Book review: Wind Says, by Bai Hua

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 17 February, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 18 February, 2013, 4:02pm

Wind Says
by Bai Hua (translated by Fiona Sze-Lorrain)
Chinese University Press


"A book contains all kinds of dreams." These words sandwich Book, a poem in award-winning "post-Misty" poet Bai Hua's anthology, Wind Says. The sentiment is brought home in the collection, which spans decades of the poet's life and pertains to experiences of determination and inspiration. But while dreams and hopes are channelled, so, too, are fear and oppression. Ideals are intermingled with a cold reality (realism is, after all, a defining characteristic of Misty poetry, a reaction against restrictions on art during the Cultural Revolution) of politics, struggle and hardship.

Appearing after more than a decade of poetic silence by Bai, Wind Says serves up his works in chronological order, from the 1980s onwards. Characteristic of Chinese writing, landscapes and nature are prevalent, but they are less romanticised than one may expect. Nature offers solace in its transience and temporal flux.

Time is a concept, the poet says, that "has always been the greatest wonder for me". Translator Fiona Sze-Lorrain was instructed to ensure all the poems were dated, which draws attention to the development of particular themes over time. Not only nature, but religion, family, Chinese culture and history, politics, his vocation as a writer - these all permeate Bai's works.

Simple ideas - or "encounters", as Sze-Lorrain calls them - span the years. We traverse from youth to ageing - from young men to The Old Poet. Later poems are more abstract, incorporating more prose. Indeed, Bai says that for him (as a writer mainly of critical prose and hybrid texts) the poetic ideal is of weaving prose with poetry. As is common in Chinese poetry, metaphors abound but they do not feel contrived. Messages are conveyed in sharp but poignant images, paying homage to Chinese and Western writers of the past, as well as to the philosophical tradition in which Chinese writing is steeped.

Bai's somewhat clipped style lends itself to abstraction and imagist techniques - perhaps unsurprising given his admiration of T.S. Eliot. The poems are concise and at times they seem slightly stilted - almost denied of flow. But Bai leaves a lasting impression. Tension is created between freedom and restriction - a reflection of his themes, perhaps - as we encounter stark images recurring across poems.

But one must question how much is lost to the non-Chinese reader in translation. Inevitably, something of a poem's essence must be eliminated. This may mean losing depth, through simplification, in an attempt to honour poetic form. One might ask: is the simplification in Wind Says an attempt to mimic poetic style? Or a result of omission?

As the poet ages and his poetry alters course, summer remains a constant, energising source. Bai writes: "Summer is a concept of time in my poetics … Through this word, I express my lamentations towards life." We encounter the season in unlikely contexts: "Look, how beautiful politics are/Summer puts on an army uniform," speaks Summer, 1966.

Repression and speechlessness recur, too, at times coloured red. In Jonestown (1987), "the whirlpool of hot blood has arrived"; "the teeth of demonstrations chew on hard times"; and "a girl rehearsed suicide/her beautiful hair agitated from madness/so tenderly on her helpless shoulders".

While children often lack freedom or joy, they are another constant presence - a source of hope, perhaps, harking back to innocent dreams, and a gesture towards the importance of filial piety in Chinese culture.

Imbued with nostalgia, memory and lamentation, the poems in Wind Says are meditative and contemplative in their simplicity, while the additional material in the book, such as the interview at the end with Bai, provide an intricate picture of the man and the inspiration behind, and evolution of, his poems.

In Bai's poetic voice, one can almost feel the winds of change blowing through the pages.