Black Hair

Yi Lei
Translated from the Chinese by Tracy K. Smith & Changtai Bi

Black hair like youth
Runs wild in March.
Dark papery leaves fly
Teeming, swarming,
Bum-rushing March.

Black hair in March
Is gentle, strangers' eyes
Softer. Memory:
A feast on offer. Youth,
Born of the primordial sea—
Embrace me. Drape my skin
Old as clouds
In something suppler.

Black hair
Blown free, rootless,
Wanders the desert's
Countless tombs, sways
Across a vacant sky,
Whips at fresh mud in rain.
Days blaze past. I have
Lost sight of my own black hair
In the mirror. Let me
Watch it now
For the next thousand years.

Black hair weedy
In dirt-poor soil.
Thirsty, deluded,
Squandering its spoils.
Black hair has no idea.

The story of black hair
Is my story.
When I die, let me drift
Like a dandelion
Of black hair.

Black hair
Like holy water.
No way, there is no way
To be saved except to die.
When black hair cries,
Its tears snuff themselves out
Like candles.
So will my life cease to flicker.

Black hair
Exhausted brush fire
Fanned by misery
Whistling
Through the last century.

Black hair,
Shredded black flag
Of a woman's glory,
Ragged and battered
In March wind.
Forsaking dignity
Absolved of chastity
With its pride in knots
Black hair smiles easily
In March.

If waterfall, it will plummet.
If cloud, it will scatter.

Eyes plaintive, wide,
Black hair waits to be spun
By hardened hands
Into rock.

March 25, 1987

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Photo:
Hei Ming

Yi Lei, born Sun Gui-zhen in Tianjin, China in 1951, was one of the most influential figures of Chinese poetry in the 1980s. Sent to the countryside to work on a farm in 1969, she two years later became a reporter for the Liberation Army and a staff member of the newspaper The Railway Corps. Yi Lei studied creative writing at the Lu Xun Academy, and earned a BA in Chinese Literature from Peking University. In 1991, she moved to Moscow, where she lived and wrote for a number of years. She has published eight collections of poems, among them A Single Woman’s BedroomThe Love Poems of Yi LeiWomen’s Age, and Selected Poems of Yi Lei. A recipient of the Zhuang Zhongwen Literature Prize, Yi Lei’s work has been translated into English, Japanese, French, Italian, and Russian.

Tracy K. Smith is the author of Wade in the Water; Life on Mars, winner of the Pulitzer Prize; Duende, winner of the James Laughlin Award; and The Body’s Question, winner of the Cave Canem Poetry Prize. She is also the editor of an anthology, American Journal: Fifty Poems for Our Time, and the author of a memoir, Ordinary Light, which was a finalist for the National Book Award. From 2017 to 2019, Smith served as Poet Laureate of the United States. She teaches at Princeton University.

Changtai Bi, born in Tianjin, China, is a poetry translator who is currently a University teacher. He was responsible for the first draft of the English translation of Selected Poems of Yi Lei.

“Even posthumously, Yi Lei remains one of the most revolutionary voices in Chinese poetry. This volume presents the expertly translated English poems alongside their Chinese originals for a beautiful and essential collection for any poetry lover.”
Ms. Magazine

“Yi Lei’s astonishing poems, steeped in disquiet and desire, are at once aching and incendiary. Tracy K. Smith and Changtai Bi have coaxed them into English respectfully, inventively, and gorgeously. . . . A resonant conversation between two exceptional poets.”
—Jhumpa Lahiri

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