No. 4 & 5


Zhang Er  

Translated from the Chinese by Bill Ransom and Susan M. Schultz  



Not much to be discussed further.
is there, Father?
Those long grasses spill over the hill, blooms blacken
in shadow as sunlight measured out square by square
the city at attention, in time to me, too
a patch of screen grayish white—
anything more to chat?
Whatever wants to be said loses
its voice and body. 

are you home?
Home, or hiking high mountains far away.  A dog
snuffles around under the bench then
snuffles off.  A sparrow tempted to jump to a shoulder
yet no.  At that moment I feel the real loss:
good-bye, it is getting late
Darkness and a warm afterglow
close over the screen.


       —for Malan

Dig out the heaviest thing
stuff it into your mouth, drink down
desire, drifting from left atrium to the right atrium:
one hand can’t comprehend the other hand’s 
stony, sorrowful heart. Emotion? Slide
under the bottom of your log boat, carve out 
this stark unforgetting water.

Rain sweeps into the dark. Heavy 
is neither the stories you write nor 
your voice over the sea.  Depression
in fact is very light, whatever can be said 
is light. As light as that rainbow
on an Andes mountain, breathless, between your fingers
trickling down from the blue air—
you throw yourself into the sun right in front of me.

Let them climb up and down these boulders
you polished so smooth and gentle:
still, if they want elevation they surrender
the squeeze near your navel, pile up
pile upward these structures of worship. You and they 
body-limb enlaced!
Bodies and limbs inlaid like stones of a wall, concepts-locked
sentences wind-tight cocoon the heroine of your stories.

The highest banner above the heads is 
not necessarily the heaviest.
He says your conclusion is fake. I say the stories 
must be true then. ‘‘So boring,’‘ you laugh.                       
You hang your ha!ha!ha! around the corner of your mouth. 
Laugh louder and be saved!
But they insist on the mask, the anesthesia
you grab a pen
you count: one, two, three…
bloom open a pond of lotus: Lotus Girl
            two fingers pinch her red paper 
                limpid water, a flirtatious light.

Translated from the Chinese by Bill Ransom

NuWa Jing Wei (the baby girl, Jing Wei)

Fu Jiu Mountain is 200 li farther north.  Higher up, the zhe trees are quite plentiful. There is a crow-like bird here with a striped head, white bill, and red feet.  It is called Jing Wei.  Its call sounds like its name.  This is Emperor Yan’s daughter, NuWa.  NuWa drowned while swimming in the Eastern Sea.  That was when she became Jing Wei and  carried trees and stones from the western mountains to dam the Eastern Sea.  The Zhang River flows east from here.
                                                                                  —The Legend of the Northern Mountains

Zhe wooden slippers predate the Christian era.
Crimson silk ribbons redden the ankle
like the flush of scarlet kisses; you dart back
and forth, possessed of exotic origins.
NuWa, you’re no ordinary girl,
for the magnetic field of your rooted bones
makes you nomadic; you walk from the south
up the western mountain of my backyard: 
tell me, which side do I climb down?

Go forward, eastward, face the sun.
Here everyone drinks too much coffee, is pale, sun-starved.
Be cautious: there’s a secret deal in mirror-images, photos.
And the bay’s appetite!
Not for stones or branches, but for steel and plastic puzzles.
Sail boats, ferries, skulls, steamers, ocean liners 
(S.S. Thises and Thats), their shop lights, window displays.
Behind glass you see tourists with styrofoam lunch boxes in hand,
while further east, according to legend, there are shark 
and shark fin JinShen soups. Fresh, two for a dollar.
Let us share. . . 

Beside the pier, the winery banner seduces us
to sit, shoulder to shoulder, while other eyes scatter,
multi-angled lenses that fail to mark your fire-red slippers,
southern NuWa, nor their ears the eastern sea wind,
results posted in the local language
like fragrance rushing from a bottle.
You wait, patiently, patiently,
gracefully lowering your head as if
each time your heart broke there were
the consolatory ‘‘next time.’‘

Only I know your path:
It’s like the song, ‘‘12 Hours a Day.’‘
Sweet nostalgia of no longer
fashionable music, about a time 
no longer fashionable, whose
ancient principles yet apply,
deep as the eastern sea and this 
backyard, bitterness unvomited.

My guests’ anger baseless.
Grandma died without a will
despite torrents of last words and piles of ancient
towels, prints smudged, difficult to fathom;
she phoned my grandpa, recently dead,
to chat; the doctor called it ‘‘a strange existence.’‘
Your cervical cancer caused by poor water, poor diet,
an excess of love, the deep pool of your genes?
Excess misery and beauty were her company.

‘‘My baby is NuWa,’‘ grandma murmured to herself.
Fly, run, swim! Your crimson silk string slippers drown,
young heroine, yet the yearbook leaves out your entry.
What are collected are as-yet-undefined words,
phrases that already trouble us, like ‘‘love life.’‘
At the party, in fancy dress, we cry for a happy funeral.
You see, she was 89; you only 18 or 19.

One should learn from the green Zhe tree on the western mountain.
The crow-like bird in the branches died of hatred.
The ancient book still contains unparaphrasable wisdom.
You hold my two hands in yours.
I face the sky blue sea-over there.
In the backyard and on the hill, crowds bustle and horses neigh.
Hard at work, they dig at the mountain without ceasing,
either to dam the eastern sea or build a new legend.
They quarrel: so you and I have reason to sit longer.
We’ll share another mug of wine.


XiHer’s land is on the other side of the Eastern Sea in the Kan River area.
XiHer bathes her suns at the Kan Pool.  She is the wife of the Emperor Zun, 
and bore him ten suns.
                                                                              —The Great Beyond to the South

At that moment, the garden was not here.
Gigantic, you lay, groaning loudly;
pain and irritation stretched out, mile after mile, into the fields.
The passage to the outside is narrow and twisted.
You had to stop, catch your breath, wave to us, wave again.
There was plenty of time.
We were suspended in air,
yet could seem to remember
the unexpected, even within the expected:
you wanted to sew elaborate baby clothes
and plow this garden for them and us— 
yet now we can’t catch the pattern
of your labor.

Staring at sun after sun, vision destroyed,
we can’t keep accurate accounts.
In the garden, infertile fruits and fruitless flowers cohabitate.
The white mountain and black water interrupt each other. 
We lost the power to prove if nine suns were dropped to the ground
along with the pipe dream of chasing the sun
as it crosses the border.

Sun after sun, the empty fullness of emotions
bob above your head; we get up, not daring to slacken,
watching your mood and following your steps:
guilty if we stop, suffering if we maintain our pace.
unchanged, your expression is
a ray of light, a wave of secret communiqués
amid the fog, rain, wind, lightning.
It is hot or cold or bright
and our vocabulary limited; you don’t take
offense, patiently telling us
not to make it too warm or too chilly.
This is your garden,
the hills and pools have already melted in our dreams,
yours and ours.

Sun after sun.  A friend from Phoenix calls to say
she’s buying land, a house, has the green card.
While the process invades those tender crops
(long cultivation in the heart field)
the green can’t be further divided among us.

You pity our fragile creation,
the paper house constantly remodeled yet never comfortable.
You try to satisfy our small desires
but the western light in the window is moist, sun’s blush,
as if a virgin leaned there, nearly pushed it open.
All that vividly burns will sink into the dark.
While flowers and bushes fail to conceal time’s passage,
you tell us not to worry, overlooking sunlight’s final smear.
There will be the next sun; it will illumine
this routine landscape
we have no time to see.

Translated from the Chinese by Susan M. Schultz

Zhang Er


(the gradual disappearance of calligraphy from Chinese life)

     On a recent visit to Shanghai, I found myself at a busy book store flipping through the newest edition of the calligraphy collection of Chairman Mao (Mao ZeDong, 1893-1976). The book is obviously of the expensive kind with glossy colored cover images, high quality photographic reproductions of some hundred plates of Mao’s poetry and correspondence in brush, Cao Shu or cursive hand, familiar to me since my childhood. I was searching for one specific piece in the collection, a famous poem by Mao, “Snow”, the calligraphy of which was enlarged hundred fold and posted all over China during the height of the Culture Revolution and therefore became a backdrop for my generation as we grew up in the chaos of the revolution of no-culture. The calligraphy of his graceful and energetic hand posted in front of my family’s gate was perhaps the only stable and cultivated sight comforting to a six year old home alone after the rowdy classroom and street. 
     Every school kid in China was (and still is) asked to start training in calligraphy by tracing the character printed in red with the Chinese brush in Chinese ink.  At the time, the ink was made fresh before each writing exercise from an ink stick on a stone inkslab. The ink stick was rubbed in a circular motion in a small puddle of water on the inkslab, an exercise meant to help the calligrapher to warm up the finger joints, strengthen the hand and arm muscles, and most importantly to focus on the task at hand, to reach a state of mind of tranquillity so that the structure and style of the characters can be clearly imagined in the mind’s eye (or the “heart” as in the Chinese expression) before one sets the brush on the paper. All these points of course were lost on the six year olds. We rubbed, we rubbed, and rubbed—it was the most dreadful activity of the day: water spilled, clothes stained, stick or the slab or both smashed to the floor, hands shaking, aching wrist. By the time the ink was thick enough to cover the red tracing, all patience was gone. I  never got beyond C in my calligraphy class. 
Yet the appreciation for calligraphy and its essential role in Chinese culture and day to day events did not escape even the kids. Whenever we went out, my parents would comment on the quality of calligraphy on the doorway, in the shop front, displayed on the wall.  The calligraphy collections by a Qing Emperor in the Forbidden City and on permanent exhibition in the nearby BeiHai park were my father’s favorite places for admiring good calligraphy. He would take us kids there, staring at the ink rubbings from ancient tablets, on which calligraphy of old masters was carved for preservation, or the more precious calligraphy collection on papers. For hours, he would stroll from one display to another with his pointed index finger moving in silence, tracing the character in space.
     After my father was put away in a re-education camp for his work at the former Beijing’s mayor’s office, which was overthrown during the Culture Revolution by the Red Guards, one of my favorite pastimes was to read the Big Character Posters. Full of personal attacks, street gossip or party propaganda, these posters were hand-written with ink and brush, in various styles, either of excellent calligraphy or of childish scribbles, or something in between, mainly Xing Shu (running hand), occasionally Kai Shu (regular hand). They were posted along the street, in the school yard, at every corner of public places and were renewed on daily basis. I read them all. In fact, like many kids of my age, the Big Character Posters taught me how to read and write, and how to perceive the swirling world around me without much parental guidance (being a college professor, my mother was later sent away to a farm camp as well). 
     During the teenage years, without parents to rebel against, left with my own body’s surge, I sat down each day after school, with brush and bottled ink (ready made and commercially available, and no more rubbing with stick and slab), practiced calligraphy on old newspaper pads made by myself while listening to classic music tapes through a Walkman (the tapes and the Walkman were precious presents of an uncle visiting from the US). It calmed me down, and it lifted me up into a world of order and control, with carefully measured space, strength, thoughts, breathing, logic, rhythm, and beauty. It is like a form of meditation. Solid calligraphy is a demonstration of total control, of one’s body and mind as I learnt through the experience, though I never achieved the mastery I aimed for. It is known that great masters in the past spent hours each day of their entire life bent over desk to practice and perfect the art. 
     Mao’s calligraphy though is another level of artistry. Paying no attention to the proletarian revolutionary realism in literature and art that his communist party promoted, his poetry is a combination of romantic and imaginary lines in high classical style, full of ambition, sensitivity and poetic sincerity. His calligraphy is of the same order, a lean yet decisive hand, with grace and a simplicity originating from the carefree spirit of a master (or dictator if you will). He was in control and he enjoyed momentarily losing it as well. He was more a poet than a calligrapher in that sense.
     With the coming of age in Chinese character writing computer software, no one bothers to write anything with the hand anymore. My hand would ache after a few lines on a rare post card because of lacking practice. The fountain pen and ball pen had replaced the brush at the turn of last century as the result of colonial wars and China’s own eagerness for Modernization (so that it can stand up strong against the colonial powers). Classical calligraphy almost vanished from the day to day life except in the infamous Big Character Posters days during the 60s. Now comes the turn for handwriting with pen and pencils (modern calligraphy in a loose definition, or penmanship) to fall into oblivion. Just as many languages become extinct elsewhere in the world. 
     Later that afternoon in Shanghai, I watched in amazement as my friends, mostly poets, punched away or received on their mobile phones short messages in digitally displayed Chinese characters to and from their friends during our moving feast from a tea house, to a restaurant, then to a bar, then to a subway stations’ underground late night café. Then I thought, it may not be a bad thing for calligraphy to retreat from this hurried daily life of ours, without tranquillity or much refined taste, and become a pure art form. Either as a symbol or a relic of a culture of the past, or as an inspiration or artistic expression, or a practice of one’s religious belief, or simply as an image of “the heart”. I may pick up calligraphy again one day if I can locate my brushes, carefully packed away with me when I first left the country to study in the US some 17 years ago. 




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