Sunday, 3 February 2019

Book review: Breaking New Sky: Contemporary Poetry from China (2013)

This collection of poetry by writers mainly born in the 1960s but with some born in the 1950s and others in the 1980s (one, a girl, was born in 2002) is of generally high quality.

The book’s introduction and the translations were made by Ouyang Yu, who has lived in Australia since 1991. None of the poems are precisely dated and for some poets the names of previous books are mentioned in the short preliminary text that accompanies the work of each.

There are 10 poems in the book by a woman, Lu Ye, one of whose poems is mentioned below, but this is the most work of one artist contained in the book. The orthography is not uniform, with some poems using a capital letter for the start of each line, and others not. All of the titles of the poems are capitalised in title case.

Bai Heilin’s (a man, born 1973) ‘A Fake Rattan Chair’ is strong and whimsical with a sudden and compelling final line. It examines such ideas as tradition and the modern manufacturing economy and interleaves the referents it uses with elements from the writer’s personal life.

Also strong is Ben Shao Ye’s (a man, born in the 1970s) ‘Lover’ and it uses a highly poetic register to create a set of referents that enable the poet to examine enduring and important themes about life, especially about the nature of the individual.

‘Warnings Against My Own Insomnia’ by Chu Chen (born 1969) is an interesting short poem in a traditional register that comments on mortality with humour and lightness. It is just eight lines long and contains worlds.

Geng Xiang’s (born 1958) ‘The Garment of Mafang’ is a lovely poem that contemplates the links between generations and the ties that bind Chinese people to the country they live in. It is a long poem, running to a whole page, and it tells a story that has a narrator.

Liang Yujing’s (a man, born 1982) ‘The Old Man’ is a fascinating poem that looks at the relationship between Chinese people and Chairman Mao. While Chinese people uniformly have negative feelings about the Japanese, due to events that took place in the 20th century, they still revere Mao, despite the fact that he brought more suffering to China than the Japanese ever did.

‘Taking a Nap’ by Lu Ye (a woman, born 1969) creates a domestic scene where a woman is lying in bed in the room next to the room where another person – possibly a lover, possibly a husband, it’s not clear – is also asleep. With a few deft strokes, Lu creates a small, intense reality that is peopled with individuals who have desires and who dream. And then, at the very end, with the flick of her brush, she involves the whole country. It is a very beautiful poem.

Qi Guo’s (born 1968) ‘The Last Day’ takes a quick look at the world through the eyes of a Chinese and then, in the final stanza, reduces it to a witticism. A very fine poem that has depth and humour in plentiful supply and that finds the universal in the act of travel, a very modern preoccupation for Chinese people.

As a general observation the collection shows a wide variety of types of writing with individual poets taking their head and producing work to their own standards and on subjects that they themselves have chosen. This is encouraging, and the resulting range of work displays different themes that are central to people in the country. Contemplative pieces rub shoulders familiarly with pieces that have overtly political content. There is no single type of poetry being produced in China today, but it is clear that the ecosystem is fecund and that the work being produced is responding to contemporary social and artistic concerns.

In terms of categories, the translator includes one poet born in Taiwan in this collection. Two other poets were born in mainland China and moved to Taiwan. One of these poets subsequently moved to Canada to live. The rest of the anthologised poets (as far as I can tell) were born on and still live on the mainland.

I’m not sure how others might go about finding a copy of this book to buy. I bought mine from the translator direct through Facebook, where he can be found (on the book he puts his given name first and his family name last, in the western style, unlike Chinese people do in general, but in Facebook he uses the traditional Chinese way of writing his name). Otherwise, a good bookstore might be able to order it in for you.

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