from American Poetry Review, July / August 2008
Hosted by poet and businessman Luo Ying,"the 26th richest man in China," about twenty international poets met for two weeks with an equal number of Chinese poets for talks and readings that began in Beijing and continued in far Western China where a smaller group traveled by bus along the Pamirs Plateau through the Xinjiang Autonomous Region, home to a predominantly Moslem culture of Kyrgyz and Uyghur peoples. Among the many poets on the trip were Emran Salahi (Iran), Kazuko Shiraishi (Japan), Wolfgang Kubin (Germany), André Velter (France); and Chinese poets Yang Lian, Zhai Yongming, Xi Chuan, Tang Xiodu, and Hu Xudong.
Twenty poets speaking seven languages on a field trip to the outskirts of Beijing. A birdless summer day, no insect whirr. We enter the gate of the Summer Palace as a horde, then dissolve into pairs. Without his Persian translator, Emran Salahi is pensive, mute. I trail him through The Hall of Dispelling Clouds, past its discolored statuary and dusty tapestries symbolizing, say the placards, eternal power. Wandering to the corner of a side room, I peer around a painted screen and find, in the back warren, an old man face-down on a table strewn with syringes.
I see, something I don't
Know how to look for.
Yukio Mishima telephoned Kajuko Shiraishi a week before his death, flirting, she tells me as we walk along the Summer Palace lake. Like Allen Ginsberg, whom Shiraishi also knew, Mishima spent his final days calling friends. Although it's muggy and we're sweating, smog diffuses the direct sun and we don't cast shadows. Not now, and not any time while we're in Bejing. We stop beside a gnarled juniper to stare at what looks, incredibly, like a Mississippi casino boat on the lake. Columned, canopied, the interiors painted with delicate floral patterns, the whole thing has been carved from ocherous marble. Yang Lian ambles over, telling the story: Instead of buying the armaments her militia requested, the Empress Dowager drained the treasury and built them a beautiful stone boat. Now Emran Salahi joins us, nodding toward the useless boat docked forever at the shore. He tries out his minimal English.
That thing, he
Says, it is
Like a poem.
As Chinese poets, we don't want to go backward, Xi Chuan observes, but ahead of us the way forks in innumerable directions. Forgetting which language he has just heard, but remembering the substance, the exhausted translator begins to translate the original language into the original language. I find I'm inept at reading the forms of discussion here, much less the subtleties. What I take as evident bounces away from me. I begin to notice tensions, faces shaking no, one translator interrupting another. The topic, Where is Chinese poetry going in the age of globalization, is enormous and of course the answer will be found in poems, not panels, so I try not just to listen, but to listen into.
What else is being
At stake for them?
After the conference, half the Chinese poets head home to jobs and families. The rest fly with a posse of internationals to Kashgar in western China's Xinjiang Autonomous Region where our plane, we realize as we disembark, is the single wheeled vehicle on the tarmac. Our Uyghur guide, Abdul, tells us that in the famous Kashgar Market we will find everything but milk of chicken. And so we do: antique Chinese and Roman coins, Kashmiri scarves, huge dried toads, bins of walnuts and ripe cherries, cheap Pakistani suits, traditional Uyghur hats made in Italy, bolts of striped local cloth, jars of saffron, pelts common and exotic, fragrant peaches, hanging carcasses harassed by flies at butcher stands one beside another, and pomegranate vendors at every corner with marvelous juice-presses ornamented in silver and wood. Men
At the edge of their shops, spitting
To seal the deal.
In Kashgar, before our meeting with regional writers, we pay respects to the great 11th century Uyghur poet Yusup Has Hajip whose 12,290 line poem, "The Wisdom of Happiness and Pleasure," helped codify a Uyghur ethos. Her tomb, Abdul tells us, was destroyed during the Cultural Revolution, completely flattened. Who did it? Han soldiers? No, Abdul says, glancing at his feet, his own father, a Uyghur shoemaker helped to batter down the tomb.
Were altered then.
As I exit Hajip's tomb, I glimpse workers next door, who have been demolishing a siheyuan, a compound of old wooden houses, sitting in the rubble, removing their shoes and washing their feet and hands. There's a mosque nearby, but there hasn't been a call to prayer. The government allows mosques, I'll learn, but not ezan, the public prayersong. Later, when it empties out, I visit the mosque: unadorned walls, a thin red carpet, the odor of socks. Since thousands of non-religious Han Chinese have been moved here and since a new "develop the west" campaign has rebooted the local economy, desertifying the landscape, major political and cultural changes—along with unstoppable winds—are unsettling Xinjiang.
In the fifties, five severe sandstorms, in the sixties,
Eight, in the seventies thirteen, fourteen
In the eighties, in the nineties, twenty.
Just three of us go to the famous animal market on Wednesday. A vast tract for goats and sheep, one for horses, and one for cattle. Chock-a-block with pedestrians and carts, men on horses, women hauling enormous loads. Freshly sliced watermelons quickly sepia with dust. As I pass by, a man draws his blade across the throat of a goat lying on its side, its legs bound. His foot on the animal's face keeps the head pointed upward, the throat exposed. I'm surprised by how gently it dies, convulsing only a little, then again as he cuts deeper. The head quiet under the shoe,
Blood spurting neatly
Into a hole in the concrete platform
Over which his meat stall has been pulled.
We're invited to breakfast with the Communist Party brass at the army mess hall where a large calligraphic poem (about horses and beauty) by Mao hangs from one wall. Then our bus rushes us to the town of Artux to share in the celebration of its 20th anniversary. In a large plaza before a spanking new and apparently empty convention center, all the town's children, grade school through high school, are seated on portable stools in groups demarcated by the color of their caps. Military men and officials on either side of the raised stage are flanked by Wizard-of-Oz-size balloons that sway from their moorings. Adults fill out the rear, standing as far back as the road, maybe four thousand altogether. Asked to read something to the crowd, Emran Salahi recites a poem in Persian, but prefaces it with a sentence in Turkish that the Uyghur audience, surprised to find they understand him, wildly applaud. Then in Uyghur and Mandarin, official speeches stretch into early afternoon. The sun plods around the convention center and hits us full on. I see a shudder of boredom cross the crowd. Finally, after polite applause, cages of pigeons are released, veering manically over the crowd as fireworks explode
Bursting above us in smoke-puffs and sparkle and
Colored paper that flutters down
Into the smell of gunpowder.
We leave Artux and pass through Yingsar, a town famous for its sharp knives, and into Yarkand, an ancient city on the Silk Road where, in the 10th century, Queen Amannisa Khan compiled the defining anthology of Uyghur poetic songs knovm as the Twelve Muqam. From Yarkand, we slip out of Uyghur territory into the Kyrgyz Autonomous Prefecture and its culture of desert horsemen. Hustled into a small town hall, we're treated to an evening of song and dance from the Manas, a 232,162 1ine (that's twice the length of the Iliad and Odyssey combined) Kyrgyz poem memorializing the Kyrgyz fight (against, yes, the neighboring Uyghurs) for independence. Each of the local singers specializes in a single section of the poem, one reciting in a fierce tone at a martial clip and another chanting forlornly, but all strumming the three-stringed komuz. The last Manas singer rocks and recites in trochaic tetrameter, the meter of horse hooves. After the performance, we find ourselves sitting cross-legged at long tables in a restaurant where, to honor us, a horse has been slain and cooked. We are drinking bai jiu of the highest quality, but to my unacculturated taste, it has an industrial-fluid-aged-in-goat-bladder flavor. After each toast, the glass must be drained and held mouth-out to the other drinkers to show it is empty, that same gesture of proof requisite in porn movies. (Here, as everywhere, male bonding is acted out as a kind of coalitionary self-destruction.)
Meanwhile the tables fill up with skewers of yak, large fish, duck, chicken, fatty lamb in spicy sauce, and pigeon with noodles, to mention only the meat. A goat head and a large knife are passed around from hand to hand. I watch the man opposite me scoop out and eat an eye before offering the head my way. It's a kind of Kyrgyz machismo that dictates
Must be stripped
Our buses shift gears through the Seven Colored Mountains, we gape at Gongur Mountains, we pull over to take in the White Sands Mountains and to drink tea at a roadside stand that sells medicinal herbs. Half a dozen adolescent girls are playing cards beside the highway, their eyebrows painted—in accordance with a tradition so continuous it's mentioned by 8th century poet Li Bai—a fetching shade of green. Along roiling, concrete-colored rivers in the mountains, we pass government-built bunkers and traditional Kyrgyz stone and hide houses. We are entering the Gobi Desert. Poplar woods thin into a landscape of sand, red willow bush, thorn, and jiji grass. We begin to see camels, then small caravans of camels.
Here and there, a shepherd standing
In the barren expanse.
The local Kyrgyz custom of Down Horse Drink, Up Horse Drink is translated into a series of compulsory toasts each time we board and exit the bus. Town officials have gathered in the middle of the road to welcome the poets. We step off the bus and are handed shot glasses of bai jiu by young women in traditional dress. Musicians play. Down Horse Drink. We climb back into the bus. Shot glasses of bai jiu are handed to us through the windows. Up Horse Drink. We rumble dizzily into the center of town where we are queried as to whom among us can ride a horse. Then we are whisked by van to the desert to witness the Kyrgyz version of a polo match, played with the decapitated carcass of a goat. Those of us who can ride are given mounts from which we survey the competition which is fiercely physical, men wrestling across the saddles of their galloping horses for a hold on the carcass. Behind the shouting riders, in the distance where a new mining facility squats in the Haoshi Bulak orefield and where the plain, plowed for the first time and abandoned a few years later, lies denuded, a dust cloud is rising up, mixing with dark purple sky. One competition framing another. The riders have not yet given up, but the storm is barreling dramatically toward us, the wind snapping at our clothes
And under us, the horses
Begin to champ and snort
About the Author
The author of numerous books of poetry, including Eye Against Eye, Torn Awake, and Science & Steepleflower, all from New Directions, Forrest Gander also writes novels (As a Friend, forthcoming 2008 from New Directions) and translates. His most recent translations are Firefly Under the Tongue: Selected Poems of Corol Bracho, No Shelter: Selected Poems of Pura Lopez-Colome, and, with Kent Johnson, two books by the Bolivian wunderkind Jaime Saenz: The Night and Immanent Visitor: Selected Poems of Jaime Saenz.
Editors: Stephen Berg, David Bonanno, Elizabeth Scanlon