TEXT review

The energy of contemporary Chinese poetry

review by Tina Giannoukos

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Breaking New Sky: Contemporary Poetry From China

Ouyang Yu (trans)
5 Islands Press, Parkville 2013
ISBN 9780734048240
Pb 92pp AUD25.95

Breaking New Sky: Contemporary Poetry From China
features forty-five poets in translation whose poems attest to the notion that contemporary Chinese poetry overflows with energy.  

Ouyang Yu, the prolific poet and translator, has chosen as well as translated the poems in Breaking New Sky. The collection includes poets born in the 1960s, 70s and 80s [1]. It draws a wide arc to include such poets as world-renowned Luo Fu, born in 1928, and the girl poet, Yue Xuan, born in 2002 [2]. The inclusion of Cheng Chou-yu’s poem, ‘A Mistake’, first published in 1954, suggests a broad definition of the contemporary as encompassing the recent if distant past. Thirty-two of the forty-five poets are represented with only one poem, but the collection deepens its offerings by its inclusion of a greater number of poems by such poets as the woman poet, Lu Ye, represented with ten poems, and Geng Xiang, represented with four poems. 

In the introduction, Ouyang Yu writes that ‘many of the poets in this collection were born’ in the 60s, 70s and 80s and that ‘their poetry, like their age, is full of youthful energy, with an unstoppable yearning to tell each and every one of their own stories, in a distinct voice that hits hard, and sparkles with humour – a quality that has been long absent from Chinese poetry’ (6).  In De Er He’s ‘Death Like a Shy Doorframe’, the humorous turns into the intimacy of filial pain:

Death is like a shy doorframe
All Mother ever did was put her hand on it for support briefly
Before it, becoming lower and smaller
Turned into a photo frame –
In tight support of Mother (29)

Conversely, in Bai Helin’s ‘My Father’s Fishbone’, the humorous turns wry: ‘But I, strangely, felt a loss, as if / This spring, hot and cold by turns, had played / Another joke on us, one that was no fun’ (18). His absurdist irony in ‘A Fake Rattan Chair’ refigures itself by poem’s end as an incongruous erotics imbued with nonchalant humour:

Now the fake rattan chair in a black-coated iron frame
Has retired before its time
Like a weary housekeeper. In it, there is a mess consisting of
An old attaché case, four unwashed items of clothing, three stacks
    of trousers
Two mobile phones, a stack of poetry collections and a copy of
   The Golden Rose
As well as a white bra, just removed
From my girlfriend’s breasts (16-17)

In Ouyang Yu’s heterogeneous gathering of poems, it is the variety of voices sounding their individual depths that emerges as the collection’s strength. He impresses upon the reader that he is presenting Australian lovers of poetry ‘with an eclectic selection’ of what he considers to be ‘the most interesting, the most enticing, the most loveable poems, and the most controversial, at the hands of the best known and best unknown poets from an ancient shiguo (poetry nation), chosen over a period of a decade or so, purely out of a labour of love’ (9).  In ‘On the Balcony’, Lu Ye juxtaposes traditional with modern imagery to revitalise the lyric:  

A house from whose balcony one case the Yangtze
Can be called a luxury residence even at its humblest
My windows all open towards June and the viscera of the summer exposed
The summer in my body happens to be lush with water grass
Open only for you (63)   

Ouyang Yu’s method of selection is to choose only poems that have affected him ‘emotionally or cerebrally, without regard to name and status’ (8). This renders Breaking New Sky a personal collection, a lyrical and intellectual response to the expression of the contemporary in individual poets. Ouyang Yu writes of having ‘made many discoveries, Geng Xiang being one of them.’ Born in the fifties, Xiang’s four poem show him to be a poet of deep reflection and marvellous observation. In ‘An Account of the City Wall’, he writes: ‘A black brick, laid in the most secretive spot / Of the brick wall, could radiate the irreversible power / Of heaven and earth’ (30). Ouyang Yu is also bringing to us poems that we may otherwise not encounter in translation such as the anonymous poet’s ‘Paper Boats’ which intrigues with its closing lines of ‘who can prepare a harbour for me / one in which I will have no complaints?’ (91) or Chen Ying’s two poems, one of which, ‘Blink’, Ouyang Yu considers ‘a gem that will remain shining even though this born-in-the-eighties boy may no longer wish to pursue a poetic career’ (7). In ‘The Sea Eels Hanging’, the girl poet, Yue Xuan, shows an attention to the ecological:

The sea eels don’t want to live
They hang on the wiring outside my window, in a row,
The sight of the thick iron wiring
Puts one in despair (80)

Ouyang Yu gives an expansive picture of what makes contemporary Chinese poetry vibrate. Attuned to the quotidian as much as the lyrical, he conveys in particular, its energy. The contemporary emerges as a field of change and variety over several decades. The diversity of the collection suggests a renewal of the poetic element in Chinese poetry. The poems throughout Breaking New Sky are infused with the existential challenge of day-to-day life, its wryness and its lyricism. Yu suggests that the enduring quality of a poem ‘is the unspeakable mysterious truth captured in the brevity of lines that transcends cultures and politics’ (6). There are poems of meditative inquiry (Hu Xian’s ‘Shadow’), of ironic observation (Hou Ma’s ‘Silence’), and of unadorned lyricism (Chu Chen’s ‘Warnings Against My Own Insomnia’). Zang Di’s ‘The Philosophy Building’ is a complex articulation of all three:

built in the 1940s, with a blue-grey roof
like a wing-room directly taken from a temple 
its style certainly is not ordinary
beautiful because of dusk and disappearing because of the
     punctuation of stars (81)

The imagery throughout the collection is as various as the individual poet’s inquiry. In ‘Mother the Hardest to Describe’, Bai Lianchun is attuned to change, the inorganic enmeshed with the organic: ‘The earth is indescribable: even a fallen leaf is thickly covered with/ Seasons and roads’ (19), while the caesura-like spacing of Wei Ke’s ‘Blue Poem’ underscores a playful imagery:

A book of poems              must have blue colours
Each poem a cloud in the sky
On the land …………………………………those crop-growers
May occasionally watch for the scattered poems (75)

The individual voices of Breaking New Sky do not shy away from critique. In ‘The Red Car’, Long Quan brings moral pressure to bear on the contemporary:

Old Lin’s daughter is pretty, capable
She is fetching bags, big and small, from the car
And she is taking out bundles of banknotes from her small bag
Old Lin, standing to the side
Is watching, not saying a word (51)

For his part, Qi Guo wryly refigures the contemporary in ‘The Last Day’ as an international rather than purely domestic problem:

On this day
There is no one in China
All gone overseas studying

On this day
There is no one in any country
All gone overseas (71)

A second strand in the contemporary foregrounds women’s poetry. Ouyang Yu argues that the broader range of voices being heard in contemporary Chinese poetry ‘is reflected in the rising power of women’s poetry’ (7). He writes that ‘the poetry of Chinese women poets that I have encountered is more lyrical than political and that is where their power lies’ (7). Lu Ye shows herself to be a masterful exponent of the lyrical. Her lyricism takes the form of the nostalgic in ‘The Quilt’, or the sensual in ‘Taking a Nap’. Yet her ‘B-Mode Ultrasound Report, Gynecology Department’ raises the politics of language:

In a lyrical language, it would have to be written thus:
Ah, this cradle of mankind
Grown on the body of a failed woman (53)

Hong Ying deconstructs longing in ‘The Sound of a qin’: ‘all i want is the black color of the whole world’ (37). Mo Xiaoxie’s ‘We Don’t Owe Each Other Anything Any More’ undermines the lyrical: ‘I am still alive / Although I have disappeared as if evaporated’ (67). Shen Li’s ‘A Bit Like Love’ deconstructs image-making in poetry even as she turns to the lyrical:

Those trees that came out of your eyes
Growing around me
Far and near
Are planted with my insipidness, and stillness (72)

Ouyang Yu reveals his skills as a poet-translator in Breaking New Sky. He views translation ‘as a total project, requiring a multiplicity of approaches … chief among which is direct translation’ (9) [3]. He suggests that direct translation ‘results in poetry that fills the lacuna of a target language, in this case English, with something so quotidian in the source language, that one’s sense is numbed, adding strangeness to the beauty of the translated poem’ (9-10). There is creative logic in this. In using ‘windscape’ instead of ‘landscape’ in the woman poet, Zheng Xiaoqiong’s poem, ‘Late Night Train’ (83), the translated poem sustains the effect of movement. Rather than an unfolding vista, we are inside the vista, a strangely beautiful effect: ‘The fields, the lights, the stars that have fallen on the plain / Extending the windscape, night in the March of spring / Ah, so softly beautiful!’ (83). Nevertheless, Ouyang Yu does not bind himself to one approach: he applies transliteration when direct translation fails. He retains the Chinese in the woman poet, Dai Wei’s ‘The Dong Xiao Flute’, to invoke a different music altogether: ‘The deepest well / is not as deep as a hole in a Dong Xiao flute’ (28).  

Ouyang Yu writes that ‘I can’t help but agree with the cliché that it takes a poet to translate poetry’ (10). He argues that ‘the poet-translator acts the multiple roles of a lyrical singer, a story-teller, and a poetic creator … always bearing in mind that creativity is the key in all of one’s endeavours’ (10). In Breaking New Sky, his lucid translations highlight the contemporary energy of the poems. Whether it is through their references or their unfolding, their playfulness is suggestive. He Xiaozu’s unassuming reference to mah-jong in ‘The Cat of 17 December’ suggests the ironic: ‘in such a weather, however / even the mah-jong players don’t get in touch / making you feel a bit odd’ (36). The woman poet Xiao Xiao’s ‘Winter’ evokes the sublime: ‘This winter, still and aloof / All the ice and snow has fallen on higher places / So white, and, oh, such whiteness’ (76). Ouyang Yu’s translations of the woman poet Shu Ting’s ironic ‘Good Friends’ and De Er He’s surreal ‘Death Like a Shy Doorframe’ have previously appeared in The Best Australian Poems 2012.

In all, Breaking New Sky is an individual collection that suggests the vitality of contemporary Chinese poetry.





Tina Giannoukos is a poet, fiction writer and reviewer. Her first collection of poetry is In a Bigger City (Five Islands Press, 2005). Her poetry is anthologised in Southern Sun, Aegean Light:Poetry of Second-Generation Greek Australians (Arcadia, 2011). She has a sonnet sequence in Border-Crossings: Narrative and Demarcation in Postcolonial Literatures and Media (Winter, 2012). A recipient of a Varuna Writers Fellowship, Giannoukos has a PhD in Creative Writing from the University of Melbourne and has read her poetry in Greece and China.


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Vol 18 No 1 April 2014
General Editor: Nigel Krauth. Editors: Kevin Brophy & Enza Gandolfo