Bei Dao’s Lament

Although I’ve only read the first fifty pages of Bei Dao’s At The Sky’s Edge, as translated by David Hinton, his book seems to have much in common with Shinkichi Takahasi’s Triumph of the Sparrow, which I discussed a while ago. Bei Dao’s poetry seems to use many of the same kind of surrealistic images that Takahasi used.

As admitted before, my ignorance of contemporary Asian literature is truly profound. Thus, I’m uncertain whether it is pure coincidence that the two artists seem to have so much in common with Surrealism. Does the fact that the Chinese language seems more “concrete” than the English language contribute to this tendency? Perhaps it’s time for Jonathon Delacour to offer some insights into his favorite Asian poetry.

I could quite easily imagine many of Dao’s poems as surrealistic paintings. Indeed, they seem to gain much of their power from the conflicting, disparate images found within them. I must admit, though, that when I was taking art classes collages were my favorite medium, and perhaps that may explain why I like these poems so much.

One of my favorite poems is “Lament”:


incandescent arc welding the sky
like long-lost passions
searching for new wounds
searching for blizzards amid archives
sparks in the bellows-chamber

dreams drop with sweat
like underwater mines longing for a ship’s touch
now the sea’s gone suddenly dry
a forest of tents appears
and we wake like wounds

dignitaries speaking some other language
stroll through the refugee camp

I’m not sure I’ll ever be able to look at a sunrise (or sunset) in quite the same where after the opening line of this poem. Anyone who has ever glanced out of the side of his at an arc welder will feel the power of this image. What do you imagine is being welded to the darkness? Is it our passion for life confronted by the abyss? What is the result of that fusion? Or, as suggested by the last line, what is being forged by these passions?

The first lines of the second stanza remind me of Langston Hughes’ “Dream Deferred,” dreams longing to explode, just waiting for the right target to drift by, perhaps a particularly relevant line when tied with the image of the refugee camp that ends the poem.

Most of us sitting securely at home in America very seldom think about “refugee camps,” much less what it must feel like to sit there dejectedly as “dignitaries” visit, all the time speaking a foreign language, perhaps even visiting for “publicity” rather than in an honest attempt to help the refugees.

2 thoughts on “Bei Dao’s Lament”

  1. Gee, Loren, I think I’d be skating out onto the thinnest ice if I were to try to write authoritatively on any kind of poetry, let alone Asian poetry. Though there is one Japanese poet, Buson, whose work I love…

  2. I suspect that your understanding of the Japanese language and culture would give you insights into Japanese poetry that the rest of us would never be able to gain, no matter how many poems we read, Jonathon.

    For instance, I’ve heard that Chinese, at least to some extent, lacks verbs. If that is so, then I would imagine it would have a great influence on the way they would see the world.

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