On Yang Lian

This is a longer, more personal version of a review of Yang Lian’s Narrative Poem (Bloodaxe, 2017) that appeared in Poetry London (Autumn 2017: Issue 88).


It was once said that a ‘great age of literature is perhaps always a great age of translations.’ But that doesn’t have to mean, as it did for poets from Wyatt and Sidney to Pound and Eliot, absorbing the influence of ‘foreign’ voices and domesticating them. In our age, at least, it feels like it’s coming to mean something very different: that we might understand all voices as, in some sense, already foreign.

Yang Lian’s poetry is unusual – as good poetry should be – but it’s also recognisably similar, combining a range of styles and allusions that dissolve any notion of a simplistic East-West binary. Yang grew up in Beijing, but was born in Switzerland, and since being forced into exile in 1989 he’s lived in London and Berlin. Narrative Poem is the fruit of an impressive twenty-five-year working relationship with the Scottish translator Brian Holton.

Like Yang’s previous publications, Yi (2002) and Concentric Circles (2005), it is a single long, ornately structured poem. In his Preface, Yang refers to these three poems as forming ‘a dialectic of China, Non-China, and the Unity of China and Non-China’. Narrative Poem is the sublation of his previous work then, in which China and Non-China are held in suspension and simultaneously transcended – in Derrida’s terms, you could say that Yang leaves China and ‘returns to it, but without annulling the difference’.

The result is a skittering back and forth across the globe, taking in and transforming a bracing array of influences, from Thucydides and Christa Wolf to Yu Xuanji and Osip Mandelstam. And their voices aren’t lost in his – submerged or annulled – but quoted, echoed and challenged.

The book is divided into a three sections – Yang’s mind clearly works in threes – whose titles have the sweaty portentousness of Swedish death metal albums: Photograph Album: Dream of Time; Watermint Elegy: Timeless Reality; and Ruin of Sages.Synchronic.Dreamless. Each individually contains a number of subsections I won’t list here. But to give you a characteristic flavour, the second part of Watermint Elegy is called ‘Watermint Narrative 2: Love Elegy’ (addressed to Yang’s wife, Yo Yo) and opens with a poem called ‘A street name makes a love look fondly back’. It begins

a street name makes a love look fondly back

all our wavering permeated with the taste of water

Lea River valley’s silver-grey rippling is set on the windowsill

silver-grey brightness can always take more rain

which is beautiful. The indefinite, non-specific way ‘a love’ looks back resists any reading which would privilege a nostalgically-minded confessional speaker. Here, as elsewhere, the first-person singular is studiously avoided; this is spoken from an altogether more wavering, rippling perspective. There’s also a subtle nod to a line from Shakespeare’s much-maligned Sonnet 135, ‘The sea, all water, yet receives rain still’, which is another poem about names, and about how names (the signifier rather than the signified) can always take more of our fondness, more of our love.

The poem circles around a particular scene – in this case, unlike most, clearly located in a house by the Lea River – with a roving, hallucinatory set of images. The concluding description (not that anything is ever quite described in a Yang poem) is of various spinning things, from a gramophone record to a staircase to a ‘grove of glossy tiger-skin orchids’. Can you see those orchids spinning? Me neither, but Yang makes it sound good:

as they spin a tattoo of golden thread

bright silvery waters cross us

obliviously refuse two little unformed figures

chase their own never to be formed voices

This is typical of Yang’s style (in Holton’s rendering at least) in the way that it picks up on earlier phrases (‘silver-grey brightness’ becoming ‘bright silvery’), isn’t shy about adjectives and adverbs, makes a syntactically knotty virtue of its unpunctuatedness, is rife with (clanging) symbols, and elides the concrete and abstract with minimal concern for readerly comprehension.

It’s because of passages like this that Chinese critics labelled Yang’s work ‘Misty’ or ‘Ambiguist’. But he’s no aesthete, or not in the usual, decadent sense. Though sounding euphonious, he usually throws in a jangling image or word as well: here it’s ‘refuse’. It makes sense to read ‘obliviously’ as flowing on from the previous line – the lovers unaware of the waters around them – but this leaves ‘refuse’ stranded. Are the lovers refusing to let the waters ‘cross’ them? How do waters ‘cross’ you anyway, unless you’re beneath them? Is it a transmuted reference to the ‘crossed oars’ earlier in the poem? Could the waters be a blessing, making the sign of the cross over them? Alternatively, is ‘refuse’ rubbish, the ‘unformed figures’ bits of trash borne along by the water?

The crucial point – echoing the myth of Echo – is that Yang’s ‘figures’ are always chasing ‘their own never to be formed voices’. He refuses to be pinned down, his figures and voices folding into and out of one another endlessly. ‘Endlessly,’ by the way, might be Yang’s favourite word: he uses it 19 times in Narrative Poem, the more times it’s repeated the more – and I guess this is the point – we start to feel the circular monotony of ‘Timeless Reality’.

Later, in a subsection called ‘Watermint Narrative 5’, Yang riffs on elegies by the Tang Dynasty poet Li Shangyin, and offers an idiosyncratic definition of aestheticism as

falling in love with impossibility itself

reduplicated unvoiced sounds heave and surge forcing us to turn and go

Aestheticism, for Yang, is not about a des Esseintes-like turning away from the world – you could hardly accuse him of shirking social and political engagement – but rejecting any attempt to instrumentalise art. Holding to the self-sufficiency of the aesthetic is part of an (impossible) attempt to overcome the self, or the voice which says I saw Z, I own X, I want Y . Yang wants – indeed, feels forced – ‘to turn and go’. This being the end of the poem, that ‘go’ suggests dissipation, his singular voice melting into a ‘reduplicated’ ocean of ‘unvoiced sounds’, heaving and surging.

Throughout the book, aestheticism is expressed in these moist terms, some variant of ‘flow’ or ‘overflow’ occurring a levee-breaking 28 times. This brings up the spectre of Rilke, who, in the last of his Sonnets to Orpheus, famously said to the still, silent earth Ich rinne (‘I flow’). Yang’s book opens with a prefatory poem, ‘Canto I: Ghost Composer’, which makes a comparable statement, but – so far as I can tell – from the perspective of a foetus, a ‘little mouth in the womb sipping at scarlet sludge’ (gross, I know) with its ‘flesh still flowing in the little ears flowing into a sort of thought’. Not yet having sorted its thoughts, with a budding mouth and ‘little ears’, this foetus, all oceanic feeling, is Yang’s poetic ideal: an impossible, unformed voice.

Yang is an overbearingly powerful poet. And maybe it’s a side-effect of his ambition that he can sometimes lapse into writing badly. Some parts of Narrative Poem are you-must-change-your-life good; others are dull, adolescent and nonsensical. There are more terrible descriptions of nipples, for example, than any long poem can sustain: if it’s not a ‘tulip’s swollen nipple’, it’s a ‘sucked nipple’s beauty so enchanting’, or the ‘cactus fruit’s blood-red nipples’ and ‘the incense on your nipples/ after a minute’s separation’ like a ‘plant reincarnated’.

Writing in an abstract or anti-realist mode can’t excuse sentiments and imagery that, in any other context, would be derided. To render a woman by her disembodied nipple, however ‘enchanting’ and spiritual it may be, rehearses old misogynistic tropes. It’s not enough to write complicatedly about History and Time, if you’re going to make a cringe-worthy reference to a ‘feminine gentleness you can’t not adore’ a few pages later.

The repetition of key words, though intentional, also grates: there’s only so many times you can hear something being described as ‘vast’ (even ‘vast vast’) or ‘perfumed’ or ’empty’ or ‘true’ before every word blurs into indistinct mood music. Too often, he leans on flowers, ghosts, snow or rain to make a point – and, every time, the rain brings up the same hackneyed cycle of feelings: loneliness, emptiness, infinitude… Take these two lines from ’12: Narrative Poem’ (part of ‘Hometown Elegy’):

let it be called the hometown’s storyline of wandering ghosts done wrong

snow calcified in the body banished to below a burning sun

The patterning of vowel sound and alliteration is Dylan Thomas at his most excessively lush, but with more generic imagery. It’s hard to know what to do with this, hard to consider it intellectually or emotionally. Its relationship with conscious thought is like that of a raindrop to the Lea River.

For all these criticisms, Yang is a broad and visionary poet, and not just because of his ambitions to combine a form of European-inflected modernist poetry with two thousand years of Chinese verse and culture. For me, personally, he points toward a distinctive kind of modernity: at home in multiple traditions, both a Chinese poet and a ‘Non-China’ poet, or a sublated synthesis of the two.

Over the course of writing this piece, I discovered a coincidental link between the two of us which changed how I see Yang. A few weeks ago, my mum saw my copy of Narrative Poem poking out of my bag and recognised Yang’s face – or, rather, his distinctive, flowing locks – on the back-cover. She said that he’d taught her Mandarin for a few months in the mid-90s when she was doing a course at the University of Westminster. I pressed her for details, but she couldn’t remember much – he was very ‘cool’ and ‘casual’ apparently.

The next time I saw her, she gave me a pamphlet, Where the Sea Stands Still, which Yang had given her in 1996. There was a dedication scrawled on the first page that my mum couldn’t read – Yang obviously hadn’t done a great job with my mum. After messaging back and forth with a Chinese friend, she told me that it said: ‘No beauty is without cruelty.’

Initially, I found it a bit icky that this was what he’d inscribed on a book to my mum, then I settled on embarrassment at his oblivious pretension. He must have been trying to conjure those famous lines from the beginning of Rilke’s first Duino Elegy which in J.B. Leishman’s translatorese go:

For Beauty’s nothing

but beginning of Terror we’re still just able to bear,

and why we adore it so is because it serenely

disdains to destroy us. Every angel is terrible.

That use of ‘serenely’, awkwardly enjambed, reminds me of Yang. As does the dialectical interlocking of beauty and terror, adoration and destruction. Why did Rilke call them elegies? Likewise, why are so many of Yang’s poems, even his love poems, framed as elegies?

In ‘Little Tiger’, Yang says that ‘a departed soul/ keeps an avenging weakness a pinpoint-fine moan’. To depart a place is to become ‘a departed soul’, moaning, weak and vengeful – and not just because of the leaving itself but the realisation it brings about. In ‘Sky in Water’, he says that ‘home is untrue’ (Rilke puts it this way: ‘staying is nowhere’). Yang, like Rilke, is committed to flow, to capturing that flow in words; in their work, stable ideas of home and self float away, become untrue.

When Yang wrote that message to my mum, he would have been aware she wasn’t from London – she came to England from Indonesia in the early-80s – and it makes sense to see it (more charitably) as a message from one ‘departed soul’ to another: when you leave home behind, cruelty comes to tinge everything you see and do and make. However beautiful, everything becomes elegiac.

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