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    Poems by Bei Dao

    Bei Dao (1949-), meaning "Northern Island" literally, is the pseudonym of Chinese modern poet Zhao Zhenkai, who became in the 1970s the poetic voice of his generation. Bei Dao gained first international acclaim with the poem 'Answer,' which was published in the official poetry journal Shi Kan (Poetry Monthly) in 1980. 'I don't believe the sky is blue; / I don't believe in thunder's echoes; / I don't believe that dreams are false; / I don't believe that death has no revenge." (from 'The Answer') Bei Dao's tone was defiant and especially the last lines from 'Notes on the Coty of the Sun,' have been often quoted as representing the disillusionment of his generation.

    Answers  An Unfamiliar Beach  Quiet and Tremble  An Ancient Temple  We  Outsider  June  Delivering Newspapers  Post  Untitled  Teacher’s Manual  Morning Song  Deformation  Spending the Night  The Hunt  Mission  Swivel Chair  Dry Season  Soap 


    Cruelty is the ID pass of the cruel,
    honesty the grave stone of the honest.
    Look, in the sky plated gold,
    crooked reflections of all the dead float around.
    The glacial epoch is over,
    so why is there ice everywhere?
    Good Hope was rounded a long time ago,
    so where are these thousands of boats racing on the Dead Sea?
    I came into this world
    with only blank pages, rope and my fingers;
    therefore, before final judgements are given,
    I need to speak in all the voices of the defendants.
    Just let me say, world,
    If a thousand challengers are under your feet
    count me as challenger one-thousand-and-one.
    I don't believe the sky is always blue;
    I don't believe it was thunder echoing;
    I don't believe all dreaming is false;
    I don't believe the dead cannot bring judgement.
    If the sea is doomed someday to break its levees
    my heart must flood with all the bitter waters.
    If the land is destined to form the hills again,
    let real human beings learn to choose the higher ground.
    The latest, favorable turnings, the twinkling stars
    studding the naked sky,
    are pictographs five-thousand years old.
    They are the eyes of the future staring at us now.

    An Unfamiliar Beach

    --to P.
    The sails have been lowered.
    A winter forest of masts
    contains unexpected sights and sounds of Spring.
    The ruins of a lighthouse
    still hold the great beams from the past.
    You lean on the remaining stairs,
    on the rusted banisters,
    beating the same rhythm over and over.
    In the dignity of high noon
    our shadows look for temporary lodging.
    All over the place
    salt rock glistens, condensed and
    sparkling with memories.
    In the distance
    there is a vast, white expanse.
    The blue horizon
    is like a moving deck.
    How many nets have been cast?
    A scarf,
    like a red bird,
    waves over the Sea of Japan.
    It flings its imitation of fire
    at this grey end of the world,
    and at your fixed gaze.
    An absence of storms is fine,
    but there is also no direction and no wind.
    Perhaps in answer to a call,
    its wings thrum like a bowstring.
    The ebbing tide
    wave after wave,
    spills on a golden carpet,
    spills a night suffused with foam,
    a lost rope, a broken oar.
    Fishermen bend their naked backs
    and repair the temple the storm collapsed.
    Children chase a crescent moon.
    A sea gull flies right for you,
    but doesnt light on your outstretched hand.

    Quiet and Tremble

    Translated by the author with the assistance of Chen Yan Bing and Diana Jaio
    you are drawing yourself
    being born--light's rising
    turning the paper-night
    madness that you released
    is quiet cast by truth
    pride shines as if internal wounds
    darken all the words
    in secret trembling
    those angels in uniforms
    of a private school
    become fish, querying sea
    a wind reads ruts
    saluting the blue silk beyond

    An Ancient Temple

    The long ago songs of a bell
    weaved this spider web; in the column's crevices,
    grown outward, one sees annual rings there for the counting.
    No memories are here; stones
    that merely scattered the echoes in this mountain valley,
    have no memories.
    That little path, even, by-passed it;
    its dragons and strange birds are gone.
    They took with them the silent bells that hung from the eaves.
    They took the unrecorded legends of the place, too.
    The words on the walls are all worn clean and torn.
    Maybe if it caught on fire
    one could read the words on the inside.
    See the annual growths of the wild grasses,
    so indifferent.
    They don't care if they submit to any master,
    to the shoes of the old monks,
    or to the winds, either.
    Out front the sky is held up by a broken stone tablet.
    Still, led by the gaze of some living person,
    the tortoise may revive and
    come out carrying his heavy secret,
    crawl right out there on the temple's threshold.


    lost souls and scattered spirits
    holdings lanterns chase spring
    scars shimmer, cups revolve
    light's being created
    look at that enchanting moment
    a thief steals into a post office
    letters cry out
    nails o nails
    the lyrics never change
    firewood huddles together
    searching for an audience to listen
    searching for the heart of winter
    river's end
    a boatman awaiting boundless twilight
    there must be some one to rewrite love


    one generation drops like a curtain
    the next is applauding
    the lifetime you've known
    hiding in dark places
    starts gaining attention
    groping, hence light
    letting half a life empty out
    and fill with crane song
    someone's swimming in sickness
    as autumn wind inspects
    the small temperaments of young animals
    the road joins sleep
    and in radiant light that's defeated you
    you stand fast at the nameless fence
    translated by David Hinton


    Wind at the ear says June
    June a blacklist I slipped
    in time
    note this way to say goodbye
    the sighs within these words
    note these annotations:
    unending plastic flowers
    on the dead left bank
    the cement square extending
    from writing to
    I run from writing
    as dawn is hammered out
    a flag covers the sea
    and loudspeakers loyal to the sea’s
    deep bass say June

    Delivering Newspapers

    Who believes in the mask’s weeping?
    who believes in the weeping nation?
    the nation has lost its memory
    memory goes as far as this morning
    the newspaper boy sets out in the morning
    all over town the sound of a desolate trumpet
    is it your bad omen or mine?
    vegetables with fragile nerves
    peasants plant their hands in the ground
    longing for the gold of a good harvest
    politicians sprinkle pepper
    on their own tongues
    and a stand of birches in the midst of a debate:
    whether to sacrifice themselves for art or doors
    this public morning
    created by a paperboy
    revolution sweeps past the corner
    he’s fast asleep


    An elk heading for the pit-trap
    power, the fir tree said, struggle
    cherishing the same secret
    my hair turned white
    retiring, going backwards
    leaving my post
    only one step back
    no, ten whole years
    my era behind me
    suddenly beating on a bass drum


    The landscape crossed out with a pen
    reappears here
    what I am pointing to is not rhetoric
    October over the rhetoric
    flight seen everywhere
    the scout in the black uniform
    gets up, takes hold of the world
    and microfilms it into a scream
    wealth turns into floodwaters
    a flash of light expands
    into frozen experience
    and just as I seem to be a false witness
    sitting in the middle of a field
    the snow troops remove their disguises
    and turn into language

    Teacher’s Manual

    A school still in session
    irritable restless but exercising restraint
    I sleep beside it
    my breath just reaching the next
    lesson in the textbook: how to fly
    when the arrogance of strangers
    sends down March snow
    a tree takes root in the sky
    a pen to paper breaks the siege
    the river declines the bridge invites
    the moon takes the bait
    turning the familiar corner
    of the stairs, pollen and viruses
    damage my lungs damage
    an alarm clock
    to be let out of school is a revolution
    kids jump over the railings of light
    and turn to the underground
    other parents and I
    watch the stars rise

    Morning Song

    Words are the poison in a song
    on the track of the song’s night road
    police sirens  aftertaste
    the alcohol of sleepwalkers
    waking up, a headache
    like the window’s transparent speakers
    from silence to a roar
    learning to waste a life
    I hover in the birdcalls
    crying never
    when the storms have filled up with gas
    light rays snatch the letter
    unfold it and tear it up


    My back to the window of open fields
    holding on to the gravity of life
    and the doubts of May
    like the audience at a violent movie
    lit by drink
    except for the honey-drop at five o’clock
    the morning’s lovers grow old
    and become a single body
    a compass needle
    on a homesick sea
    between writing and the table
    a diagonal enemy line
    Friday in the billowing smoke
    someone climbs a ladder
    out of sight of the audience

    Spending the Night

    A river brings a trout to the plate
    brother alcohol and father sorghum
    ask me to spend the night, the glass
    has the wrinkles of a murderer
    the hotel clerk stares at me
    I hear his arrhythmic heart
    that heart now bright now dim
    lighting the registration form
    on the glossy marble
    the piano goes out of tune
    the elevator turns a yawn into a scream
    as it cuts through lamplit foam
    coming out of its sleeve
    the wind bares an iron fist

    The Hunt

    The teacher faded long ago
    yet the fragments of her diary
    act as a go-between
    following the corridors of continual evolution
    the whole team chases the rabbit
    who will skin it?
    the back door leads to summer
    the eraser can never erase
    the dotted lines turning into sunlight
    the rabbit’s soul flies low
    looking for its next incarnation
    this is a story, many years ago
    someone’s ears pricked up
    stole a glimpse of the sky
    and we the wolves suckling on a red lamp
    have already grown up


    The priest gets lost in prayer
    an air shaft
    leads to another era:
    escapees climb over the wall
    panting words evoke
    the author’s heart trouble
    breathe deep, deeper
    grab the locust tree roots
    that debate the north wind
    summer has arrived
    the treetop is an informer
    murmurs are a reddish sleep
    stung by a swarm of bees
    no,  a storm

    Swivel Chair

    I walk out of a room
    like a shadow from a music box
    the rump of the sun sways
    stopping dead at noon
    empty empty swivel chair
    in the funnel of writing
    someone filters through the white paper:
    wrinkled face
    sinister words
    in regard to enduring freedom
    in regard to can I have a light
    the heart, as if illuminating
    even more of the blind
    shuttles between day and night

    Dry Season

    First it’s the wind from home
    the father like a bird flying
    over a river of drowsy haze
    suddenly changes course
    but you’re already sunk in the fog
    supposing memory wakes
    like the night sky in an observatory
    you clip your fingernails
    close the door open the door
    friends are hard to recognize
    until letters from the old days
    completely lose their shadows
    at sunset you listen closely
    to a new city
    built by a string quartet


    In the kitchen washing my hands
    soapy water runs down the drain
    like a French horn’s
    the bride waves goodbye
    to the canal of keeping dates
    who is the white-haired witness
    going upstream?
    a group photo with the sun
    half my face covered
    the other half daylight
    in the windless solitude
    in the rivers and lakes fish forget one another
    the night creates a momentary god
    bats in the eyes of drug addicts
    destroy themselves in passion

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