This kind of historical account gives us a sense of the Nanjing Massacre’s magnitude and brutality, but it does not help us understand what it was like for those who experienced it. We can imagine what the people of Nanjing heard and saw, what they suffered and endured, but our product would be speculation, not the past itself. Such a disparity—between the bird’s-eye significance of events and their chaotic, individuated unfolding—is a contradiction endemic to the telling of history. Getting closer to what really happened means recalibrating one’s way of seeing, and growing attuned to the way a litany of stories can sit within a given fact.
Dong Li’s debut poetry collection The Orange Tree (2023) is an object lesson in this type of attunement, inhabiting a liminal space where the historian’s view from nowhere and the historic subject’s experience mix. As Srikanth Reddy notes in his introduction, Li—a poet and translator working in English, Chinese, French, and German—has written what is at once a family history and a history of modern China, one in which the unique experiences of a few stand in for those of many. The history—or histories—contained in Li’s collection are a cutting-together of the past in both the singular and plural, the part and the whole trapped together in a hall of mirrors.
The book’s title poem opens with the speaker, a “we” without antecedent, describing “a yellowed family photo” in which “there is an orange tree, leaves burned.” The story of the photograph is the story of the family in it: fleeing Nanjing days before the Japanese arrive, settling in Suzhou, keeping their heads down during the Cultural Revolution, and navigating the nation’s economic opening after the death of Mao Zedong. Each line of the poem is an end-stopped declarative, buffered above and below by white space. Direct and methodical, “The Orange Tree” reads as a list of incontrovertible facts. Yet a sequence of factual statements doesn’t constitute a narrative, just as a set of individual stories doesn’t constitute a history: it’s the texture and pattern of their accumulation, its warps and dropped stitches, that fashion the whole. In “The Orange Tree,” Li describes how,
[b]efore fleeing, Great-Grandpa gave Grandma an orange tree plant.
He told her to plant it where the soil was rich.
When the orange tree was with us, then we would be together.
We would have some shade and fruit in the family.
Soon the two younger brothers were shocked to death. […]
Grandpa, together with Grandma and their first daughter, fled.
They walked forty-five miles and settled at Rainbow Street 12.
There’s a fable-like haziness in this recounting. Is “shocked to death” literal or a figure of speech? And whose brothers are these? Time frames, causality, and a sense of what has actually happened resist immediate parsing, which makes the poem’s sudden lurch into specificity all the more beguiling. Somehow, amidst such loss and violence, we arrive at an address—one with the auspices of a new beginning.
Moments like this, which would pin the narrative to a specific family saga, are countered by others in which the distinction between individual and collective begins to fade. A few lines later in the poem, Li writes:
Maternal Great-Grandparents were having orange parties.
Paternal Great-Grandparents joined the People’s Liberation Army on the Long March.
Eighty thousand people went on the march, and seven thousand made it.
To Yan’an Headquarters.
Great-Grandparents were left unburied.
On the firm snowy mountains.
These lines seem straightforward enough: these maternal and paternal great-grandparents are particular members of the speaker’s family. But the poem doesn’t indicate precisely which of the speaker’s four sets of great-grandparents are being referred to. This first ambiguity, combined with the precedent the poem has set for quick cuts in time and fluctuations in precision, cues the reader to anticipate a shift in subject—from one set of paternal great-grandparents to another, for instance—regardless of whether there is one.
Context from elsewhere in the poem helps narrow down the possibilities (as does drawing out a family tree), but the experience of reading “The Orange Tree” remains one in which antecedents regularly refuse to be unambiguously singular or plural. The lack of possessive pronouns—crucially, they are not “my Great-Grandparents”—and the inherent imprecision of pluralization dovetail with the quantifying of the dead to render the exact meaning of the final two lines indeterminate. Were two great-grandparents left unburied, or 73,000? The answer, of course, is both.
This phenomenon—of referents doubling as particular members of the speaker’s family and synecdochical stand-ins for centuries of experience shared by thousands, if not millions—is The Orange Tree’s defining historical and narrative impulse. As readers, we frequently find ourselves chronologically unmoored: the sequence “Live, by Lightning” drifts through a timeless-feeling rural idyll (“girls beat laundry on the river’s banks / their crisp laughter drowned the river that hit the rocks in its way”) until the appearance of “a dark-green truck waiting” shocks us into the modern world. The poem’s unnamed subject resolves to swim across the river to join his friends in the truck, the river “now in the foreground in his mind.” This truck will take him from his nameless river to Triangle Hill Sniper Ridge, the site of a battle between Chinese and United Nations forces during the Korean War.
There’s a degree of incommensurability between Li’s description of the truck—simple, archetypal, almost overburdened with symbolism—and the ensuing slip into a lyric interior. The line’s beauty lies in its elegant strangeness: “foreground in” resembles “forefront of,” but applies a different sort of semantic pressure. (I envision a canvas hung just behind the swimmer’s eyes, the river flowing across it, water passing through his ears.) This quality of idiosyncratic psychological experience is not available to the archetype or the everyman; it throws our unnamed subject into a zone of partial differentiation, one in which the singularity of an interior scrapes against circumstances faced by others too. An elegant solution to a historiographic problem is not, in itself, poetry. But Li’s method of blurring the distinction between singular and plural is in perpetual service to the book’s tone, one I can best describe as strange, mournful, and obliquely beautiful.
Deliberate attunement to both tone and form is by no means a given. As critics Ken Chen and Frank Guan have argued, the first decades of the 21st century bore witness to an oversaturation of conceptual and form-driven poetic modes, and their ensuing exhaustion as loci of socially relevant poetics. (This isn’t to say that there is no longer formally experimental poetry that is epoch-defining, or even worth reading—simply that the primary value of such work lies elsewhere.) If the explosion of avant-garde writing in the early 20th century—not just the lily-white temple of European high modernism, but also the surreal dreamscapes of Yi Sang and the lexical anarchy of César Vallejo—was the opening of a Pandora’s box, such experimentation is now little more than a sifting-through of that box’s scattered contents, a scuttling amidst the leftovers.
For both Guan and Chen, tone is a poem’s primary relevant aspect, most responsible for its brilliance and most liable for its failures. Tone is subordinate to abstraction, yet beyond it—or, to put it another away, the language of abstraction is ill-suited for it. As readers, tone is responsible for our most instinctual reactions: it is what pulls us in, bores us, or makes us throw a book aside in disgust. It is the arena in which a writer’s relationship to language becomes inseparable from their attitude toward their subject, with a misstep in one producing a stumble in the other.
But Li is a sure-footed guide. The Orange Tree avoids the affective pitfalls of both the memoir and the chronicle, replacing the nostalgia of the former with a clipped aloofness, and countering the roteness of the latter with an insistent, unflinching imagism. In the poem “Lilac, a Requiem,” from a sequence centered on the Nanjing Massacre and its aftermath, Li depicts the end of an unknown woman’s journey:
No one knew how many roads she had walked before this. No one knew how many bridges she had crossed before summer. No one knew her, and it had snowed. Wiping off the snow, she dug her face into the bushels. They smelled of summer. The bushels were frozen, and so was her face. It was as if time had frozen and whitened into snow. In the snow her long dress looked purple. […] Her feet purpled. The dogs stopped barking. They were chewing on her bones.
One could characterize this poem’s achievement as primarily one of form: the minor grammatical torsions and the fracturing of time and perspective evoke the trauma and horror of the Japanese massacres at Nanjing. But this interpretation calls attention to the very gap it strains but fails to fill.
If Guan is correct in declaring tone a poem’s sole indispensable element, then to focus primarily on the relationship between form and content would tell us about the idea of the poem, but not the poem itself. To arrive at what the poem actually is—including, crucially, the reader’s unique (as in, unrepeatable) experience of it—demands an affective attunement to what happens. Only by building from such attunement can one devise an intersubjective language adequate to subjective experience, a precondition for talking about either tone or history.
In the case of “Lilac, A Requiem,” such attunement might hone in on the terse precision of the sentences (“Her feet purpled. The dogs stopped barking.”); the intense conviction roused by a breakdown of causal logic (“No one knew her, and it had snowed.”); the serene lyricism coupled with a matter-of-fact brutality, one unmarred by a self-aware desire to shock; the manner in which each phrase peals outward from a central image (“Wiping off the snow, she dug her face into the bushels.”) before settling into orbit around it, fragments of memory and language and experience far from their source but nevertheless entangled.
Dong Li’s poems introduce the reader to a way of seeing that is not unlike his own approach to history, a reconciliation of individual and collective scales. With unsentimental conviction rather than didacticism, The Orange Tree restores dignity to those whose lives and deaths were forgotten, or worse, remembered falsely, turned into propaganda, patronized, or pitied. The stories of these lost ones may lack a preexisting language, but that does not mean they are untellable; no matter how faded a photograph is, our minds will still fill in the outlines.
Peter Myers is a poet living in New York.