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    Poems by Yu Jian (1954-)


    The Beer Bottle-top  Luo Jiasheng  Mouse  Opus 112  A Fruit Full of Heart-broken Juices  Rivers  Speed  The Naming of a Crow 


    The Beer Bottle-top

    Translated by Simon Patton
    
    unsure of how to address it
    it was still sitting at the head of the table only a moment ago
    the custodian of a bottle of stout
    absolutely indispensable
    it has a sense of its own status
    signifying conviviality as the sun goes down
    and the depth of froth in a glass
    opened with a pop at the start of the evening meal
    the action strikingly similar to that of a bullfrog
    the waiter even believes that it really is a frog
    believes that something on the table covered with cooked food has unexpectedly been brought back to life
    he is vexed by his misunderstanding
    and immediately shifts his attention to a toothpick
    he is the last one
    after him
    the world gives it no further thought
    with no other entries on it in the dictionary
    no original meanings extended meanings transferred meanings
    but those dishes originally arranged in submission before it
    signify nothing less than the flavours of Sichuan cuisine
    the napkin is touched by the hand of a general
    the roses in full bloom
    an allusion to privilege
    in an eccentric arc it exited this gathering
    an arc not its own
    the brewery
    never designed such a line for its product
    it now lies on the floor with the cigarette butts
    footprints
    bones and other rubbish
    an unrelated jumble
    an impromptu design
    of no use to anyone
    but its plight is even more wretched
    a butt reminds the world of a slob
    a bone brings to mind a dog or a cat
    and footprints of course allude to a human life
    it is waste
    its whiteness being nothing more than its whiteness
    and its shape nothing more than its shape
    it falls beyond the reach of our adjectives
    I wasn't a drinker then
    it was I who opened the bottle of beer
    and for this reason I noticed its strange leap
    its simple disappearance
    I suddenly tried to imagine the pop it made
    jumping out into space
    but was unable
    mine was the body of an author of a collection of poetry and sixty kilograms of corporeal existence
    all I did was bend down
    and pick up this alluring small white object
    it was hard
    with a serrated rim
    which cut into my finger
    and made me feel a sharpness unlike that of knives
    
    February 1991
    


    Luo Jiasheng

    every day as the chimneys belch smoke
    he comes riding to work on his
    old “Bell”-brand bicycle
    
    past the administration building
    past the forging shop
    past the perimeter wall of the storehouse
    to that small hut
    
    workers standing in workshop doorways
    say     when they see him
    Luo Jiasheng’s here
    
    no one knows anything about him
    no one asks him anything about himself
    the whole factory calls him Luo Jiasheng
    
    the workers are always knocking on his door
    wanting their watches repaired     electric meters repaired
    their radios repaired
    
    during the Cultural Revolution
    he was expelled from the factory:
    in a suitcase belonging to him
    someone had found a tie
    
    when he was allowed to come back to work
    he still rode that old “Bell”
    Luo Jiasheng
    got married without anyone knowing
    he invited no one to the wedding
    at the age of forty-two
    he became a father
    
    in the same year
    he died
    an electric furnace opened an enormous gash
    in his head
    it was shocking
    
    on the day of the funeral
    his wife did not attend
    a few workers carried his coffin up into the hills
    they said     he was short
    he wasn’t heavy
    the watches he repaired
    were better than new
    
    the chimneys belch smoke
    workers stand in the workshop doorways
    Luo Jiasheng
    hasn’t come to work
    
    1982
    


    Mouse

    you, little uninvited pest
    made your stronghold in my room
    sneaking in, creeping out     never stopping to say “hello”
    it was only this evening when I saw your illustrious name
    listed beside that of Donald Duck on the TV     that I realized you were a movie star
    that was the end of my peace of mind
    there was a mouse in my room
    like a lump     growing inside my body
    many times I’d been to the hospital     but they’d never found anything
    half a steamed bread bun had been sawn away
    there were suspicious black specks in my rice
    who, after all, was the culprit?
    I became more cautious     ears straining to hear the slightest noise
    listening to cupboards     listening to floorboards
    of course, I tracked down those small but solid sounds
    but I had no way of knowing for sure
    whether the little runt was nibbling on my favourite clothes
    or gnawing away at antiques left to me by my grandfather
    you were always so light on your feet
    it was almost as if you wanted to spare my feelings
    my mother’s mother used to be like this
    in the middle of windy nights     she would quietly get out of bed     and close all the windows
    you dance on cakes     piss on tablets
    the books I like are riddled with gaping wounds
    but when it came to the crunch, you had no idea what made a noise     and what didn’t
    so when you knocked over my chinaware     which then jumped to the ground from a great height
    you triggered, much to your surprise, an earthquake
    that startled me from dreams     on tip-toes
    unable to fly into a rage
    having to be lighter on my feet than you
    I felt my way from the bed-head to the book-shelf     worried that you would hear me
    like you were in the middle of writing something     not to be disturbed
    but I was clumsier than you     in the end, I knocked over a chair
    panicked, I looked left and right    ashamed of something, it seemed
    in fact, you, you little runt, were probably already fast asleep
    after a drink of milk     and a change of bedroom
    hiding in your hole     eyes like a couple of black beans, twitching in your head
    watching me, big and lumbering     stark naked     stripped of all poise
    and learning about what I looked like at night
    you kept quiet     in this you were different from your father
    this quality of yours     put me in an unbearable position
    I couldn’t stand it any longer     I knocked and poked at random
    hell-bent on a thorough search     to arrest you     and to put you to death
    but when I saw the massive articles of furniture around me
    and the bunkers concealed within countless household odds and ends
    frustration got the better of me    and not knowing what to do
    I called off the hunt
    outsiders were under the mistaken impression that I had the room to myself
    that I was calm and steady     devoted to study
    actually, I was a nervous wreck     I avoided going out
    I’d hurry home as soon as work was over
    and, once inside, start opening cupboards    and cases
    checking up on that rotten bastard who always kept me guessing
    to see what new tricks he’d played on me
    


    Opus 112

    whoever notices how many leaves the wind
    knocks from these trees
    and whoever sees this many leaves
    on such a beautiful, sun-lit afternoon
    suddenly falling     all of them dying
    is bound to shudder
    
    1988
    


    A Fruit Full of Heart-broken Juices

    a fruit full of heart-broken juices     placed on morning’s table
    Cézanne tablecloth     diamond of beasts’ dreaming
    the sunlight spins     moving shadows     directing the fruit’s blue face into the light-source
    plunging its red face into deep darkness     its green face into mirrors
    three flags covert in the spectrum     no discernible relation to any tree, ever
    no moving creature near it     its existence an education
    china dish, immobile     knives and forks, immobile     milk, immobile     a Sunday of the aristocracy
    in that moment of enjoyment     its heart-broken juices are linked to a troupe of bears
    but those bears have yet to come together     right now a thousand miles away they’re asleep under trees
    dreaming of this diamond     full of unsweet, broken-hearted juices
    
    1994
    


    Rivers

    there are many rivers in the mountains where I grew up
    in deep gorges they flow
    they rarely catch a glimpse of sky
    there are no expansive sails hoisted high over their surfaces
    nor huge flocks of river gulls drawn on by boat-songs
    it’s only when you’ve climbed endless ridges and hills
    that you hear this river sound
    it’s only on rafts made of great tree-trunks lashed together
    that you dare ride upon these waves
    some areas will stay forever unknown to humankind
    the freedom of those places belongs to the eagles alone
    in the rainy season the waters turn brutal
    gale winds on the high plateau push boulders down into valleys
    mud dyes the rivers red
    as if the mountains were actually bleeding
    only when it’s calm
    do you see the plateau’s bulging veins
    those people who live on either side of these rivers
    may never come to know of one another’s existence
    but wherever you go in the place I grew up in
    you will here people talking about these rivers
    as if discussing their gods
    


    Speed

    the people planting potatoes are infected by dawn
    infected by the sun as it rises
    quickly they work     the world is quick at this time
    quickly the dew dries     quickly the field voles scamper off
    at times like this you need to be quick     labourers
    are quick to remove their jackets     to bare their arms
    a whole day's work depends on a good morning start     this is how
    primary school teachers educate their students     they
    react with speed     the invisible world in their classrooms
    the morning’s Chinese lesson     is understood on paper as
    a few     set phrases left over from yesterday
    at dusk     the world slows right down
    the ranks of the earth slow down facing westwards
    formations of corn-fields and low hills
    formations of rivers and forests
    formations of villages and sunflowers
    everything slows down facing westward
    all those shadows dragged over things slow right down
    like silk wrapped round the body of night
    slipping away, bolt by bolt
    the potato planters     carrying their tools
    mingle with the kids coming home from school
    they walk slowly over the uplands
    home ahead of them     not worried about time
    the children dawdle
    no more homework to do
    the adults dawdle
    because the potatoes have all been planted
    they’re all so slow
    as if the earth had somehow got into their bodies
    but those things planted at speed
    have in no sense slowed down     nor have they ever gained speed
    incapable both of speed and slowness
    they’ve simply begun   and all they have to do is grow
    is be     from morning to night
    from spring to autumn
    neither hurried nor slow     right to the very end
    


    The Naming of a Crow

    from somewhere invisible the crow kicks aside blocks of autumn cloud with its toes
    and dives into the sky in my eyes hung with the wind and the light
    the sign of the crow sulphur brew of a nun of black night
    croaking and piercing a hole in a flocking bird mattress
    to perch on a branch in my heart
    just as in the days of my youth conquering crows’ nests in the treetops of my home town
    my hands will never again touch that autumn landscape
    hands scaling another tall tree intending to pluck another crow
    from its darkness
    crow once it was a kind of bird meat a pile of feathers and entrails
    now a desire for narrative the impulse to speech
    and perhaps it is self-consolation in the face of adversity
    escape from a mass of inauspicious shadow
    this kind of labour is invisible compared to childhood days
    reaching with my bravest hand into black nests full of pointed beaks this is even more difficult
    when a crow perches in the wilds of my heart
    what I wish to give voice to is not is symbol not its metaphor or its mythology
    what I wish to give voice to is crow just as in years gone by
    I never found dove in a crow’s nest
    since childhood my hands have been covered in the thick calluses of language
    but as a poet I have never given voice to a crow
    
    with the circumspection and far-sightedness of age proficiency in various inspirations styles and rhymes
    just as when one begins to write dipping the brush deep into the ink-well
    I thought that the syllables had to be drenched in black from the very start to handle this crow
    skin flesh and bones the flows of the blood as well as
    the flight-paths disclosed in the sky all drenched in black
    a crow begins in this blackness in flight towards an outcome drenched in black
    from the moment of birth it enters into solitude and prejudice
    into universal persecution, pursuit and capture
    no bird it is crow
    in a world full of evil every single second
    ticks its ten thousand pretexts in the name of the forces of light or beauty
    guns are trained on this living representative of the powers of darkness and fired
    but for all that it cannot escape beyond the bounds of crow-being
    neither fly higher encroaching on eagle territory
    nor condescend to the lowly realm of the ants
    cave-maker of the skies both its own black hole and black drill-bit
    on high and alone from the heights of a crow
    it sets a course according to its bearings its time its passengers
    it is one happy-go-lucky big-mouthed crow
    and outside it the world is a mere fabrication
    no more than the boundless inspiration of crow
    you people the vastness of the land and the sky the vastness beyond the vastness
    you people Yu Jian and ensuing generations of readers
    are nothing but food in the nest of a crow
    
    I thought that a few dozen words would be enough to handle this crow
    description has made it a black box in words
    but I do not know who holds the key to the box
    who thinks up secret codes in crow-darkness
    in another description it appeared as a priest wearing puttees
    beneath the mighty walls of Heaven, this holy one in search of an entrance
    but I know now that the abode of the crow is closer to God than the priest’s
    perhaps while perched on the spire of a church one day
    it saw the fair body of the Nazarene
    when I describe the crow as a swan nourished on the everlasting blackness of night
    the actual bird shining with the light of a swan flies past that radiant swamp beside me
    and at once I lose all faith in this metaphor
    I attach the verb to descend to its wings
    yet it soars to the Ninth Heaven like a jet
    I call it taciturn and it immediately comes to rest on wordless
    as I look at this lawless wild witch-bird
    a swarm of verbs is drawn to my head crow verbs
    I cannot utter tongue fastened down with rivets
    I see them speeding up into the sky vaulting
    diving down into the sunlight then gathering again above the clouds
    leisurely and carefree forming crow-motion pictures
    
    that day like a hollow-hearted scarecrow I stood in an empty field
    and all my thoughts were steeped in crow
    I clearly sensed that crow felt its dark flesh
    its dark heart but I could not escape the sunless fortress
    as it soared so I soared
    how would I ever get back out of crow in order to catch it
    that day when I looked up into the blue sky each crow was already drenched in darkness
    a corpse-eating crowd I should have turned a blind eye earlier in the sky of my home town
    I stalked them once so innocent then
    a whiff of the stink of death and I’d panic and loosen my grip
    as for the sky I should have kept my eyes on the skylarks white cranes
    how I love and understand those beautiful angels
    but one day I saw a bird
    an ugly bird the colour of crow
    hanging from the grey ropes of the sky
    with mangled legs stiff and straight as the limbs of a puppet
    in crooked flight on the slopes of the sky
    circling a centre of some kind out tracing
    an enormous insubstantial circle
    and I heard a chorus of ominous cawings
    suspended somewhere out of sight
    and I wanted to say something
    to declare to the world that I was not afraid
    of those invisible sounds
    


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