Poetry review: Something Crosses My Mind, by Wang Xiaoni

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 06 September, 2014, 10:11pm
UPDATED : Saturday, 06 September, 2014, 10:11pm

Something Crosses My Mind
by Wang Xiaoni
(translated by Eleanor Goodman)
CU Press

The cover image by Xu Bing of Chinese poet Wang Xiaoni's new collection, Something Crosses My Mind, shows fields of crops - a hint at what's within.

Descriptions of nature and agriculture permeate this collection, which resonates with a beautiful, powerful simplicity. Water buffalo, oxen, wheat, and "rice-gleaner[s] a bent to the ground" ( November's Rice-Gleaners) are the stuff of these pages. But then Wang spent seven years as a labourer in the countryside during the Cultural Revolution.

Nature, for the poet, is tangible and thick with offerings. In the volume's opening poem, I Feel the Sun, the narrator is found "leaning on sunlight", while in Early Morning, the "sun, like a gallbladder,/rises".

In Thoughts Upon Crossing Yunnan, the land is literally a body, as "Yunnan covers its head to sleep", grass climbs to the top of a body's head, and "canyon's teeth sparkle with lazy light".

The interaction between Wang's characters and their environment is a crucial aspect of her work, vividly epitomised in Plowman, where "red … comes after punishment" and "after pain has been quietly survived".

Wang's gentle but weighty words are built from sharp observation, and deliver an honesty and rawness brilliantly captured in the translation by Harvard research associate Eleanor Goodman. As a northerner writing in the south, Wang has an outsider's perspective, noticing details that locals might overlook.

There is also a sense of distance in her poetry, which explores the transience of nominal spaces - taking place on various forms of transport, while also delving into psychological, sociological, political and emotional spaces.

Wang, a key figure of the post-1970s Chinese poets, has produced more than 25 books of poetry, essays, and novels. This publication is yet another example of her hypnotic vernacular and engagement with social issues. Her verse contains, simultaneously, a vitality and solemnity that lend power to these captivating pages.