BOOK REVIEW: Dr. R.K. SINGH (India)
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SELECTED POEMS OF A.MAO. Poems in Chinese by A. Mao, translated by Zhang Zhizhong. Published by The Earth Culture Press (USA), Chongqing City, P.R. China. 2012. Pages 255. Price CNY 50.00; US$ 20.00
Mao Juzhen (b. 1967), pen name A. Mao, is one of the top Chinese young writers today. She has four collections of poetry and other prose works, including a couple of novels and collections of short stories, to her credit. It is the recognition of her excellence that in October 2012 she was invited to visit the USA as a member of Chinese Writers’ Association and participate in the prestigious University of Iowa’s International Writing Program (IWP) Life of Discovery exchange program.
Mao is significant for her neat writing style, depth of voice, and sensibility. She chooses forms that help one remember her verses that are not banal, slipshod or feckless but passionate, free and graceful. Her poetic structure reflects her dreams and despairs, hopes and fears, family matters and social issues that engage the common woman’s mind everywhere. Even as she develops her own voice, injecting her own concerns and themes, her own subjectivity for self-revelation and revelation of the diverse life in modern China, she evinces a larger awareness:
“First I am an individual
Then I am a collective
Finally I am the near and distant places of a generation.”
(‘A Journal of Group Images’)
Her interior landscape, a record of her talking to herself, reveals truth, conveying the experiences of her attempt to make sense of her own existence. The poems she writes are, therefore, not dry or abstract but rather part of a long tradition. Her introspection has an air of disappointment as she seeks to search for a way to recover some moment of contentment just as she seems to struggle to reveal moments lost in time that construct her very identity: “…I unremittingly/ Go mad, write poems.” (‘Cause of Disease’).
At a time when “minor morals” are becoming stronger, A. Mao seeks to strengthen “major morals” with the consciousness of woman as creator. As she asserts, she possesses eternal energy, or the moral sense, or Prakriti that can sustain “generations and generations to come” (‘Heavily Snowing Day and Anna’s Train’).
Since she writes about what she has lived or experienced – “I write about myself at present” in a tongue she loves to compose poetry in, i.e. Chinese—and since she feels “substantial when writing poetry/ But empty after love-making” (‘Our Epoch’), she appears a poet with sensibility for awaking the mind, body, life, and soul (‘Waking up at Midnight’). Her various verses testify to her physical, mental, and emotional response to different personal, familial, social, cultural, or literary stimuli, and memory makes these magnificent:
“We are the crowd of people who finally remain
The light of language through poetry
We enkindle ourselves
To illumine ourselves
To break rocks into pieces, into stars
To break ourselves into pieces, into a road leading to higher places”
(‘To Break Rock into Pieces’)
“I have my own principle
In the night there is no species
Which is nobler than my soul ”
Her quest for the self is rooted in her understanding of the life she negotiates both individually and collectively:
“I take overlapping photos of life with words” (p. 219)
“I have not gone to sleep
Still watching in poetic lines
How a person runs an idle flashlight
“Here am I! But where is here?” (p. 237)
“…I am running on the rail
In order to give birth to the eternal you.”
(‘Rail on Paper’)
“By sitting one cannot possess rivers and mountains,
By standing one cannot love human beings!
The sobbing mouth of a cave,
The sympathetic maternity.
You fill it with air or candies,
I fill it with tears or fire.”
As a woman poet, who considers herself “liberated” (‘Rib’) and wants “to be a gender bender/Growing in the middle of scale arm” (‘Muffler’), she evinces strong social consciousness and commitment, as in poems ‘The Formation of Diamond’, ‘Our Epoch’, or ‘Playwright’. She forcibly asserts her female strength:
“The first person born in prehistory
Or the last person at the end of the world
Is nobody but me ”
(‘Eyes in the Wind’)
“…Without knowing she is more
Beautiful and high than what we see,
Just like the winged angel or god.”
She emphasizes that her goal is to extend her personal liberty, not for herself alone but for the entire community: “A new way has to be found/To view love, aging and grief” (‘Soliloquy’).
Her ironic ‘dreaming’ or rumination as a lonely woman, or “mortal grumbles and groans ” offer an “x-ray vision” (‘Rib). As she points out:
“I love this mortal world, without ambiguity of language
But with the innocence and revolutionary of the bed. ”
Perhaps, this is intended to suggest that despite her love for tradition, A. Mao would also like to be viewed in the company of the avant garde poets (cf. ‘Our Epoch’).
Poems such as ‘Midnight Poet’, ‘How Much Do I Love’, ‘Form’, ‘Singing Style’, ‘To Comfort a Withered Leaf’, ‘The Train Ran Past My Home Town’, ‘I Cannot But Write About’, ‘A Dedicated Poem’, ‘Anti-Order’ etc construct her aesthetics of creation. To quote from her ‘Extreme Interpretation’:
“A good poem is not written on velvet chair.
It was either born out of a disaster
Or under the scalpel of a surgeon or in the screaming of a lunatic.”
In another poem ‘Position’, she seeks to be careful, “away from the center, and the whirlpool/ To stand to one side by oneself.” She can observe from the edge “more shade of danger and loneliness,” including
“Myriads of things are extending and shrinking on their own positions.
Not that I retreat to the page of spurring the horse on,
But that the horse stops its forehooves in time.
Writing is the neighing in this string of actions.”
True, writing poetry is not only an exercise in self-exploration and self-revelation but also an exercise in social action. For example, the remarkable poem ‘When My Brother Has an Extra-Marital Affair’ is not only a critique of the extra-marital affairs of the people but also a visible social action on her part. As she writes:
“This is a serious matter
So much so that it is a disaster
I do not intend to be a moral judge
I only want to be a killer”
(‘When My Brother Has an Extra-marital Affair’)
Elsewhere, she notes: “The pain of everything/Is the pain of some part of us” (‘ The Stones May be Painful’). Verbal creativity is thus not only poetic but therapeutic too: “…pain is often cured by imagination” and “she collects the rumbling on paper/Which is sound of nature, also the sound of breaking intestines by iron” (‘The Train is Rumbling on Paper’).
A.Mao offers a female perspective on social and cultural life in China and ironically questions all that is “sorrowful”. She critically views the post-industrial urbanization and neglect of the countryside:
“There are a lot of colors in the field , and its feminine form:
Rice, cabbage, chicken, duck, fish …
To fill the huge stomach of city.
Makes those coarse throats, and fine mucus,
Not regard it as relative.”
She images the city culture as the ‘Cause of Disease’:
“…Old, those I have loved are all old,
The road is narrowed, the river turbid.
In a city devoid of
Native accent, the lost heart is filled with pain,
Tears, become another form of the body.
“Low culture everywhere, particularly in places of filth and disorder.
No soil for elegance. Why do you write in the pyramid?”
She desires a return to the countryside because the cities with Western biases have corrupted people’s taste and have been breeding low culture and inelegance. Aware of their living in vain, she sounds sad to find “only popular readings sell well” just as everywhere there prospers the “popular style or Western style” (‘The Art School and Snack Booth’). She bemoans the absence of sensibility which is the cause of all that is rotten and fractured (‘The Broken Autumn’) in the emerging society.
Poet-translator Zhang Zhizhong and the publishers deserve kudos for making yet another valuable addition to the growing corpus of contemporary Chinese poetry in English. A. Mao’s bilingual book of 108 selected poems, well-translated and competently edited and produced, provides a fresh perspective to the Chinese women’s poetry which inspires thinking and looking beyond the confines of the traditional female sphere.
--Professor (Dr) R.K. Singh, Professor of English, Indian School of Mines, Dhanbad 826004, India
R K Singh