'When was it that you stopped using the word 'home'?' Yang Lian in Auckland

Crater of the extinct volcano Maungawhau or Mt. Eden, in Auckland

At the recent Short Takes on Long Poems symposium in Auckland (see Jack Ross's take here), Jacob Edmond, whose comic-serious talk concerned the literal weights and volumes of long poems, kept asking a single question of other speakers.  “In what way is the work you're talking about local?”  Or, in the case of my presentation, “Do you think your videos [of people in Hawai`i saying back lines of George Oppen's ‘Of Being Numerous’ as best they could] localize the poem in some way?”  Jack Ross argues that the symposium would have been too international had it not included the work of Robert Sullivan and John Adams, writing the interstices between Maori and Pakeha in Aotearoa / New Zealand.  This discussion felt like home to me, albeit set on a different stage and peopled by very different writers and critics than is the case in Hawai`i.  But of course these distinctions are hard to keep or enforce when (like me) you can leave Auckland at 7 a.m. of a Monday morning and arrive in Honolulu at 7 a.m. the same morning.  Yet Lucas Klein, a scholar and translator of Chinese poetry, quoted the Chinese poet, citizen of New Zealand, and resident of London, Yang Lian, as saying: “There is no international, only different locals.”

Jacob Edmond is one of Yang Lian's translators; he and Hilary Chung published a book of Yang Lian’s Auckland poems and essays in Unreal City: A Chinese Poet in Auckland (Auckland University Press, 2006).  Auckland is, of course, a real city.  But to find one's accidental exile there, as Yang Lian did for several years after Tiananmen Square in June 1989, is to enter a place profoundly unlocal in its language, its climate, its watery surround.  The man forced to dig graves during the Cultural Revolution came to live near Grafton Bridge, which goes over a cemetery in Auckland.  As the editors tell us in their introduction, “Grafton Bridge is described with realist accuracy . . . but the bridge and the view also provide the starting point for a hallucination . . . or mirage . . . that transforms the real Auckland landscape and the surreal space of the poem, with its threatening ‘iron’ and ‘stone masters’ that seem to force the final cry ‘for the pain unexpectedly prolonged in the night.’” (8-9).  Later, they add, “Thus ‘City in a Mirage’ [one section of their anthology of his Auckland poems] develops a poetics of exile in which the strange world of exile—the ‘city’—in a sense compensates for the displaced subject’s loss of reality—the ‘mirage’.” (17).  So, while Yang Lian writes in “Grafton Bridge,” of “a sky shrivelled by extinct volcanoes,” a fact of the city’s geography, where volcanoes form “power points” that overlook city and ocean, he maintains in “The Garden This Afternoon,” that “what is not illusory cannot be born” (41).  These are not real gardens with imaginary toads in them, because both garden and toad are real.  But they are gardens in which exilic sight refracts the world where death (loss, exile, silence) meets the imagination (poetry, the freedom that comes of not-freedom).  This is where “the living gather round death’s window and cry,” as he writes in “The Book of Crying and Forgetting,” dedicated to Milan Kundera. 

It's also a place where “when you talk about your childhood it's as if you're not actually talking about yourself but about somebody else hiding inside your body” (76).  Early in the book we see a pencilled sketch of the house at 137 Grafton Road where Yang Lian lived (the drawing is by his wife, Yo Yo).  But in the essay “Ghost Talk,” late in the book, Yang separates those English words, “house” from “home,” to note that, “Whenever you mention this dilapidated old house, you always say ‘there’.” (75).  His exile rendered insubstantial the very structure of the house in which he lived, as it did the language in which he writes.  The result, to cite the title of the book’s last essay, is to live in the “City of One Person,” a city he can't believe exists, even as he climbs the extinct volcano near his house and looks out over its buildings to the sea.  From this house, which exists as structure but not as idea, he looks back at his life, the life that seems more imaginary than real, “blurring your address so it appears to be a place you have never been before” (91).  The poet may be dead, but the dead might never leave:

     who says the dead are dead and gone     the dead

     wandering locked in doomsday are the masters of eternity

     on the four walls hang four of their own faces

     massacre once again     blood

     is still the only famous view

     to sleep into a tomb is fortunate     but to reawaken in

     a tomorrow the birds fear even more

     this is just a very ordinary year     (59)

This is the last stanza of his two stanza poem, “1989.”  That year was hardly ordinary for Yang Lian, other Chinese poets exiled by the government, or anyone “at either end of the refugee horizon” (48), but his “ordinary” is at once deeply ironic and honest.  Auckland is ordinary, as is any city.  But Yang Lian's exile makes of loneliness the unreal city of Edmond and Chung’s title.

“When you are alone,” Yang writes, “nothing exists except your illusions” (90).  Rather than losing himself alone, he also loses the city he walks in.  “The city of extinct volcanoes, sea and stone is really there. Feeling for them is like feeling your own face. But as you feel for them, they are lost” (90).  Yang can see his dream self, his mirage, but is otherwise blind to the locality he lives in.  Perhaps for that reason, among others, he writes a poem to Michele Leggott, who has been losing her sight for many years, and is now nearly completely blind.  In “Sense of Sight, or, Island No. 5,” which he dedicates to her, he writes (in the mid-2000s), to himself as much as to her:

     it is never the eye that the view awaits

     an island     always mirrors an inverted image of an island inside the heart

     lights are recorded on a poem's silver printing plate

     night pursues a predestined logic     like a dog pursues an eccentricity

     barks wildly     one side of darkness is that point where it begins

     what sunlight once buried     accepts you back first of all

     eyes beautifully open     possess pure loneliness at last     (64)

Yang Lian's Auckland is a place of disorientation, dislocation; rather than “localizing” place, as Jacob suggested many of us had done, Yang dislocalizes Auckland more profoundly than had Baudelaire Paris or Eliot London.  His local and Auckland's local are so different as to make them mutual hallucinations.  But it matters that Yang wrote about Auckland, because Grafton Bridge, the War Memorial Museum, and the extinct (or are they?) volcanoes are local landmarks.  So between the purely local and the purely international, if either actually exists, we find the dis- or dys-localism of Yang Lian's antipodal city.  It merits our reading, if not our touristic gaze. 

Many thanks to Michele Leggott, Lisa Samuels, and Robert Sullivan for organizing the conference and to Brian Flaherty and Tim Page for taking the adventure out of  technology.


Hilary Chung has an essay on Yang Lian and Gu Cheng in the new on-line issue of Ka Mate Ka Ora.  Read it here.