It’s been raining a lot during our visit to Santa Rosa and we don’t have the same programs to watch on TV that we watch in Tacoma, so I’ve turned to reading and polishing up photographs I’ve recently taken. Strangely enough, I just finished a book I bought at Copperfield the last time we were here. I was browsing the store looking for something different and found Ai Qing: Selected Poems. In retrospect, I probably picked it up because the cover jacket claimed that Ai Qing is “one of the finest modern Chinese poets,” and I could only remember reading classical Chinese poets.
In the Foreword his son Ai Weiwei says,
As a kind of faith, Ai Qing’s writing brought both joy and sorrow to his life. He sacrificed for his beliefs in order to survive under the harsh political environment. His use of vernacular Chinese and his love for simple truths make his expression a powerful reality; his inner truth makes his poetic thinking flow like a stream of spring water, even in the driest Season. In the most suffocating years, Ai Qing never betrayed his beliefs; it was he who showed me the courage needed when aesthetics and morals are marginalized. Against the aesthetic mediocrity of despotism, poetry is the key to wisdom, and the mortal enemy of banal politics.
That might have grabbed my attention, too.
The book is only 102 pages long (another reason I bought it ?) but I tabbed eleven poems that I wanted to re-read. One of my favorite poems was “Daynhe — My Wet Nurse,” but it is too long to cite here. These two shorter poems do a good job of demonstrating some of the power of his poetry and make it clear why it appeals to me.
“Trees” reminds me of William Carlos Williams’s Imagist poetry, which I’ve always loved.
One tree. Another tree
Stand distant, alone.
Inform their isolation.
But under cover of mud and dirt
their roots reach
into depths unrevealed.
The opening line emphasizes the trees’ isolation from each other. They would seem less isolated if the poem had begun “two trees” instead of “One tree. Another tree.” Despite this apparent separation, the earth itself unites these trees, perhaps in the same way that their homeland united the Chinese in their war against the invading Japanese in the year the poem was written. This is a simple but powerful way of arguing that no matter how isolated we appear on the surface we are linked to each other through our roots.
“Autumn Morning” develops the same themes, with a little more emphasis on the sorrow of poverty-stricken villages.
Cool, refreshing, this morning,
The sun’s just risen, this coming,
The village, sorrowful this morning.
A little bird, white feathers circling its eyes,
Perches on the black roof tiles
Of a low, squat hut;
As if lost in thought, it gazes at
The many-hued clouds bannering the sky.
I’ve been in the South a Year;
This place hasn’t got the tropics’ vitality;
No coconut palms surge to the skies;
Already my pent-up heart is sad
but today, as I’m about to go,
I feel uneasy
Everywhere the same filth, gloom, poverty,
But not one I’d want to leave.
The ambivalent opening stanza sets the tone for the entire poem. The first two lines seem almost downright optimistic, “cool and refreshing,” but this feeling is quickly countered when he says the village is “sorrowful.”
The second stanza’s description of the little bird lost in thought almost sounds like a description of the poet himself, lost in thought.
The third stanza explains why the poet may feel sorrowful when he compares this village in the north with his previous stay in the South for a year. Yes, there are reasons why my brother spends winters in Arizona rather than Alaska. Stuck inside in the far North with cold and little sunshine it’s easy to feel depressed and long for sunnier climes.
The power of the poem, though, lies in that last stanza where he enumerates all the reasons why people want to leave (i.e. filth, gloom, poverty) but his heart longs to stay. This is home, his homeland and it’s never easy to leave home. We belong to the land as much as it belongs to us.