Sowing the Seeds of Despair

“At The Sky’s Edge,” the title poem of Bei Dao’s work, and “Sower” seem fairly representative of the poems in“Forms of Distance," the first section of At the Sky’s Edge.

Perhaps “At The Sky’s Edge” is the most representative because it contains both the sense of despair and of silent acceptance that is found throughout this section of the book:


love among the mountains

eternity, that patience of the earth
simplifies our human sounds
one arctic-thin cry
from deep antiquity until now

rest, weary traveler
a wounded ear’s
already laid your dignity bare
one arctic-thin cry

The startling contrast between the silent mountains that form the sky and the “artic-thin cry from deep antiquity” that seems to symbolize man’s existence emphasizes the paradox of man’s existence. For man is always seeking eternity, always trying to connect with the “patience of the earth,” while simultaneously trying to overcome this sense of despair that haunts his very existence. Why desire to live forever when life is such misery?

While “At the Sky’s Edge” seems to capture that sense of eternity that pervades much of Chinese poetry, “Sower” seems much more topical. It’s hard to read this poem and not think of what is presently happening in our society:


a sower walks into the great hall
it’s war out there, he says
and you awash in emptiness
you’ve sworn off your duty to sound the alarm
I’ve come in the name of fields
it’s war out there

I walk out from that great hail
all four directions a boundless harvest scene
I start planning for war
performing death
and the crops I burn
send up the wolf-smoke of warning fires

but something haunts me furiously:
he’s sowing seed across marble floors

Perhaps Bush’s strategy is to outwait those who oppose war with Iraq. Congress’ approval of his invasion of Iraq seems to have passed ages ago, doesn’t it? How long can you protest before being overwhelmed by a sense of despair, “awash in emptiness?”

Considering the number of wars America has fought in the last fifty years, how many wars can you oppose before you decide that you must live your own life, must give up sounding the alarm. How many times can you cry “wolf” before others no longer believe you?

What is gained from burning crops? There’s something deeply ominous in “I start planning for war/ performing death/ and the crops I burn.” How does one “perform” death? Is it a ritual or a conscious act? Can anything good come from “sowing seed across marble floors?” Aren’t seeds spread on such infertile ground doomed to die, or are they the seeds of despair, seeds that will bear a bountiful crop? Will the “Grim Reaper” come to harvest this crop?

One thought on “Sowing the Seeds of Despair”

  1. The sower comes into the great hall to warn of the coming war and “sow the seeds” of the peace. But the problem is that he is sowing seeds on marble floors – ie, nothing will come of it. Don’t you have the feeling that is what is happening right now? The antiwar folks are sowing seeds like crazy, but the ground is marble – Bush ain’t listening – so the seeds won’t grow. Or maybe the point is that the sower is spreading his seeds in the wrong place – in great marble halls. Maybe he should be out in the fields with the common folk?

    The second stanza is interesting. Why is it that he starts preparing for war instead of doing something to try to stop it? Is burning crops maybe the same as saying he is burning his bridges for peace?

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