dawn was breaking

a matchless moment of joy, a cold mood

as if harboring doubts about the air, one time it was dew

once it was night; up until I brush the evening aside

until I fall silent

Stand here, just stand

facing this cold, detached stone

and suddenly, at this instant, I experience painfully

its unknown divine nature

and during another dark night

indifferently, I become its counterfeit

#6 The World [世界]

Left by the wind, the esoteric face of the world, a piece of flint

blazes time into doubtful illusions

the sun preserves the reach of its anger with a dictator's eyes

and searches for the top of my head and the soles of my feet

even though this subject is long past. In dreams I am haughty

I approach softly, am impregnated by the sky

there black clouds incubate the setting sun, the sockets of my eyes are filled by an ocean

white coral grows out of the depths of my throat

Waves strike me

as the midwife strikes my back, in this way

the world bursts into my body

alarming me, making me feel a measure of wild joy

I still treasure it, in the mood

of that mighty wild beast, I gaze at the world, lost in thought

I think: History really isn't far away

suddenly I hear the crash of tides, carrying their ancient odors out of

the dusk, in a death like a world falling, bawling to earth

above me, like mankind's door to reproduction

Aeries still glimmers, the precious yet terrifying glow of the maternal instinct

before I was born, I was doomed to plant

the roots of black desires for these primitive rock forms.

Relying on my blood to grow

I've been witness for the world

and so make black night to spare all men disaster

#7 Mother [母亲]

There are too many places I haven't the strength to reach, my feet hurt, Mother, you haven't taught me how to be infected by ancient griefs in rosy rapacious dawns. only my heart's like you

You're my mother, I'm even your blood that flows at daybreak

in the blood pool where you're astonished to see yourself, and wake me

I hear the sound of the world, you cause me to be born, you shape me together with misfortune the fearful twins of this world. For several years now, I've been unable to recall this night's


the ray of light that impregnated you, travelled so far, so tentatively, stood between

life and death, your eyes hold a darkness and a shadow that passes through the soles of your feet

is so heavy

In your embrace, I once betrayed a smile like the answer to a riddle, who knows that

you made me comprehend everything chastely, yet my heart was unmoved

I took the world to be a young virgin, could it be that the hearty laugh

I let out at you never razed enough of the summer? Did it not?

I've been left in the world, by myself, the sun's rays

envelop me sadly, once you bow down to the world do you know what you've lost?

the years put me in a grinder, force me to see myself pulverized

Hey, Mother, when I'm finally shut up, are you glad of it

no one knows how imperceptibly I've loved you, this secret

comes from a part of you, like aching wounds my eyes watch you

living for the sake of living, I seek my own end, in order to resist that ageless love

a stone is cast aside, until it is blasted dry like the marrow in the bones, this world

owns an orphan, causes every blessing to be exposed, yet who best understands

whosoever has been placed in the hands of a mother, will die in the end for being born

#9 Anticipation [憧憬]

Where can I show myself? I don't know

my own face in the water, the people walk by one after another

Imitating this soundless terror

the summer descends, rising and falling

Dew-like, my lover I extend my senses

the whole sky sneers

no woman can get clear of it

I'm used already to examining the way the moon smiles at night

in this place or in that, since I am

soil that suffers through the expectation of nightmares

where can I gather myself together? The evening sun sets

knocking against the dark, I'm still the painful core

In the sunlight, every pose is struck by the shadows

no murderers, but also no survivors

this stretch of sky sets out the first of its ribs

at the distance between stars

My lover, can't the rainstorm in my eyes

make the blood you shed for me return to your body

and work a miracle?

I'm so dependent on you, so small

but one day, this yardstick that I am

will join in with the sky's dark shadows, and astound you incessantly

#10 Nightmare [噩梦]

You lie here, plotting a desert

you laugh like the laying of eggs

someone is covertly arranging

dreams in sunflower patterns. Your heart beats beyond your control

close your eyes, create a fragile, obstinate atmosphere

the sea is all, your body is all

like a huge, ruined bodily organ

and those living, forsaken silent faces

the stars are indifferent, like distant white eyes

a cactus proclaims to the sky

the reason breeding is impossible

And you are? You're not the first to discover cities on the sea

that which raises the twilight up into dawn and makes the color red obvious to the eye

is forever the icy hand

the sea is unmoved, your body is untouched

in a different place raise your head to the moon

beneath the stars a face of death exposes the rocks

in loneliness the night gilds all similar hours

into the remnants of a wall of substance

the whole of you is a dream of degenerate colors

you emerge in the morning, making the sky rust

making the earth beneath your feet revolve in insignificant ways

#11 Monologue [独白]

Me, a wild thought, imbued with the charms of the abyss

accidentally born of you. The earth and the sky

combined as one, you call me woman

and consolidate my body

I'm as soft as water's feathery white body

you hold me in both hands, and I take in the world

an ordinary embryo wearing a body of flesh, in the sunlight

I'm so dazzling you find it hard to believe

I'm the gentlest, most understanding of women

I've seen through it all, yet am willing to share in everything

I long for a winter, a huge black night

my heart as the limit, I want to take hold of your hand

but facing you my pose is a kind of crushing defeat

When you go, my pain

wants to vomit my heart from my mouth

to kill you with love, who's taboo is this?

the sun rises for the whole world! But only for you do I

focus the most hostile tenderness on your entire body

from tip to toe, I have my ways

a chorus of cries for help, can the soul also give a hand?

with the sea as my blood it can

lift me high to the foot of the setting sun, who remembers me?

but what I remember, is surely not just one life

#14 July [七月]

From now on summer is occupied by July

and restraint becomes conviction

from now on I hold up a heavy sky

and turn my back to the sun

You are a season beyond comprehension

I only discover your secrets when I'm in death's embrace

I smile because there're still these last nights

my laugh is my right to remain in the world

and today the hand is still on the crown of my head

what sort of eye is it forces me to see

all methods now no longer exist

July will be a death

Summer is its most appropriate season

I was born as a bird, and only die in the sky

you are the shadow encroaching on my perch

silencing me with mankind's only trick

I've never had deep feelings, so sustained

so attentive, I'm a tiny teardrop

gulping down the sun, I ripen in order to complete myself

and thus my heart is invulnerable

Can it be that I have been the black night that remains in my heart?

in the shadows of the setting sun I've felt

the flesh concealed within you, from start to finish

and so you're the misfortune poured over my body

in July wrapped in dewdrops and dust you sleep soundly

but who knows with what heaviness your bones

are waiting in the dusk

#17 Human Life [人生]

Each day is the enemy of today, we're terrified

evil still rises up, so many names are concealed

pale foreheads, you're secretly

happy, and practice the intentions in your lies

Going like the wind, a black-haired girl

stirs the blood of summer without a sound

with hopelessly enchanting ways

full of secrets, the night enters your hearts

The night frightens us, we seek out our arms

boundless beauty, unlimited wonder

in the form of the moon, in the traces of a falling leaf

the night teaches us to endure it, or enjoy it

I am the seducer. Evincing a fictitious light

uniting with the dust so perfectly

the path appears to run true

the spirits of nature remain aloof, letting you to have your own way

Who's that? And who's that?

coming and going like irresponsible shadows

froth flies up, fated to vanish quickly

the living hand touches each evening, like truth

Countless numbers have walked the path

but for all of you it's the first time

daughters superficially delicate

day approaches, you turn and go

#18 Silence [沉默]

There's always a butterfly calling her name in the night

suddenly she comes, with a smile like quicksilver

the moon is very cold, very ancient within her, already inborn

endowed on the two of them as one, often I attempt, gloomily

to fathom her gestures, but have nothing to show for it

But you barely twenty, standing

nailing this beautiful season

to the inevitable sentence

you still walk in that heartbreaking way

as if declaring an acutely poisonous attitude You're

calm like the countless beauties of a will-o'-the-wisp

your light renders the moon unable to cast down your shadow

Full of life, and yet so amazed

now who was it that silenced you?

a clear gaze aimed at all things, but

everything has left you

more and more swallows build there nests in your house

black opium poppies are hung in the windows as ornaments

your eyes become a snare, packed full of black nights

creeping oxalis plants wither in your hands

How did she learn this art? She dies

but leaves no trace, like the happy darting glance of October

brimming with confidence, emotive, and yet abruptly silent

eyes forever open, watching the sky

#20 The Finish [结束]

When it's done, what of it? On that day

I lifted the child into the air, and, like a tree

returned to the first center point

from beneath the earth the blood gushing up raises me high

now I open entirely-new eyes

and aim a long sigh at the sky: when it's done, what of it?

Hey, look. Don't turn your faces away

seven days make a week and follow me at my heel

I'm encircled by a countless quantity of dreams fulfilled

Having laid away my fill of fresh dreams, suddenly an incomprehensible

suffering gradually yields a clue, and it's newly writ

in the sky: When it's done, what of it?

It'll never end, its echo like a path foretold

all strength shot into the Achilles heel, and there

I no longer know: What of it when it's done?

but in the air there's another sound that's unmistakable, clear

naturally, it's merely the final question

yet no one answers: What of it when it's done?

I'm no longer concerned about my secret, this embryo

even more translucent, like the wailing of October

forever in anticipation of to the end, yet you all endure secretly, wordlessly

the glint of an answer makes me focus on the direction of the dark night

All winter I asked in a small voice, and smiled

enigmatically, who can tell me: When it's done, what of it?

From Peaceful Village [静安庄] (a twelve poem cycle, 1985)

I'm nineteen, entirely ignorant.....

Who could have foreseen I'd develop into a disease?

in Peaceful Village, 1974

The First Month [第一月]

As if it had always existed, as if all was already in order

I arrive, the noise has nothing to do with me

it settles me into a south-facing wing

My first time here I happened upon a pitch-black day

everywhere there were footpaths resembling faces

pale and lonely, the cold wind blew

at a moment like this the fields of corn are stirred up

I arrive here, I hear the howls from the double-fish star

and the endless trembling of a night full of feelings

Tiny haystacks scattered and solemn

The sole fragile cloud, solitary as a wild beast

approaches on tiptoe, reeking of foul weather

Those who I come across become hearts worth knowing

the long fishing rods slide across the water's surface, oil lamps flicker

the hoarse barking of dogs gives one pause

Yesterday the sound of a great wind appeared to comprehend it all

don't let in the black trees

in every corner murderous thoughts take up their places

enduring the moments spread over your body

now unfettered I can become the moonlight

In their dreams a married couple hears the patter of pre-dawn rain

By the stone mill black donkeys discuss the tomorrow

There, land of mingled dark and light

you know all its years like the palm of your hand

I hear a cock crow

and the windlass of a well

The Seventh Month [第七月]

-- In the dog days of summer, if it rains

even if sturdy, it's hard to retain

Who told me of rainy days

I stare at that toxic eye

A strange climate in the season of White Dews[1]

throughout it all I'm in this village of dry wells

first I see a large stone

then the blood on it

Appearing in the sunlight

men and women come forward

kneeling they beseech the sun

the dead road whitens

the setting sun's direction approaches my body

round pebbles blockade the river's surface

this moment like the deepest sorrow

You carry soil in your left hand, water in your right

the fire on your crown dazzling

and the trees are already in league with the sky

There can only be the emergence of one possibility

cooking smoke has already entered the superficially sacred moment

anxious moments like nets

Late at night, the grandmother, both mortal and divine, turns her face to the sky

the stars rotate endlessly, the extreme prophecy clearly states

the souls of people searching for a source of water steam

In my mouth

there are anonymous cracks it's hard to bring up

Above or below

call birds together in magnanimous ways

with the qualities of death

In the dark you can also see the eyes of locusts

Come, here

brutal hearts their gaze on the sky

yet both hands scalding

In the dust

your back to the earth

you suddenly see a confusion of colors appear in the sky

Lacerating pain covers your body

the owl's son leaves a gap for the day

open your mouth and let out a hideous laugh

make the dry season dip down and persist in its ways

The perfectly healthy water wheel moans

a young cow waits expectantly

a woman visited by divinity appears

no man takes her to wife

green phoenix trees don't record time, here they are born and die

the people in old houses leave, those keeping night-watch struggle to stay awake

A pregnant woman carries weariness like fruit

the calamity of blood's light makes clan members remember insatiable graveyards

elders sit before the door, the heat and thirst makes their rubbery bodies

fill with respect for the gods

their looks cannot pass through

Ardent news in the cool of the dusk

the rape occurred at noon, like an earthquake

at the last moment the sun goes limp, prayers fill the village

raised heads swell in agony, and see

The silent light dyes roofs thatched with wheat stalks red

you discover a rare object in a dream, robbers are everywhere

your belly is bursting with the strong spirits of home-made wine

throughout it all I'm in the village of dry wells

first I see a large stone

Then I see the blood reappear on it

a stake stands alone as all things dance in jubilation

like an oldster who has lost density

Shouts from the sky make your whole body break out in a cold sweat

At the last your eye is revived by the sight of rain

The Twelfth Month [第十二月]

Now the time has come to leave Peaceful Village

the mare's still stamping its black hooves

a north-westerly blows over a no-man's land

and a herd of calves thinks of war.....

So far the empty form can't be identified

the setting sun descends like pestilence, sitting atop the village

the heart's wound like a tree

the desires of white sap laid out by your hands, raised by your shout

you look up and see a flying saucer, a fortuitous appearance

you stealthily stroke the stone in your breast and kiss me as you leave

the entire village suffers your gloom

shoes full of sand, the smell of malt thick in the air

the sun is high and cold

with an effort you imagine it as a living thing with a brain

an aging woman shakes the suffering fish

In every corner, skulls full of dust

an arid smile is revealed on your face, a dark swaying shadow

The sound of footsteps rises up from beneath the earth, like flowing blood

butterflies see their own reflections go seeking refuge in death

Just like you, distance is the core of all things

I'm still the loner from a strange land on the earth's surface

From start to finish in this village where crows and sparrows are not heard

At this moment my ears hear the old tones of birth

A dull pain in my ribs

a once-approachable time opens for me the great gates of night

a girl stands in the gloaming

Grey horses, grey shadows of people

the sparks kicked up off the flagstones shine

A nauseous sensation falls on the roof like rain

An infant's dejection is born

we leave

bearing unfathomable bodies of flesh and blood

After all's said and done, I came here

and was liked by others

yet when I leave, I don't harbor good intentions

smoke brings tears to my eyes, my gaze directed towards

old wrinkles and the transmigrating part that suffers from sapped vitality

A low flying bird passes through my heart leaving me with nothing

the old elm on which my birth date is carved

is also full of the knots of the old hemp rope of my father's age

proud that it's given us life

The village people stand on a sunny slope

doubting the day, returning to rest in the night after taking the long way round

a winter throughout which evil intentions are deployed forced to withdraw under the keen looks

of the elders

Cracks appearing on that face gives me strength

the magical child I saw at the start stands under the tree

he's still considering

how everything was brought into being

during those invisible moments

The Black Room [黑房间]

As a rule all crows under heaven are black, and this

intimidates me, they have so many

relatives, their numbers are legion, hard to resist

But we are indispensable, we four sisters

we are the snare in the black room

slim and graceful, walking to and fro

appearing to have winning lottery tickets in our grasp

But I intend to work mischief, my heart is harsh

On the surface I maintain a girl's pleasant disposition

while retracing my daily defeats

We are fair maidens of renown awaiting proposals in our boudoir

smiling resentfully, racking our brains

for ways to make ourselves more attractive

Young and beautiful, like raging flames

very single-minded snares, baked black

(Which of the unwavering countenances of good men with sharply-

ground teeth and ramrod straight gaze, which of the boundary-

crossers and calculating plotters shall be my brothers-in-law?)

At night, I feel

crises lying low all around our room

the cats and mice are all awake

we go to sleep, seeking in dreams

the license numbers of strange hearts, in the night

we are women ready to fall like ripe melons

A confusion of phoenixes, male and female, so on and so forth

we sisters four, daily-new monthly-changeable

Marriage, still at the core of choosing a mate

The bedroom light dispirits the newly-marrieds

Risk it all on one throw, I say to myself

Home is where you start off

At This Very Moment [此时此刻]

Living in the world, without sons without daughters

becomes a harmful business as days go by

The mirror is loyal but loathsome

Facing me

The perfect moment for a born-widow arises

A long face, buck teeth, the attitude of she who knows her place

At this moment, I've taken a bead on a certain matter

What do I want to do? Don't know

but I'll shock everybody

Most of the time I disappoint them

like a glass of milk, but turned clear

The matchmaker often to's and fro's, important looks on her face

At this moment, there's a war in the east

People, biped and erect

are doing what animals won't

Soccer fans are more brutal because of the weather

A large portrait, cold as a commoner

Fall back on your natural talent, suspended in my room

Speechless, an omen for a body of communicable disease

On the way to the hospital, I discover

in the storm, leaves have already forgotten yesterday's foundations

Bright as wine, pearls of water disappear slowly

Things are like this: Unchanging and indeterminate

At this very moment, I'm walking among people dressed for the occasion

hands tucked into sleeves I pass by, dressed up like a good citizen

exactly the image of a vigilant woodpecker tut-tutting aggressively

one lives in the world and ridicules oneself:

At such an extravagant age, it'd be better to marry

The Red Room [红房间]

The days change me, lead me home

I'm not so picky about everything anymore

Sitting in the red room, I lower my head

A hopelessly tangled ball of thread

flows out of mother's hand to my end of the room

You sigh for me, suffer for me

but I saw the true face of this pain long ago

Endure the love that commoners must endure

because my heart's already a bird startled by the mere twang of a bow

When I make my comeback, and sit here

As always, I still sense its rich potential

And it's the red room that causes your delivery pains

and spurs you to go on improving

it caused my birth, it made me

retain old blood ties willingly

beneath my mother's supine body

And in this room

is the sound of my words

blood flows from my body to my end of the room

eyes like fish, an odd disposition

a head swollen up like a stele’s inscription in the mist

absolutely motionless, I emerge from the womb and go

The days change me, make me go home

sitting in the red room, I see my true likeness

in your eyes

Your nameless suffering is a near-pure poison

endless admiration. Clothing overstocked with dust

a spacious body of flourishing fruit, pendulous

its exterior starting up endlessly

there's a heart within, difficult to control

It's me, light of hand and foot

arriving punctually, leaving on time too

You've Cut Off my Hair [头发被你剪去]

You've cut off my hair! with your

delighting executioner's hand

An incomparable genteel pose

You turn my head

and my heart: No! No!

Cat's eyes watch me, pity me

furry intentions conceal the maw of ruin

You've cut off my hair! My pet

a deep black shape is now dying

if it leaves me, it dies immediately

It's like a rope, sometimes a snare

sometimes a decorative item on my neck

No matter who it's like, I dote on them all

I provide it with blood, make it grow large

follow me for half a lifetime, affect my facial expressions

You've cut off my hair

take hold of its fine feelings

stiff as ice, but still boiling hot on my body

the cat shreds it with hands

destroys it with a conspiracy of feet

The killing ground! My head twists back and forth

can't retrieve the flavor of used things

Once, they were confused curves wreathed about my crown

or were frenzied bats tracking me

until my hair was cut away by you. You feel nothing

casting it off as if discarding home and children

life death, I was inured to it all long ago

Landlord! Landlord! [房东!房东!] 1988

Landlord! Landlord!

we lightly tread on the setting sun of the dead

going home swaggering through the street

we these little characters

used to solitude yet hanging on to marriage

calmly tread on the dust

For a string of days snails run amuck on the street

the oppressive black air travels through one long winter

and enters a new residence

today dead water tomorrow an overpass white like chalk

sets up an air of orderliness

vendors with a sharp-eyed joy

hold a big one-time-only sale

our bodies all alert we pass through the market

for a brief interval

fix your stare directly on the deep spot you can't set foot in

In this mood like a decent person

believe that day will eventually come

Landlord! Landlord!

today she's still young yearns for the son's return

blackbird's swarm over the station like so many ugly thoughts

with a natural bearing coming and going

our road ahead cannot be known

we move toward a far place or return feel its weight

Landlord! Landlord!

We're about to hold an gathering

quests come forward hands holding fresh flowers

speaking a language unknown to man

some dead parts

some injured parts

come in with them

darkening the room

our sun leaves eyes sightless

several people hallucinate

this is the weather for hallucination

Landlord! Landlord!

We occupy the residence of others

eat drink and make merry and arrange an unreal backdrop

Death's Design [死亡的图案] (a 7-poem cycle, 1987-1989)

The First Night [第一夜]

Suddenly everything about the old days pours out

and tonight I extend my fingers toward the boundaries of death

an enormous disquiet presses in

As if awoken by a secret concealed in my body

as if the blank color of your face has parted us

Tonight's echo reveals itself on everyone's body

the white courtyard grass already dead, won't flourish again

Your body suffers a terminal disease, you struggle to breath

The light in your eyes, now dark, keeps you company

or else those who lived with you so many years

will injure you with their words of comfort

or else your daughter will lap up your blood

searching for death's hiding place

Seven days seven nights, I've a clear knowledge about death's true likeness

The cries for help in your eyes

spell it out in every language: birth -- death -- life

I conjecture strenuously

Your breath tells me

There: in in out out

There: up up down down

Dust full of trickling tears

I see a scene reeking of blood

Grey-white arms, atrophied legs

Blood gushes up from the ground, like a pattern rising up to the sky

I clasp you to me tightly

My round arms find your weight difficult to bear

Everybody's death appears on your body

Who is terror's master? Who is your saviour?

Who controls the sun setting in your eyes

and lays out a dark stage for the slow moving earth?

My mother, once your body was my hiding place

Discarded, I lie between earth and sky

legs splayed, exhausted always

The wound rotted together with you

A hypothetical death grows, murdering under cover of night

My body will keep the agony of all the world's dying

and howl because of you

Late at night, you wake me with a start

with the words of the living I call to you

with such strange, casual sounds

In your eyes

I'm death's accomplice

young, vital

my burning mouth spouts rich flavors -- unpardonable

However, everything is incommunicable

Your breath feeble, already everything's unalterable

I hold you to me, lay you down

Your hand extends, a finger at my heart

The Third Night [第三夜]

Tonight I understand some things

I know how death is born out of death

As I put my mother's effects in order

the letters in the dust store away the after-death solitude

in the heart of that person

The fingers of so many years, black as roots

The face of so many years, yellowing

In the photo-album of life's pursuits

if there's a dead person, he'll contaminate

quickly develop hysteria

If mankind owns a mirror, they will see terror in it first

If there's one thing of more importance in the world

life will pass on its news of death

For over thirty years, your space has been plugged by the dust in the atmosphere

There, nothing can be seen

In the dark, you part company

Your letters are preposterous

as if you are using the name of an enemy

You two were once tourists at scenes of slaughter

like a couple of women with evil intentions

A smock smeared white, in a morgue

one person lies, submitting to the will of Heaven

While the cadaver's bones blacken, you're both untouched by it

My mother was once a surgeon

would dress me in red skirts

Ever since I was small, the exquisitely wrought edge of a knife

has sliced through my sensitive skin

causing me endless joy

Tonight I tell you death's secret

Through mother's eyes I've seen

the soul's end; you go your own ways

your last lodgings packed tightly together

Seven days seven nights

An old woman can't call out the names of her kinsfolk anymore

Another's still wrapped in the bandages of a dusty world

The two of you were once tourists at scenes of slaughter

Today I saw the murderer with my own eyes

but I was untouched

The Seventh Night [第七夜]

Tonight I get a taste of death

discover its fearful knowledge

sitting in a deserted room

I think of you, you make me shudder

Wild-hair, your eyes emit this alarming power over me

and look disdainfully on the world of man; you gather your cries

Your feet shift on the earth; your flesh won't be forgotten again

In a corner of the room it breaks out of its encirclement

A white hospital gown twists tightly around my breath

Grey mice scatter

their limbs sicken me!

Their long-time custodian couldn't foresee

the misfortune that arose suddenly

A true-living mother has brought white snow down upon me

She makes me revel in the color of death with her, silent

makes me tell you: not with the tongue

but a lacerated body, a clothes hanger in the shape of a cross

The eyes drop into invisible misery

You understand what assassination is, you once told me

When I was twelve, I had shed my first blood

shaking all over, lying in your icy embrace

I understood how death would come -- summon me then depart

Feet bare, you dig into your flesh with both hands, one after the other

Lips sealed tight but a voice says:

Death is still here, still active

passing through prefabricated stone panels, revealing itself still on the four walls

Endless, exchanging secrets of the apocalypse with me

The night's straw mat and a sudden growth of courage

leaks a ray of light into my heart through a black window

If I were you and you were me, how much time would there be

to let us see the final parting, all that's been abandoned

You deceived me, I've been there

Any signs of people are rare, the air there buried me

and to this day won't allow me to break free of your shadow

All night I think of you, my mother

Because of you I now know: the graves of the dead are in the living!

I Spur the Horse, Flourish the Whip [我策马扬鞭] 1990

I spur the horse, flourish the whip in the strong, black night

an ornamented saddle beneath me

four surging white hooves

treading a narrow winding path a riotous profusion of falling petals[2]

what century am I moving in?

what form of life is doing battle?

a spacious residence I once dreamt

a true door opened wide

inside, a sword and halberd laid out a suit of armour

in search of in search of a dead general

I spur the horse, flourish the whip on a convulsing, frozen plain

the cowhide reins let the day and the night go

I want to sweep over its length and breadth

pass through gaunt forests

thunder and lightning nearby

children wail in the distance

What mighty, forged axe

is brandished before me?

where does the blood that stains the green uniforms red come from?

expectations, expectations of a resounding bugle call

a life of martial exploits their officers and men arrive

the combined leadership of black has come

I spur the horse, flourish the whip in heart-rending moonlight

locked shapes locked bones mine sit sternly in the saddle

an unchanging, naturally delirious disposition

I've raced past white tents shadows of tree after tree

under lanterns emaciated men play chess

a door curtain flies up his commanders enter:

The enemy! The enemy’s in the area

Tonight is a night of many years ago

Which of the dying is young and full of spirit?

The black shadows of giant birds those of helmets too

make me quake in fear

coming toward me are the black shades of souls

Wait wait for the result of the match

if a game doesn’t end my delusion becomes real

One book a book of a past age

records these lines of poetry

On the quiet river surface

See Here come their long-legged flies!

The Marmot [土拨鼠]


All winter I grieved for my dead friend

in the posture of the speechless through a low-lying dusk

and a rich harvest And on the homesick black earth:

a charming face

I know those dug-over fields

or those serious stones

carry the hand-prints of our ancestors

An encouragement for the dead is retained forever

in its gloomy eyes

It knows how desolate the night is

even the irregular rise and fall

of breath over the perilous pit of my stomach

My intimate, decrepit prematurely

between mankind's memory and your feeble hand

that ikon you do your utmost to become

will rip me to shreds”

My old residence[3] looks at me askance

its face rhombus[4] are suitably superstitious

and so hand in hand we pass through

reasonably sensitive the soul's scream floats to the surface of the water

reasonably sincere

like the zone of purity in a beautiful girl

“Eventually you'll be out of house and home

stay with me hold in check

this evil-idea idealistic love I have”

A legend draws to its close

there are it's almost unbearable, unadulterated features

an almost translucent heart

the arduous spirit there it proffers with both hands

Our solitude becomes addictive fate has run its course

together we enjoy

the acts of love the ruins of the flesh

the unhoped-for weapons of life

are our sustenance


My trick is in putting one poem on top of another

the animal on top of the person

it'll make for a stretch of rapid roaming

My meaning is the headlong passion in the bones

can it be pumped up into the whole body?

the sole of midnight's feet

lines that have run into the wind

this poem writes of our flight

like an old debt

This poem sets down a small legend

that stands for the spasms of a lover

a small adorable thing

Lift your eyes into the distance

Write that a son is organizing

the way the land lies around autumn and winter In dreams, a marmot

destitute scholar

the loneliness it handles in both hands

It and I are so close

The dark of night fills its breast it is loaded down with hardship

breaking through draft after draft

a tiny loveable thing

is easily hurt in loving

It follows me in the moonlight

its entire body turns white

this poem sets down its masses of hair

sends true, loving feeling off into the distance

these are priceless

Its dried-up eyes remember me

In parting, its thin, small mouth

lets out a faithful howl

This is a poem to be sung

about a marmot

It came up out of the plains

beyond any fabrication of language

I Stand at the Intersection of Perpendicular and Horizontal Streets [我站在直街横街的

交点上] 30 February 1993 New York

Up out of the house up out of the subway car

a city map in your bag

a host of strange faces dodge back and forth

I walk among the living or the dead

more and more used to

the serious mien of white-collared beauties

navigating through a fleet of sky-scrappers

my stride is stiff

One two three, endless elevation

metallic high-heels

striking, like a woodpecker

coming toward me

a tall, tall woman

like an encounter out of my dreams

someone forgotten when conscious

she carries time and a geography of sorrows

alone I stand at the intersection of perpendicular and horizontal streets

My friend Lili brought her pretty cotton prints

her heart full of flowers ready to burst into bloom

this cold fragrance circulating in the bedroom makes her face all red

her early experiences complicated and confusing

I stand alone at the intersection of perpendicular and horizontal streets

a phone booth dialing the tones of death

today many will die

(exactly like someone far-removed from this world

talking to himself

the morphemes patently uncalled-for

the man from a nearby street upsets me)

good-looking men and women walk quickly by

their shabby clothes or sumptuous apparel

that are an anxiety each day

do not involve me at all

but I stand on this point of the vertical and the transverse

so many footprints already hopelessly tangled up in mine

Shy Lili picks up her

embroidery frame thinks of her Ma

who'll die of cancer large tear drops

stain her print from China red

I stand by the phone booth repeatedly dialing

What do I want to say? who to?

my voice passes through an immense space

a thousand, ten thousand miles so tedious

the greetings stretch on a little at a time

a test of patience -- the both of us

stand by a phone booth at the corner of horizontal and perpendicular streets

remember a laughable love

my face in a display window of scarecrows

trading looks with the lovely fashion models

each admiring the other's frosty looks

the blue-collar lot talk behind me

news of new bargains and war

Tender Lili retouches dragons embroiders phoenixes

tracing a pair of mandarin ducks

she thinks of her lover

that bellyful of bafflegab from the Orient

A Beetle [甲虫] November 1994

From morning till night I search for the beetle

it confuses me with its body

made of a unity of silence and the black night

a mystery opened like an eye

flashing by like a black boat

I sit on a white chair

lethal weapon in hand

no one knows my sad fate

only this black goblin

closely questioning throughout the whole room

I've seen doctors been diagnosed time and again

struck down by white gowns too

I've asked everybody

each day busier than the last

and the beetle goes off separately to search for those small openings

little beds of white powder it's so lucky

always to appear-disappear in this white room

My silence like its silence

the darkness I can't speak of fills the night

in the world I have no way to sleep

when the black beetle haunts is a companion to me

I sit on the white chair lethal weapon in hand

who shall I cut open my belly full of meticulous enquiry for

when the moon gets drunk like mud

I still can't get to sleep

the white plaster already piled up to the side of my foot

September [九月] 1995

Today the footsteps out of my dreams brush past the door

as if backed-up for years

Today the sun's call moves my heart to joy

smoke rises from the rooftop

the weather turns cold girls get up to work

their looks swallow the flesh of fruit all around them

My brothers and cousins squat amidst the dead

pockets packed with seeds

house building wall repairs all done according to local custom

a cradle rocks in the grove

my wails summon an angry woman

Manager of the household finances maternal grandmother's conscience is easy

happy like an old hummingbird's

rough tea plain fare laid out in the sunlight

sprouting beans on a base of dirt

that hoards lots of things

What kind of violence exhausts her in the extreme

thoughts of sleep come but first my head grows big

lets my own eyes see the cycle's process

everything a wonder beyond words:

I've already eaten animal spleen

my gut is full of live poultry eggs

I already smell the odor of poison among the vegetables

At birth I knew:

the origins of horses and cattle

the cry of chickens and the breath of wild cherry grass

and mankind's end

Two icy hands a moving voice

mother hugs me to her bosom

grandfather's whole attitude makes it clear

who the water nourished

right up to his twilight years

In a Southern Region [在南部地区] 1995

On the border of a southern region

on my street gambling dens flourish

life there is tough the ground moist

I've seen old gluttons pour alcohol into their guts

the smell of tobacco year in year out

recollecting past affairs experienced hands shuffle the deck

or privately distill spirits scalp raw opium

Evening an unsettled gas lamp raises waves

a quiet sound passes along mean streets

a merchant who willingly came south remembered long ago

the good points of a soul hands crossed

her most loving glance

all enters into a show of tender care

a petty thief walking alone thinks of performing rash acts

A county fair they all come

hands holding needles thread and bolts of cloth

girls in braids odd-jobbers

single men

come together move on singing

icy-cold blind-eyed the bustling ferry

convoys workers the entire day

tenant farmers, hearts freighted with care bellies full of plots

People scatter when the wine's gone everything vanishes like dust and smoke

mother leads me along the rough stone wall

she washes clothes cooks food is easy to anger

back to it all she tends her busy affairs

I cautiously watch what's inside the window

the miserable condition of each minute fascinates me

my eyes brimming with pearls of tears: in my southern place

Family Affairs [家事] 1995

The family ways of past ages come down in their turn to you

grown so perverse

they leave our labor futile profitless

Who is the predator?

August's season you fit out a backpack roam far fly high

light in years you cannot see the outworn corner

do not know your innate gift can be directly traced to the souls of several generations' dead

Hands empty returning with a son and a daughter

my clan-sister sits in a train

a belly full of complaints already too much to handle

baggage carried into the carriage load after load

they who see her off seek only peace

under a bright sky and radiant sun

what do we amount to?

worry twists intestines into knots we feel heart and body vanquished

Clan-sister the grains of sand you dig up in that distant place

cannot resist the oppression of space

afternoons of life-and-death bring

damaged faces

in extraordinary times you joy in imagination

can it be you want us to open our eyes

to read the chilly loneliness when you smile

a son and a daughter they grow silent

vast open space becomes the answer to riddles

Ten years ago roaming far flying high

Young you couldn't see certain things

I remember your laugh then and there

now I write you into a line deep into a human heart

look at your face all a crisis precisely where are your doubts?

you halt remain I've long been suspicious of this

Saturday Afternoon [星期六下午] 1995

Saturday afternoon standing at the high point of a home for foundlings

I see silly boys race on the lawn

their crude impetuous ways like the padding of wolves

at this moment I don't sing, don't dance

only cast my stealthy glance into the distance

In pitch-black night I stand in dreams

possessing a human form a body of my own

a wild soul joins with me

displaying charms long held in reserve

my young graceful limbs richly resilient

parade in a room under the sky

The way falls into my bosom

my high-leaping hind legs break through the window

in my dreams in the eyes of a little girl startled

awake the brilliance of mankind appears

her deep-red lips have enjoyed cruel joys to the full

Saturday afternoon standing at the high point of the foundling home

I see a lone wolf arrive far too early

its anguish drinking in the remnants of the sun

we regard each other darkly a lonely posture becomes my sorrow

has it come from the nether world coming and going in this?

Waking my blood group

because of its well-known howl?

In the distance boys race on the lawn

the five-year-old wolf stands at the high point of the foundling home

enduring murderous looks

a tiny pallid face a small white skirt and blouse

I too wait for the dark

just like me my same-aged companion

has sad black eyes

immature teeth an orphan’s oddness

something sound asleep in my body gradually grows large

out of the meek look in its eyes we share

an agony of previous lives hunger from antiquity to now

Saturday afternoon standing at the high point of the foundling home

I see the five-year-old wolf walking alone

no mother father cut off from the world its empty shadow

gives rise to ruthless reasons

Zhai Yongming: China's First Woman’s Poet?

Zhai Yongming and the poems she has said are an expression of the unique perceptions and consciousness of the female sex (女性诗) first appeared in China's world of poetry in 1985. This was the year her 20-poem cycle Woman (女人) and its preface , written in 1984, first appeared in China's literary journals. (Zhai was born in 1955 in Chengdu, the capital of Sichuan province.)

There are very few female of note poets in the history of Chinese literature, a situation that is certainly not unique to China alone. However, it can be convincingly argued that prior to Zhai Yongming no female poet had ever seriously attempted to stress the unique nature of female experience and perception. The three female poets that have received the imprimatur of Chinese literary tradition and the current establishment as exemplar's of the poetess in China,[5] to a greater or lesser extent, all accept and conform to the male perception of the role of woman in Chinese society.

Until this century, it was common practice for male poets, based on their perceptions of the role of the female in China's poetic tradition, to write from what they perceived to be the female perspective. I do not believe I exaggerate when I say that the anonymity and misrepresentation of women in Chinese literature is on a par with that of the other major cultures, and in the past 200 years has fallen far behind that of European (including the Americas) literature.

Not surprisingly, Zhai and other female poets in China have had to look to the West for their role models, and have found them in Sylvia Plath, Emily Dickinson and other contemporary sister poets whose work has been translated and published in China's literary journals and collections of foreign poetry. In part, this situation and a general breakdown in the hold of certain aspects of traditional culture since the advent of the rule of the communist party and the rapid

industrialization of Chinese society in recent years, has resulted in a great increase in the number of female poets (however, in my estimation, still amounting to less than 10% of all poets).

While Western women have had to deal with the effects of the myth of ‘Adam's rib’ and a traditional belief system that men themselves began to dissect and destroy in the eighteenth century, I would argue that Chinese woman have a much more difficult row to hoe. Traditional Chinese cosmology and the all-pervasive "yin-yang" principle are barriers that female poets must address and surmount as they meet them in Chinese society and in the Chinese language. Ergo, Zhai's :

Now is the time I become truly powerful. In other words, now I'm finally aware of the world around me and the implications of my presence in it. The consciousness inherent in each person and the universe -- I call this the consciousness of the black night -- has determined that I must be a carrier of the thoughts, beliefs and emotions of the female sex; and, furthermore, injects this burden directly into what I view as the greatest work of consciousness. And this is poetry.

As half of the human race, the female sex is faced at birth with an entirely different world [from that of the male sex]. Her first glimpse of the world is necessarily tinged by her feelings and perception, even by a secret psychology of resistance. Does she spare no effort in throwing herself into life and creating a black night? And, in a crisis, does she transform the world into a giant soul? Actually, each woman faces her own abyss -- personal anguish and experience that continually vanishes and is continually confirmed -­- far from every person is able to defy this proportionate form of hardship up until their destruction. This is the initial black night: when it rises it leads us into a world that is entirely new, a world laid out in a particular way and at a particular angle, and which is unique to the female sex. This is not the path toward deliverance, but the path toward a full awakening.....

Zhai is seeking a language of the unconscious, of initial perception, but a language which she considers unique to the female of the species. However, it should be pointed out, her quest is personal by its very nature. Despite first impressions, the preface is in fact a statement of her personal poetic credo, not a manifesto designed to serve as a rallying point for all female poets or even all Chinese female poets.

This point, however, has yet to be fully appreciated in China. In response to the Woman cycle and its preface, what Zhai has termed a “black whirlwind” (黑旋风)swept through China during the latter half of the 1980s. what Zhai had intended as a personal poetic exploration into language, culture and her own unconscious, in the work of other female poets, often devolved into a superficial exercise that threatened to obliterate the value of Zhai's own efforts. In the June 1989 issue of Poetry Monthly (pp. 10-11), Zhai offered her opinions on the fad: "As a joke I often say that I should change the first line of from "All crows under heaven are black" to "All women under heaven are black".

In fact, by the time this article, written in March 1989, was published, Zhai had resolved to stop writing poetry altogether. After divorcing her first husband, she had recently remarried and was preparing to follow her new husband, a well-known artist, to the U.S. However, her true reasons for abandoning poetry might be found in the seven-poem poetry cycle, , written upon her mother's death in 1988 (I have translated three of these poems). And the events of the summer of 1989 only worked to strengthen her resolve to give up poetry.

Zhai has returned to poetry in recent years, however, but she no longer places as great an emphasis on the female unconscious and to some degree is no longer as combative or insightful as she had been in some of her pre-1989 verse. This may be taken as a sign of greater confidence in her art and maturity as a poet, but several of her more recent poems appear to be somewhat forced or ambivalent, almost as if written on automatic pilot. There would seem to be a danger of complacency, of her becoming to comfortable in the pose of the 'poet'.

On Reading Zhai Yongming

When reading Zhai Yongming's poetry, it is often essential to have some understanding of the cultural codes she is responding to and interacting with in order to fully appreciate her work (this is particularly the case with the Woman poems). To this end, I will offer a few comments on the principle of the "yin" in popular Chinese culture, and Chinese mythology as it relates to women and creation.

The original meaning of the character Yin is the "shady" side, or the side of a mountain that is in shadow (as opposed to the Yang or "sunny" side). In its full sense, Yin has come to be understood as the female principle which is also associated with the earth, the north and with the cold. It should be remembered that the concept of yin and yang was traditionally all-pervasive and to some degree dualistic (although, in the original explication, they are meant to be complementary principles). Water also symbolizes Yin, just as fire symbolizes Yang. Water is soft, yielding and pliant, as a woman should be. A passage in Laozi's Daode jing道德经 states "weak overcomes strong, soft overcomes hard." Laozi considered water as an exemplar of proper behavior.

Zhai does not reject these distinctions out of hand. She recognizes a fundamental cognitive difference between men and women and to a certain extent utilizes these beliefs and their incumbent imagery to make her poetry.

The major female figure in ancient Chinese mythology is Nüwa 女娲 who is said to have married her brother, Fuxi伏羲, the first of China's cultural heroes and accredited with inventing the eight trigrams of the Book of Changes易经, fishing nets and the fishing cage. Nüwa was described as having the body of a snake or, alternately, the tail of a fish (Fuxi is often depicted as having a calf's head and the scaly body of a dragon). She and Fuxi are said to have invented marriage (i.e.: sex). However, her main claim to fame seems to have been the ability to smelt and fuse things together. In one version of the many differing tales about her, Nüwa is said to have created human beings from figures of clay which she baked in an oven.

Another creation myth has Nüwa or another female deity being impregnated when she steps in the footprint of Pangu盘古, who in some legends is said to be the creator of the world.

The color black, which is so prominent in Zhai's poetry, is associated with water, the North and a salty taste. Finally, the color also stands for darkness, death and honor in Chinese tradition.

As the female is paired with the earth, the male is paired with the sky in Chinese cosmology. Old creation myths depict heaven (or the sky) and earth as a conjugal pair engaged in never-ending intercourse.

Finally, the moon is also associated with the female principle, Yin (the moon deity is, of course, a woman – Chang’e). Both the West, in which the moon is said to rise, and the autumn are also classified as female.

In writing poetry (prior to 1989) that made full use of Chinese tradition as it relates to women, Zhai has been able to write a poetry that specifically addresses the situation of Chinese women today (in particular, female poets) as they continue to attempt to recover an identity and a voice that can relate to their experience as individuals and as women in China.

[1] The 15th solar term.

[2] A line from Tao Yuanming’s (陶渊明365-428 C.E.) poem “The Peach Blossom Spring,” China’s version of “the land that time forgot,” a farming community unchanged and uncontaminated by outside turmoil over a period of 500 years. The peach trees mark the entrance to the community.

[3] Old residence 旧宅: a term used by the poet Tao Yuanming 陶渊明 to refer to the grave.

[4] Rhombus: a lucky symbol. Reduplicated, it is supposed to ward off evil spirits, demons and so on (as in Europe). (Rhombus = an equilateral parallelogram)

[5] Li Qingzhao 李清照 (1081-1150 A.D.), Bingxin 冰心 (1902-1999), and Shu Ting 舒婷 (1952- ).

No comments: