In China, that shifting land of seeking and longing has carried countless people across millennia of political and environmental convulsions — the waves of drought and flood and harvest and famine, of kingdoms fusing and breaking apart. The legacy extends deep into history, centuries before the first recognizable Chinese empire that united disparate warring states. In the third century BCE, an erstwhile royal advisor named Qu Yuan lamented his exile from the state of Chu in rhapsodic verse; 900 years later, an imperial scholar-official named He Zhizhang meditated on the disembodied feeling of returning to his hometown as an octogenarian after almost half a century away from it, the village children asking this strange guest where he comes from. These classical Chinese poets recognized the common bewilderment of humanity, and in doing so gave their readers something precious to hold on to, floating roots that still hold today.
Two new collections of contemporary Chinese free verse poetry in translation also grapple with this morass that we call home. Wang Yin’s Ghosts City Sea, translated by Andrea Lingenfelter, meditates on haunted Shanghai streets and the rugged beaches of Brittany, France, with an intermission of photos by the author that are peopled by silhouettes and shadows from his travels in Asia, Europe, and North America. Yu Xiuhua takes us on a very different journey in the poems and essays of Moonlight Rests on My Left Palm, a journey that is at once inward and expansive, translated by Fiona Sze-Lorrain.
Wang Yin and Yu Xiuhua come from entirely different backgrounds: Wang is a veteran reporter for the esteemed progressive newspaper Southern Weekly, a cosmopolitan Shanghai native who weaves the sea into his poetry; Yu was born and still lives in the village of Hengdian in Hubei Province, a woman whose cerebral palsy has confined her to her birthplace. “Wang Yin’s passion to know more of what lies beyond his city’s horizon is itself quintessentially Shanghainese,” Lingenfelter writes in the introduction to Ghosts. But Yu Xiuhua sees the world in her rural home. “Since I have never left my Hengdian Village, I can’t call it my hometown,” she explains, yet she is “vertically” nostalgic for the sky above Hengdian, as much a part of the village as the land, and declares that when she dies she will “bury” herself in that sky and make herself forever a part of this place. What Wang and Yu share is the search for that feeling of truly coming home.
Ghosts City Sea organizes selections from three decades of Wang’s work into a thematic arc, from the constant reminders of an unnamed trauma, to the alienating streets of Shanghai, to stolid pines on a windswept beach in Brittany, then out onto the sea, toward home. Wang wanders through “a summer day in the company of ghosts” whose phantoms linger on walls and glint off rows of bicycles. Later in the collection, Wang is preemptively nostalgic: “I know only that far away in the East / dreaming of my love, I may someday / lower my head and suddenly think of these three pines / on the desolate shores of Brittany.” Li Bo, 1,200 years Wang’s senior, famously “lowered his head” in reminiscence of home in his poem “Thoughts on a Quiet Night.” The distant, “desolate” Brittany has become a new home that Wang will long for when he returns to China. Later still, Wang will scatter his lover’s ashes at sea, where they “calm the waters” of their new home.
Though I don’t know if Wang Yin and Yu Xiuhua have ever met, I sense their spiritual kinship. Wang writes in a poem of feeling “distant happiness like a sharp knife / slicing at my heels.” Joy and sorrow are inextricable from each other, or are at least in constant dialogue with one another. In “Lesser Spear Grass,” Yu contemplates the inherent beauty and tenacity of the weed, how lovely it would look in a pot instead of in the fields, how it doesn’t intend to grow where it should not. “Or perhaps it conforms to a specific order: the samsara of eternal life. What do a few deaths matter? Death is no more than a recurring and necessary path.”
Both Wang Yin and Yu Xiuhua weave syncretic faith into their work, invoking the Christian God and local deities with no sense of contradiction. Ghosts appear in both of their works as well — not only haunting ghosts with earthly business to finish, but also ancestors at peace in the places they spent their days, their afterlives enriching the existences of the living. Yu’s world is full of ghosts: those of her mother and her grandmother, and the many unnamed ghosts of generations of Hengdian villagers. “Country ghosts and gods are simple spirits, and more likely to live in harmony with people,” she explains.
Yu finds the numinous in the very dust and air of Hengdian, but she is acutely aware of her isolation, and especially of the absence of romantic love from her life. She entered into an arranged marriage at the age of 19 with a man 12 years older than she (they divorced seven years ago). Yu’s poetry burns with sexual longing, traversing thousands of miles and defying the limitations of time and the human body in pursuit of imagined lovers. Or they come to her “dripping wet from another world / I don’t know where to start / wringing you dry.” Like Ghosts, Moonlight follows an arc, leading from Yu’s near-desperation for love to a longing tempered by hard-won self-respect. In “A Man Stops by My Room,” early in the collection, an unnamed man ignores her, and she can only study the back of his head; toward the end of the collection, in “For You,” she declares, “I forgive you for harming me, again and again, because of other women / I too have desires in my prime years, nights with a shattered body-mind / but I have never banished myself.”
A poem in translation stands as a poem in its own right, though the translator is trusted to speak for the author. Certainly, the reader shouldn’t be expected to know the language of the original in order to appreciate the translation. Still, I savored Ghosts all the more because of the parallel text, revealing some of the brilliant choices Lingenfelter has made in her renditions of Wang’s poetry. For example, the final stanza of “No. 9 New Continental Village” is a fading drumbeat: “long nights neverending night neverending / neverending.” Here Lingenfelter has freed herself from the repetition of “long nights” in Wang’s original, shortening it to “night” in the second instance; and she has chosen “neverending” instead of the more accurate, but less sensical, “slow.”
So much of Moonlight resonated with me, but Sze-Lorrain’s translation of the poem that launched Yu to fame grated on me. “Crossing Half of China to Fuck You” — was that really the title of the poem that made Yu an overnight sensation in 2014, after posting her work online for years? I was already familiar with Ming Di’s transcendent translation of the same poem, which she titled “Crossing Half of China to Sleep with You.” In this instance, linguistic accuracy seems to better match the spirit of the original. Odd word choices dot Moonlight: “melancholia” makes frequent appearances where “sadness” or “despair” would do. I know what Yu and Sze-Lorrain meant when I read, “She drags the remote far into her body,” but I couldn’t help but conjure a woman swallowing a TV remote control.
These quibbles aside, Sze-Lorrain’s translation successfully evokes Yu’s transcendental connection to the world around her, from the grass at her feet to the sky above her. “I live in harmony with Hengdian,” Yu writes, “because I am a part of my village.” Home, then, is not just a place you belong to, but that you are inextricably a part of.
And just as Yu is a part of Hengdian, Wang Yin also resides in everything he has ever loved: “I take the urn that held you / hold it to my breast / I put myself inside the urn that held you / I am now in your dreams.”