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New Taiwanese Poetry
Film review, Kyoto Journal 59 - Spring 2005
Review of Mercury Rising: Contemporary Poetry from Taiwan (Manoa 15:1)

Let’s say that somewhere out there, there are factories for souls. Let’s say that you’re a soul-engineer and you’ve just got handed an assignment: lyric poet. How would you make the best poet possible? You start cobbling together that special poet self with prosody, memory, and imagination—but you slowly realize that you’re missing the most important ingredient. You cannot provide socio-economic context. (That comes after you’re born.) Well, if revolutionary historical situations—social upheavals, wars, technological innovation, cross-cultural dialogue—produce great writers, then Taiwan could be contemporary literature’s prime real estate.

Mercury Rising: Contemporary Poetry from Taiwan (Manoa 15:1)—edited by Michelle Yeh, prominent Chinese American poet Arthur Sze and Manoa editor Frank Stewart—surveys two generations of Taiwanese poetry and shows off Taiwan’s curiously syncretistic resume: Polynesian aboriginal island, Dutch colony, Imperial Chinese frontier, Japanese colony, Nationalist garrison in the Chinese civil war—and now, the democratically elected, tech-manufacturing, 13th largest economy in the world. You can see the effects that this unintentionally postmodern, mongrel pedigree has had on Taiwanese literary history. Modern Taiwanese poetry starts in the early 1920s—written not in Chinese but in Japanese. Contemporary Taiwanese poets are also conspicuously Western, many of them having attended American graduate schools. Yet, ironically, because of the Cultural Revolution, Taiwanese poetry is far more “traditional” than that written in Beijing. In an interview in Mercury Rising, Luo Fu, the seventy-six year old founder of the Epoch Poetry Society, says that Taiwanese poets can be divided into two groups: those who immigrated from mainland China around 1949, inheritors of Classical Chinese poetry and Western Modernism; and the local Taiwanese, either educated in Japanese or deeply embedded in aboriginal traditions. As Yeh—who also edited Frontier Taiwan, the first Taiwanese poetry anthology in two decades—wrote in the Chicago Reader, “Boasting the most affluent and prosperous society in modem Chinese history, Taiwan has displayed a truly pluralistic poetry scene, where high modernism, surrealism, nativism, realism, and postmodernism of all persuasions exist side by side.”

These are opposites in the West, but Taiwanese poetry is a graceful blender. Look at how these lines sample the elegiac metaphysics of Western Modernism (Eliot, Rilke, and the French Symbolists) with a more nocturnal but still recognizably Chinese pastoral:

Stars lose their way on the snowy prairie
—Xu Huizhi, Drumbeat (trans. Michelle Yeh)

How does an awakened heart examine the blood trails of old
Under the remnant icewalls of thorns, snakeberries, and
Caltrops? […]
—Yang Mu, Fallen Leaves (trans. Michelle Yeh)

Darling, your hands are so cold
Secrets are growing in your eyes
Flowers given you by others are growing
But that’s a mistake. […]
—Luo Ying, The Snow is a Soft and Gentle Forest (trans. Andrew Lingenfelter)

This is almost a new form. While Western high modernism aspired to the purity of snow, refining away the blemished dross of the empirical world, these Taiwanese poems are ice caked with duckweed and Wu-Tong leaves. Their version of grace emerges from the world rather than evades it.

Not all the poems are dainty crystals. Many of the more ambitious poems are boisterous, messy, baroque, intimate and sexual, or crowded with chatter: Luo Fu’s excerpt from “The Salmon’s Encounter with Death,” Li Jinwen’s “Value,” Jian Zhengzhen’s “Before the Disaster,” and Luo Zhicheng’s barely comprehensible “On Encountering Sorrow.” Shang Qin, 74, the first Taiwanese poet to experiment with surrealism, begins one poem with “This is just fucking nuts! How could they repaint the bus-stand sign the color of papaya?” (Stand Sign, trans. Ryan T. Scott Nance).

More surprising (or more familiar) to Western readers will be the polytonal science fiction lyricism and syntactic dislocation of the younger Taiwanese poets in their late thirties to early fifties, such as Hsia Yu, Hung Hung, Du Shisan, and Chen Li. Du Shisan’s Fax Machine begins with an aphorism (“Through the fax machine, the world becomes the unworld”) and continues with a whimsical but melancholic story about a woman who faxes her lips and eyes to her lover. Chen Kehua sounds like a Taoist shaman with a few postmodern upgrades: “me, I borrowed his body / and that segment of the flow of time” (trans. Simon Patton). Chen Li’s Kubla Khan begins with Coleridge’s “in Xanadu did Kubla Khan” but Chen has Kubla Khan rant and decree for “constant orgasm” in his pleasure dome; the poem ends with an onlooker noting “This is a philosophical issue. / Time is the best aphrodisiac / for the conception of change” (trans. Simon Patton). And Hung Hung’s A Hymn to Hualian (trans. Steve Bradbury) follows up a prayer to the Lord with:

Deep sleep. The broad sweep of the sea tilting out of kilter on those hairpin
turns we take at sixty miles an hour. Love
and transgression. His injustices.
Your loveliness.

These are mannerist poems, but while our juiced-up and trendy American mannerism is usually only funny, this is darker and stranger, a brooding pastiche.

Lest you think that Taiwanese poetry is all Psalmic jewel-making and bourgeois soliloquy, Mercury Rising contains three nativist poets—one is even a blind tribesman—translated by John Balcom:

Someone returned to the tribe this evening
Rubbing the wound of history getting drunk
—Walis Nokan, Duckweed

If you’re an aborigine
Then wipe away your tears and blood
And like a huge burning tree
Light the road ahead
—Monaneng, If You’re an Aborigine

Ritualized, spontaneous, and direct, rather than urbane and ornamental, these chant-like poems resemble an entire generation of post-war American performance poetry, but have a postcolonial malaise that makes our appropriations seem bloodless, silly, and opulent.

The volume is haunted by Qu Yuan (343?-278 B.C.), the semi-legendary “first poet” of China, who’s referenced by many of the poets. Qu Yuan was a populist romantic, a Classical Chinese Walt Whitman, who wrote hallucinatory dirges about ascending to heaven. If this type of shamanic poetry were written in the west, it would be necessarily apolitical, as if political content constituted a poetic impurity; consider the works of Coleridge, Breton, Valery in poetry or Ingmar Bergman and Carl Dreyer in film. These distinctions between poetry and politics would’ve made no sense to Qu Yuan, who drowned himself in the Miluo River to protest government corruption and also happened to write poems about dragons. The Qu Yuan tradition—so obviously present in Taiwanese verse—gives the Chinese literary tradition a method to turn surrealism and romanticism into subgenres of Confucian political verse. This impossibility—the way Taiwanese poetry allows literary “special effects” to have political consequence—could suggest new possibilities for poetry in English.

Mercury Rising also features a Vietnamese fiction anthology, with work by Cu Van, Nguyen Ngoc Tu, Phan Thi Vang Anh, and Phan Trieu Hai, whose Starting Out (trans. Nguyen Qui Duc), has a sleek Chekhovian tone, the kind of shy coolness that only young men have:

Here and there on the street, lights were coming from the oil lamps that looked like miniature lighthouses. There were cigarette cabinets. The sellers were young girls with garish makeup. I knew what they really were. One lifted her skirt, stretching out her milky legs in front of our car light. Quan honked his horn, and she withdrew her legs. Through the car window, I saw her covering her mouth to smile. We continued on.

The other Vietnamese stories are less Western and combine melodrama, fable and realist fiction in ways that should surprise readers of The New Yorker. The issue also includes: an intergenerational drama about ghosts and Chinese family life, by Australian Hapa Lynda Chanwai-Earle; beautifully silver, peppery photographs of angels on street corners from the Iona Contemporary Dance Theater; and an interview with Cuban poet and art critic Ricardo Pau-Llosa.


All content, unless otherwise noted, (c) Ken Chen, 1998-2006. Ken Chen can be reached by email.

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