Yang Lian
Lee Valley Poems

Book Reviews

A Project of Poems and Translation with Polly Clark, Antony Dunn, Jacob Edmund, W N Herbert, Brian Holton, Agnes Hung-Chong Chan, Pascale Petit, Fiona Sampson, Arthur Sze

Published by Bloodaxe

A Guidebook of Darkness

The cover of Yang Lian’s Lee Valley Poems shows a cluster of dark bulrushes, like calligraphic marks, against an early morning mist. Whilst I would not suggest judging a book by its cover, it does say a good deal about Yang Lian’s poetry. One might be forgiven for thinking that the location is some remote spot in his native China. In fact it is a misty morning on Walthamstow Marshes. This elision of place is touched upon in his introductory essay: A Wild Goose Speaks to Me at the beginning of this new collection. Here he states:

There is no international, only different locals … What is ‘local’? Are its contents geographical, psychological, historical, language- based or even linguistics-based? … ‘local’ doesn’t at all signify a specific site, but must point to all sites, as being the ability of the poet to excavate his own self.

Born in Berne, Switzerland in 1955, where his parents were in the diplomatic service, Yang Lian mostly grew up in Beijing, and, like millions of other young people from cultured backgrounds, was sent to the countryside for ‘re-education’ during the final years of the Cultural Revolution. It was after the death of his mother in 1976 that he began to write poetry and became, along with Bei Dao and Duoduo, one of Beijing’s leading experimental underground poets – known as ‘hermetic’ or ‘misty’ poets, a derogatory term created by conservative Marxist literary critics who resisted their avant-garde poetics. In 1988 he visited New Zealand where, after the brutal Tiananmen Square uprising of June 1989, he remained in exile until 1993, then making London his home.

In the first poem, Where the River Turns, written in four parts, the ‘two oily blue wings’ of water, where the river opens out, become a metaphor for the difficulties of cultural duality:

water spreads from two directions two flashbacks
where the river turns
you exist at the point of a fish bone
the past in two directions are both empty

Yang Lian’s poetry bridges the gap – arguably first explored in Ezra Pound’s Cathay poems in 1915 and a profound influence on twentieth century poetry – between the sensibility of Chinese traditional poetry and occidental modernism.

In The Journey, ‘the wild goose calls, a cry / thousands of miles away, piercing night’s whirlpool’. Yet despite this trigger of remembrance the ‘water tells nothing’. Language, Yang Lian suggests, has ‘no past tense, no nostalgia’. Memory lacks clarity; writing is merely a form of ‘ghost script’. It is only through the body that we really remember. The calls of the wild geese ‘transform the landscape; darkness / transforms my flesh’:

the pull of dreams
longing for each other over thousands of miles
all in the circle driven out by what isn’t yet written
only to circle back to here.

Through the act of writing, these poems become converted into the landscape of the inner self, part, as Yang Lian suggests, of the ‘I’ of the text. Hearing the cry of the wild goose above the Lee Valley’s waters, he is drawn back into the Tang dynasty. Time collapses. As he says here, ‘distant’ and ‘deep’ mean the same thing. Within a largely postmodernist discourse depth has, too often, been seen as contentious, as backward-looking. It is the terrain of modernism, of Freud and self-analysis, which eschews the novelty and eclecticism of the postmodern for the ‘depth’ of archaeology and history. Great poetry – good poetry even – needs to have the courage to face the dark void, to listen to the wild goose’s call and follow where it leads, like ‘following a guidebook of darkness’. This is just what Yang Lian does in a voice that is melodic, haunting and true.

Philip Gross
The Water Table

Published by Bloodaxe

In the 1990s, as a judge for the Writers’ Inc poetry competition, I was delighted to announce Philip Gross’s emotionally arresting sequence The Wasting Game, based on his daughter’s experience of anorexia, as an undoubted winner. I mention this simply because at the time he felt there had been little interest in the poem (though the book of The Wasting Game went on to be shortlisted for the 1998 Whitbread Award). I suppose the moral of this is that as a poet you never know. You just have to work hard and hold faith. I suspect that at the time its rawness went rather against the zeitgeist for irony and cleverness. Now, of course, Philip Gross’s hard work and faith – he has been writing for more than thirty years – have been rewarded by the T S Eliot Prize. Insouciance and ‘cleverness’ suddenly seem rather dated in a world where things continually fall apart and centres fail to hold. There appears to be a desire for the arts (literary, visual, and filmic – note the success of the Hurt Locker at the Oscars over the glitzy blue-peopled Avatar) to engage with the authentic, to reflect something of life’s spiritual frailty and uncertainty. Philip Grosss The Water Table does just that.

Rooted in the landscape in Penarth in South Wales, where Gross lives and teaches Creative Writing at Glamorgan University, the connective watery thread that runs through these poems is that of the Bristol Channel, with its low tides and ‘forty foot drop to muddy shallows’, where:

With a gradual rip
Like a concord of lathes, with a crypt smell
two green-grey-brown stiffening blades
of water fold in.

From this first poem Sluice Angel, the dramatic tidal waters provide an aperture onto an alternative way of experiencing reality. ‘The tall shut doors of the hall / of the world at which the weight of water / of incipience does not need to knock’ transmute into something Hopkins-like and feathery; ‘wings / flexed, shuddering, not to soar / but to pour themselves down, to earth’. Water, landscape, industrial scenery and spiritual experience all meld to create meditations on the nature of the man-made world and our lost wilderness. Water becomes synonymous with the body but a ‘body that seems to have a mind’. Yet it is, as Gross tells us, an ‘unquiet body’, one that can ‘never lay down its silt’, that is ‘always trying to be something other, to be sky, / to lose itself in absolute reflection’. Water, thus, becomes a metaphor for an inchoate spiritual longing, the desire to transmute or evolve into something else.

These sentiments are revisited in ‘Design for the Water Garden’, where ‘A water-glass lens / through which you can see only water’ becomes the vehicle, in the surrounding dark matter, in which we are able to view ‘the stream through which light enters the world’. Light and silence are elements that punctuate Gross’s poetry. It is not unreasonable to suppose that this imagery comes from his practice as a Quaker. He has also claimed that as a result of growing up with his Estonian father, who makes repeated appearances within these poems, he was ‘brought up bilingual – in English and silence’. Light becomes synonymous with memory. At high tide on almost the longest day, ‘there is more light in the sea than the sky, / more recollection than reflection’. Gross has said that: ‘In a sense water in itself is nothing, but it is this perfectly clear, perfectly reflective substance in which you can see the world reflected in all its angles’. There is also wit here. In Fantasia on a Theme from IKEA he makes oblique reference to our ubiquitous desire for glossy lifestyles, where to shop is to feed our dreams and confirm our existence. IKEA becomes a modern-day temple, a ‘whole world’ and raison d’être:

We could see ourselves in one, these half-a-rooms
of dolls’ house lifestyle, life-sized (the books on the shelves
in Swedish).
Yet, as he wryly observes, customers ‘stumble out into…
astonishment / to see, after all, it’s just a shed’.

If there is any criticism of these poems – and it is a slight one – there is a tendency to forced colloquialisms that strive a little too officiously for vernacular credibility, as when the weather is described as ‘iffy’, or in the overstated description of ‘the bridge’s peppermint-cream / hint-of-neon filaments’. But these are quibbles; for this is a beautifully executed collection – a meditation on what it means to be human in a fluid, often seemingly meaningless, world. As Gross says of water in his poem Pour, it is:

a thing
in space, that lives in this world
like us, with purpose
though not one
least particle is constant, knows
its place, could account
or be held
to account for what it is or does.

Jasmine Donahaye
Self-Portrait as Ruth

Published by salt

The title poem of Jasmine Donahaye’s collection Self-Portrait as Ruth gives a clue as to how to read these poems. As with Fernando Pessoa, there is a sense that life’s complexities are more easily faced from behind an adopted persona. Here, issues of displacement, nationality, exile and impossible love are dealt with against the backdrop of the biblical story of Ruth, a Moabite woman forced into exile who refused to leave her mother-in-law after the death of her husband, later being rewarded by marriage to her kinsman Boaz. It is the same Ruth that we see toiling ‘amid the alien corn’ in Keats’s ‘Ode to a Nightingale’. Yet here, in a wheat field where ‘a quad bike engine shuts off’ and ‘the tractor has not yet been turned on’, a woman undresses: ‘I pull down the straps of my dress and step out of its little silk collapse at my feet’. The poem seems to be set in Wales for ‘the boy on the quad bike tells his dog tyrd’ma’. Yet, in a highly sensual stanza, the protagonist speaks of oiling her thighs and buttocks, as instructed by her mother-in-law in preparation for seduction, adorning herself with the Yemenite jewels brought by the older woman into exile. Yet, unlike the biblical story where Ruth, though a stranger, is rewarded by marriage, ultimately becoming the great-grandmother of King David, here

…the men looking over their shoulders
expressionless, almost hostile,
are waiting for me,
a trespasser,
to leave.

Born in England, Jasmine Donahaye emigrated with her family to California, where she lived for twelve years before settling in mid-Wales and gaining a PhD in Welsh Writing in English from the University of Wales, Swansea. Her Jewish family has its roots in nineteenth-century Palestine and the book resonates with Israeli and Palestinian history, wrestling with conflicting perspectives of exile and home, tribe and religion, love and belonging. Through a variety of voices, and the shifting use of Welsh, Arabic and Hebrew words, Donahaye refuses to adopt a partisan stance, slipping between the claims and sympathies of both sides. In Thirst, an apparently female Palestinian voice cries: ‘Atash, thirst, tzamah: in any language / an open mouth, a plea’ Looking across at an armed Israeli soldier, with his ‘macho promise’, she asserts that ‘What you say about us is untrue’. Tensions start first with thirst, leading to Palestinian resentment and then Israeli disgust. The denial of water becomes a form of emotional rape as the soldier strikes a rock and ‘a thousand streams ejaculate’. For such ‘petty rage’ the poem argues, ‘your right of return / has been revoked, / so why blame us for the exile?’

The hovering sense of catastrophe is further explored in the erotic love poem Palestina. Slipping past a border guard asleep at his post a female persona claims: ‘Here’s where it began… / a thousand years ago’. As she takes off her dress the soldier realizes that:

Her body was a map of
my body; where she had scars, I had scars.
I traced her terrain: the ruined watchtowers
where the gunmen had lain.

The histories and hurts of these contested lands are entwined like those of ill-fated lovers. There is a passionate anger here that refuses to attribute culpability uniquely to one group. Jewish guilt is faced head-on in Stoning, where the poem asserts that even when Abraham was offered Hebron by his new neighbours he ‘insisted nevertheless on paying 400 / Old Israeli Shekels’ while now ‘my people are throwing stones’ at a farmer, already attacked by ‘febrile women’, who silently ‘drops / like an empty sack’. The body, too, becomes a site of guilt and unease, as in Fetishes where an ambivalent desire for anal sex is conflated with the dilemma over whether or not to touch that holiest of holy sites, the Western Wall. In the oedipal poem My father’s circumcision, the moel (the Jewish circumciser) ‘with his ragged nail / tears the foreskin’ then ‘bends his head / to suck the wound’.

Who then, in this complex history of the Middle East, is innocent who culpable, when too many look away and fail to resolve these historic conflicts? Perhaps, as the poem suggests, we all have blood on our hands. Yet there are moments of respite, as in Water, where sweaty and dusty in a shop on Sderot Yerushalayim, the poet stops to buy refreshment and stands for a quiet moment in the cool of the shopseller’s shade: ‘he an Arab and I a Jew, / and water simply water’. In 2006 Jasmine Donahaye’s first collection Misappropriations was shortlisted for the Jerwood Aldeburgh First Collection Prize. With this new collection she establishes herself as an assured, challenging and brave voice, unafraid of confronting difficult issues or upsetting those with more sectarian views.

Content and Texts © Sue Hubbard 2011

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