Bei Dao’s “Landscape Over Zero”

I’ve been fighting to finish Bei Dao’s At the Sky’s Edge for too long. At least part of the problem comes from my hectic schedule, but the sheer difficulty of the poems in the second half of this work has also slowed my reading down to an irritating crawl.

Translator David Hinton hints at some of the problems I encountered in Dao’s later poems, “However derived from Western poetics his work may at first seem, Bei Dao’s very different cultural context allowed him to use surrealist techniques for his own unique purposes.” However appealing I may find Surrealists, and Salvador Dali is one of my favorite modern painters, I have certainly never found it “easy” to fully understand their work. Though this may actually be a part of their appeal, for some reason I find it less appealing in Dao’s poetry.

Again, Hinton suggests that, “As before rather than addressing the social and political situation in a direct way, he recreates the fragmented experience that situation allows us, experience for which conventional language seems inadequate,” and “His poems are constructed from splinters of a civilization frittering itself away in a ruins of the spirit; and at the same time, in the private space they create, the poems open forms of distance from those ruins.”

Unfortunately, for my taste, too often the poems themself seem to be splintered, lacking the kind of unity of vision I generally look for in a poem. At their worst, several poems seem to be more a long, disjointed telegram than a coherent, unified work.

That’s not to say that I wasn’t fond of several of the poems; I was. Though I preferred the first half of the book discussed earlier, I did find several poems that I also liked in the second half, poems that I could personally identify with, poems that have reflected my own alienation:


days gone-by rail against
the moment’s flower
night that does youth proud
tumbles hugging stones
breaking glass in dreams

why linger on here?
mid-life letters circulate
vast sorrows
shoes of certainty pour out
sand, or schemes

completely unprepared
I walk further out
in some statement at a conference
tracing the twist in a preposition
joining ghosts
on the wrong road to greet sunset

Here’s a road I’ve been on more than once, and finding yourself on the wrong road at middle age is particularly difficult for those who would like to believe that one grows wiser as one ages. It’s one thing to be confused and lost when you’re young; it’s something quite different to feel that way at forty or fifty.

Lost time haunts you because you know you can never relive it. The sorrow of past mistakes can seem overwhelming, undermining your confidence in the future. Little wonder that those who lose jobs or get divorced at forty or fifty are devastated.

“Seeing Double” also suggests the kind of despair that dominates “Landscape over Zero:”


who knocks on a door in moonlight
watching stone bloom
a musician wanders the corridors
it makes your heart pound
not knowing if it’s morning or night
flowing water and goldfish
adjust the direction of time

a wounded sunflower
points the way
the blind stand on
light beyond understanding
clutching anger
assassin and moon
walk toward a foreign land

I’ll have to admit that there are parts of this poem I don’t completely understand, but it certainly captures feelings I’ve felt while wandering around in the dark trying to make sense of events in my life. There’s something particularly disturbing about wandering around at three or four in the morning with first light threatening to appear, caught between trying to get a little sleep and preparing for a day you know you’re not ready to face.

The “wounded sunflower” somehow reminds me of Ginsberg’s “Sunflower Sutra,” while “light beyond understanding” suggests the confusion of meeting daylight before you’ve ever gotten to sleep, probably because of the “clutching anger” that assails your heart, making sleep impossible.

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