WLT Student Translation Prize – Poetry by Yu Jian

June 3, 2021
translated by 
A black and white photo of a man in a business suit perched on the edge of a dam with a fishing pole draped over its edge, the line disappearing into the water below
“A Fisherman at Lake Dian.” Photo by Yu Jian.

Reading Glasses

I am no longer young, a half-blind Homer,
wearing reading glasses to see the world.
The calendar shows that it is autumn, but I don’t see it.
The building across the street has no foliage.
A face halfway through its plastic surgery
has had glassy eyeballs reinstalled one too many times.
Yet the tongue has been ignored, which might be a good thing.
I have seen too much truth in my life,
now I can stand at the side of the fictitious,
whatever it is, give people a general idea, major points, or an outline.
Sublime words with deep meaning. Words carry weight, as a prophet speaks.
I used to stick to facts, fussing over
the details of Agamemnon crossing the Aegean Sea. I was ambitious.
I measured out the sea in spoons full of words and almost fell into the abyss,
yet was saved by reading glasses, with a black frame, with two brass screws.
From then on, I turned a blind eye to everything, except the font-no. 1 characters.
It is fine to take everything for granted on this planet. This autumn,
dust is screaming, while I am making up a thing called
autumn, a lateral side of a hippopotamus, a chessboard on hillsides,
a book of ravens spilling out onto an oil basin at night.
 

Lamenting Lake Dian

1.

in this era  ordinary life almost equates to crime
who will accuse the sewers of a farmers market
last weekend  on Yuanxi Road  between summer vegetables that appeared in the market
the smell of horse fish  like a vendor’s knife
slitting a bellyful of darkness
I froze in the crowds who’d come to get their dinner figured out
a frozen fish  couldn’t hear the voices
I couldn’t understand  if one wanted eggplant or steak
an astonishment the spying of a lunatic was cast here
I followed the dim light  toward the smell  I was defrosted
stepping into the water of memory  from my whirlpool
darkness is dismantled  a lake is evaporating  barbels, beach, and whorled water milfoil
emerge in a bathhouse in bright light
a red highland is holding it  like a vessel holding water
all creatures  gain their origins at this height
mountains surround it  the mountain-god Luoluo  favors the nectar of the land
from it all rivers begin to  flow beneath the earth
the watering pot for deciduous trees and beasts
the daughter of the tribal chief is sitting  in a canoe of aborigines
clouds are heaping in the sky  they are continuously cut apart by wind
like a free feather  unled by a swan
over the refreshing water  the gull is flying forever toward the end of day
when it stops  like a balletic prophet
bending a reed  on the imagined mirror
the southern bank forests of broadleaf oaks and bushes
the northern bank myths and folk songs
red hills and basins are on the eastern bank
caves and peacocks are on the western bank
words of diamond are everywhere
sentences of ivory tusk are everywhere
articles of tiger and leopard are everywhere
oh  the creations of God
are enough to feed thirty thousand divine islands
are enough to create thirty thousand Edens
are enough to have thirty thousand golden ages appear

2.

the breeze from the ironworks  has blown swarms of water hyacinth
onto the dam of God  like demons’ green excrement
a piece of flashing light mingles with fishy odor . . . the chromium-plated glass
about the holy lake  there isn’t seafood in my memory  only rotten adjectives
like an American Indian  I am recalling your caves of fish
. . . a hypocritical memory  my generation doesn’t believe you are divine
that year  in my elementary school in Kunming  teachers were teaching Chinese every day
they taught me to admire certain sublime words  to admire heroes  yet never mentioned
you
except the god of people  I knew no other gods . . .
outside the classroom  my illiterate grandmother told me  you were near my hometown
like mentioning  the coffin she had made for herself many years ago
I finally went there  sooner or later  people of Kunming
would go to Lake Dian  the world didn’t ask for a ticket at that time
a summer during Mao’s era  the first time I saw the lake
that day  you were like a giant bird in radiance
flying in through the window of heaven  passing through the red flag
your navy webbed feet  landed in the footprints of antiquity
the noontime in which sprites would come and go  everything in this world desired naked bodies
tailing after  dewy mothers  ample mothers
entered another mother  I went into the water  I was not scared of water
I was a bold little atheist
I knew it was another mother  my intuition
saw it as a woman
using her hands for shaping water dwellers  using her body for reproducing ovaries
using her hands for embracing jellyfish  using her body filled with fishy smell
to accommodate me  I was your fruit  my mother was your fruit
you used your dark liquidity to open many doors to life  to swaddle me
summer is your content  my mother and I  are your tiny content
in my childhood philosophy  my intuitive superstition is that earth and heaven last forever
I knew I would die before you  you were the land
my dear mother  and all the women I once felt passion for  would die
before you
in the sequence of deaths  this was the only thing I would do out of my free will
of course you should be the last one  you were the grander  you were the one
all these  mother  kindergarten  house  firefly and merry-go-round were
floating up
I felt born in water  bending myself in your gentle tentacles
through  volumes of brown seaweed  stonefish’s wings were
flashing between my toes
clusters of pearls popped out of my skin
dark-green algae like islands’ hair  twined around my neck
my legs were shining  like a temple’s corridors  like pure moss
yet later on I climbed ashore in terror  I felt you in my body
I saw the temple you built in darkness  your ice-cold colonnades
I saw you in the abyss  managing the world with another kind of time
I was like a person being drowned  a pale face  unable to speak
I didn’t know how to tell them  you were here
I was still a student that year
I couldn’t even write an essay about you
in the dry dictionary  you were the house of recreation the fishpond the reservoir
the natural pool  the scenic spot  the sewer’s purge
Who said that gods lived here?  yet your enticement was ubiquitous  day by day
I put more and more clothes on
from you  I was able to return to nakedness anytime loose and riotous
in so many naked summers  the outdated Chinese tongue
was wandering on your wild mountains and river banks all day  like an illiterate sambar deer
wading into a river as soon as meeting it  climbing onto a mountain as soon as seeing it
outside the circumference of time  I have encountered eternity many times

3.

a few traces of mildew  an empty pool
is seeping out sickening water
the Sichuan man who butchers eels  uses his bloody hands
to put a viscid mass  into a plastic bag  like a lung
it inflated slowly  then exhaled a fresh odor
how familiar I am with this smell  it reminds me of the son of water sprites
in the summer of 1966  he left his ass exposed  standing beside me
fishing rods were resting upon the reeds  he made better corn noodles than I did
fish swam toward his hook alone  on my side things were still under the water
something kept glittering  it made me itchy  he got another fish
for the first time his waves made me jealous
we jumped into the water in the afternoon  my cousin said  that a fish was biting his shank
I seized the chance to destroy his trap  in the dimly lit dusk
along the new bank made of waves  we went back home across the heavens
I was once on a wooden boat  from Gray Bay across Grass Sea  I found there
a temple of god  right under the boat  fairies’ eyes were shining
within my reach  red herrings’ fuzz on them  in Niulian county
fishermen told me  countless grandmothers were born here
every July  they sat on lotuses  and showed up by the lake
when the west wind cracked the land  I saw you warped
like a torn comforter by violence  revealing rows of white cotton batting
yet I swam through the heart that you hid deeply under water
and found it firm  balanced  the same as the sea
when you became calm and quiet  you slid down along the ridge of the sunset
like a blot of navy flag  with no nationality indicated
then covered  the hard corner of an empire
near Mouth of White Fish  I left the soles of my feet bare
crouched like a woman of Dai  and fell into your gentle and warm body
I once stood at the top of the West Mountain  heard the sound of moonlight hitting the highland at midnight
I once stood outside Jining City  in the back garden of a Chinese temple
in the distance saw you embedded in the world’s darkness  your golden waves were gleaming ah  Lake Dian  you shine upon me
I proclaim myself  the first one who has celebrated you in Yunnan dialect

4.

enter the clearer from the clear  the body has been reduced to pieces  and transformed
moving toward the career of fish  flying in a glass labyrinth
with four limbs  youth can escape from death
I’ve learned a big thing  swimming
my world crosses the boundaries of the solid
and goes deep into the domain beyond land masses  I am an amphibious human being
I’ve jumped into Lake Dian ten thousand times  shuttled back and forth between surging peaks of waves
riding through large breasts one after another
dancing in the loose leaves of warm or cold currents
experiencing the immortal horse of love
in the territory of Nobody  making waves
the transparent broke  yet behind me  the mirror restored itself
and opened up  the invader would not be lacerated
you are a mirror  leading to nihilism’s edge
you are also the concrete humidity  liquid  buoyancy  depth  temperature
warping the regular lines  damaging the established standards  I went upward  into suffocating darkness  and went downward to open my bestial mouth
by the ear of a black-tail carp  I had a mouth full of living water
enjoyed shapeless freedom in a shaped being
beyond the state’s sovereignty  I carved a surreal path
you guided my superficiality and depth
no matter if you were warm  or cold
I sank in water if my muscle cramped  you’ve never faked the data of the water supply
in my youth I was capricious  as Byron’s sea
my hyperbolic transformation was to be outstanding
my sound and my fury  my decadence and my loneliness  you were always with me  I was crushed over and over again ashore
yet was restored over and over again in your embrace
you were a tacit understanding  a constant  a circle
a container that I was unable to create
at the age of sixteen I had sixteen dripping-wet centuries
at the age of sixteen I had sixteen vigorous friends
at the age of sixteen I had sixteen splendid summers
in the Greek golden age of my life  I was naked  healthy  strong
in crowds  my skin turned brown

5.

those brown ages  have flaked from my skin forever
those words born in water  can’t be discovered in standard Chinese
now I am fat and often use soap
gasping for breath  calculating what vegetable has more vitamins
my memory swells with bugs and flaws . . . a cast iron fistula
I am not sure whose brain is behind it
dirty blood like the smell of the Dead Sea  has stained my heels
I see the god of death  sitting on a yellow boat staring at me
I can no longer remind myself of your color  have you ever had those colors
lake blue  green blue  sky blue  dark blue  peacock blue
How come ten years later I have to use a brand-new dictionary
to mention you?
These sentences should be under  the pen of students of the damned Chinese language and literature
“from darkness  that pit lifts its leper’s face
it is breathing under the starry sky  no one is swimming  no fishes impregnated
behind the scrap field of the factory someone  is digging out dead mice”
What terrifying thing made
the sky so quiet? the sun so amiable?
like nothing has happened  people continue their futile dinners
What terrifying has thing happened?
Why have all the things I praised suddenly vanished without a trace?
Why suddenly  has my lab of poetry
my headquarters of aesthetics  my cathedral of faith
become a somber morgue
I always proclaim myself your faithful singer
I disdain the fictitious  I reject the fantastic
oh what has made me a hypocritical liar
All the cantos about you I once wrote
became unfounded rumor!
I pondered death  I speculated where it might appear
I thought it was merely a late guest  deceptively showing up in the fourth act of a tragedy
I thought it was as usual  recorded in a homicide
scene
I thought  it was nothing more than  a group of empty tins falling
from the table of time  according to God’s order
who could’ve known  that this lord entered from the bedroom of eternity
not from those short-lived things  not from those poisonous flowers of evil
not from those well-known atrocities  ah, death
lays its hands on things we rely upon most  the place behind our back
where everything is accepted  the god of death
is no longer the totem of Hitler  nor is it the colonialists’ compass
it’s color-blind  it can’t see  it can’t hear
no right no wrong  it’s unfeeling and cruel
it cannot distinguish red from black  leftism from rightism  men from women
English from Mandarin
Teutons from Jews  Lake Dian from plastic wrap
blood from drill ships  livers from piers  it is total’s
total  poison  killer  it’s humanity’s concentration camp
it has no address  no CCP membership  one can’t find its burrow
in any country  it’s not a war that can be brought to its end by a nuclear bomb
not the bacteria that can be wiped out by a dozen injections
it is printed out at random on the recipe for the dish
it is sitting in the bathroom with its legs crossed  it’s the salt transported into Africa
it’s in a Chinese restaurant in California tonight  a stomach with normal appetite
it wants us to die when we take off our flip-flops  to die on the ground when we brush our teeth
it has been across trenches  across gallows  whistling and coming into the kitchen
entering the garden  exposing its false teeth to the pillow  it lurks in life’s trivia
in all the details  in cups  in tea canisters  it lurks in the navel of autumn
it makes itself up as our bride  dresses itself up as lake  hillock
we don’t trust politics  we conspire in marriage  we remain suspicious of
hospitals
yet in wind and spring  in water and plants  in the natural world  in bedroom and
backyard
in Lake Dian in our hometown  we believe
what a preposterous world
we are still alive  Lake Dian is dead!
eternity  as a prisoner under the sentence of death
falls from the line of the eternal
falls in the column of the damned
oh  the thousand-year king of lakes
on the land  a corpse that enjoyed the longest life
your blue skin on which flowers are rolling
your transparent placenta that gives birth to elements
your palace of all creatures  your divine church!

6.

this death devalues the living
this death makes life vapid
this death leaves time meaningless
this death is surprisingly dead
the world! What else can be dead on your land?
we lament the ends of the dynasties one after another
we attend the funerals of the emperors one after another
we hate war  we arrest murderers  we fear death
Chorus Master  haven’t you ever sung a dirge for the death of a lake?
Judge  haven’t you ever cared about the murderer of the sky?
Men  have you ever feared the death of the land?
oh let my soul’s nation order the flag to fly at half-staff
let me rush to your funeral alone
god!  I was born in an age of atheism
for the eternal one  I have no fear or veneration
I’ve learned from you transcendent genius and wisdom  not yet learned holding things in awe and gratitude
oh  great god in darkness  I soak my hands in your putrid water
let me putrefy  please give me a heart of gratitude  a heart of reverence
I want to use my poetry  to build you a temple
I want to be in your temple  to redeem myself
Poetry
when the vessel is ruined before you
Who should come to listen to your sound?
Who should come to fulfill your immortality?
Poet
you can remold language  imagine flowers  gain the honor or disgrace you yearn for
but how can you determine the fate of the king of lakes?
let it sustain its divine lineage  presentable
silence yourself  the hypocritical author
when the land is crucified  the god is dying  your hymn
is merely a refrain of the god of death
Go home!  It is dark  people’s voices emanate from water spinach and
salted meat
I wake up from the night of a new city  a few young men wearing swimsuits
are passing by like fish  like the fish that have changed their old routines
stepping onto the land  they are laughing out loud  a dry and new generation is
bypassing this absurd middle-aged man
wrinkling their noses  and worming their way into a cinema
 

A Phone Call from Dongyang

I’d actually just landed  and was dragging my luggage
through the freezing airport  and thinking about a poem by Auden:
“The mercury sank in the mouth of the dying day.”
under the icy field of a foreign town  Yeats was not buried there
suddenly, my phone rang  an incoming call from the unrecognized talent Dongyang
who was with three or four poets  drinking wine in the waves of the South China Sea
he’d drunk-dialed me  Old Yu, buy a ticket
and get out here!  make a toast  I am embarrassingly poor  but you can fly
I was speechless  ever since the sea change of public transportation  I’d never even
thought about it
the friendship between gentlemen  as I recall  all started from a
moonlit night  a walk
the junior coming from the north  was uncorrupted  many years ago we
met each other in the world  hit it off  and got down to business:
a night discussion from nihilism to the classics  to Socrates
then they would get tired  as the tide receded  and salt went back to the beach  until
one day a night would become  the hometown  it would soon snow
he held a white porcelain cup  appearing on the screen of the night
he was flushed  bright  as a blacksmith

Translation from the Chinese

One of China’s leading avant-garde poets, Yu Jian (b. 1954) began writing poetry in the 1970s. A versatile and prolific writer, he has published over forty books of poetry, prose, essays, and photography. His controversial 1994 poem, “File Zero,” is considered one of the most innovative and radical works in the history of contemporary Chinese poetry. He lives in Kunming, China.

Xin Xu is a PhD candidate in the Department of Literatures, Cultures, and Languages at the University of Connecticut. She translates classical Chinese prose and contemporary Chinese poetry; her translations of three poems by Yi Sha recently appeared in World Literature Today.

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