In Search of Poetry as the Prototype of Exile

"In this world the ones who trust writing least are poets", I wrote in my poem "The Garden on a Winter's Day" in 1990. As a poet I do not believe that "exile literature" should - or could - be another kind of literature enjoying privileges independent and outside of our literary demands and judgments. No, a poem is nothing but an attempt to transcend the boundaries of language. And the poet is only someone who "climbs over the wall", who always tries to get over that Berlin wall built by masterpieces of the past. I once stared at the empty space between two parallel lines of stones - remnants of the torn-down Berlin Wall - where there was not even room for a small tree to grow. Forgotten, this image of death had not yet been decked and adorned. To me it was not strange at all: it was like a just completed poem which draws attention to the emptiness behind the text. It is an inborn feature of poetry to be unable to stop at any line; a poem must be continued and mark the constantly failing but courageous attempts of human beings. Exile is not so much a subject matter as a depth, inside the poet's demand on language. Poets in exile see this: "When every window is opening / it's a sky sealed tight".

Who can experience stronger feelings than a Chinese poet who watches television and sees the Berlin Wall being torn down? History really moves in opposite directions: In the summer of 1989, the democratic wave surging on Tiananmen Square was followed by the bloodshed of Chinese people and the cheers of East Europeans. Just when the East European writers regained a "mother country" my books were banned and I had to go into exile. During the subsequent 90s power and money formed a monstrous alliance, constructing the landscape of Money Revolution in Mainland China. When the tyranny in China was completed by the will of those tyrannized, this last and also biggest Socialist State Museum still lured people abroad to believe that, at least to Chinese people, the knowledge of the "cold war" was still not antiquated. This made me even more sad - political tyranny silenced the voices of poetry, while the ideological one-dimensional reading diluted the blood of poetry. The "political poetry", which had degenerated into another kind of propaganda, was in fact neither "political" nor "poetry". This "resistance", which was just a kind of external decoration, overlooked precisely the complex internal conflicts of poetry (or human nature). One "success" of tyranny is making us lower our standards. We may take "independent thinking" or "authentic writing", these self-evident points of departure, as the purpose of literature and struggle to reach point zero. But what about poetry? Where should we head for after that point of departure has been forgotten? What difficulty in real life does not in fact take the darkness of human nature as its original version? A poem deals with the common predicament of man and language. Exile has given me an inescapable perspective, which I daily deepen by means of writing. I am fortunate.

I have changed my self-designation three times: 1. "Poet of China", which emphasized the initial blood relationship between my poetic work and my native land; 2. "Poet in Chinese language", which implied exploring, among all languages, the specific limitations and possibilities of "Chineseness"; 3. Poet in Yanglish". My poems are foreign even to readers who are Chinese speakers. They cannot be "translated" into common, daily-life Chinese. The form that I invent for every poem, the overturn of earlier "models" that every new piece achieves sedulously increases the distance to the readers. When did this "self-exile begin"? What true poet who touches upon the nature of poetry is not in spiritual exile? I want my writings in exile to become a journey in two directions: constantly distancing myself from my native land and at the same time returning to my own language. In my language I seek to complete the depth of reality. Every sentence emits sound from somewhere in myself and enters into dialogue with the surrounding world. When depth itself affects the grammar, something "new" will naturally emerge. This long journey has no end, because the effort to explore the ultimate limits of darkness can never be exhausted.

Exile writing is an old subject. Although old it still generates electric currents. Especially in Chinese, "exile" is directly related to our cultural predicament. The main theme of twentieth century Chinese literature was, in a word, "the modern transformation of China's cultural tradition". Its tragedy is well-known: several decades of "revolution" destroyed our own cultural structures that had lasted for millennia and also failed to import the structures of Western culture; finally, the most evil version of ancient Chinese despotism mated with the words of Western evolutionary ideology and produced a frightening, monstrous offspring. When we came into the picture and began to write we had neither a tradition nor a language, nightmares were our only inspiration. During the latter part of the Cultural Revolution young poets scattered over the country who did not know one another yet did one and the same thing: we took away "big" political words such as "socialism", "capitalism", "historical dialectic" from poetry. The reason was simple: these words cannot be touched. They have neither feeling nor meaning. Many years later I referred to the use of this unconscious "pure tribal language" as our first small theory of poetry. For a very long time we have been used to talking about the glorious tradition of Chinese literature. But then we forget that any living tradition must have individual creativity as its prerequisite. If we do not establish "a creative link" between our own work and the great works of the past, we will have a past but no tradition. No matter how naive our writings from those years may have been, the notion that one should "use one's own language to express one's own perceptions" actually injected new life into sources of literature that had slumbered too long. Our modernity was manifested in an attitude of self-awareness with regard to language. In our language we pursued such questions as: the scars of the Cultural Revolution, the omnipresent blend of reality and history, the agony of time (or should I say "of not having time"?) ...."the exile" of thinking, we experienced the forces of both repellation and affinity and constantly transformed the escape from reality into the return of literature. According to an old Chinese saying "the misfortune of the country is the fortune of the poet"; I say "rediscover tradition in a person". Using these square Chinese characters, Qu Yuan, who two thousand and five hundred years ago posed his Questions to Heaven and took his own life by throwing himself into the river, is waiting for us. Li Bai, Du Fu, Su Dongpo, Huang Tingjian who, drifting from place to place, lonely recited their poems, are waiting for us. Our voices echo each other from afar, never in the past, for ever at present.

In 1993 I and Gao Xingjian had a dialogue entitled "What We Gained from Exile". Not "lost" but "gained". The focus in this dialogue shifted from the question why the writer in exile should write to the more compelling how he or she should write. That is to say, what kind of language and form are suitable to conveying these extraordinarily poignant existential experiences? The Chinese language that I use is very special. It has been used for thousands of years without interruption, innumerable classical master pieces demonstrate that it has evolved its own mode of thought and its own conceptual apparatus. But does it have any meaning for human experiences in the contemporary world? I mean that not only can it open the door to already existing contemporary human consciousness but it may also evolve new forms of contemporary human consciousness. Exile is international but must also be manifested in this particular language. If my pre-1989 poems are characterized in terms of misty use of the Chinese language, then my writings in exile can be said to reflect awareness of the specific "Chineseness" of the Chinese language. Differing from European languages, which seek to capture the concrete, Chinese is abstract from the beginning. Pronouns can be left out and there are neither tenses nor numerus. Therefore, what sentences in Chinese describe is not "movements" but "situations". When Wang Wei said, "walk right on to the head of a stream, sit and watch when clouds come up", who is walking, and who is watching and who is not walking and watching? The "walkers" and the "watchers" have always been implied. I call Chinese a "synchronic language", in order to distinguish it from the diachronic European languages. To write is to abolish the time and the writer. So how can "my loneliness" not be "several coincidental lonelinesses"? Does not my drifting lead to a historical dead end? Nothing else, only masks are floating on the empty non-existent river of time. Here, as for text and reality, which is the illusion of the other? Or are they both illusions facing each other? If I give up the specific linguistic Chineseness there is almost no way for me to describe the kind of poetics which is exceedingly important to me.

Texts examine callously and closely how life dissolves minute by minute, second by second. In exile the human predicament becomes particularly clear. Writing in exile I have no wish to set up another trademark of "exoticism" in the supermarket of "political correctness" and "identity games". No, to use the oriental's concept of space as a cheap substitute for the Western concept of time is only another way of losing oneself. Poetry requires the poet's individual concepts of time and space. I emphasize the importance of setting up a "poetic space", thereby abolishing and transcending time by means of continued enrichment of the poetic form: the beauty of the forms should be manifest on all levels, from the visual character and the images of the Chinese script to the sense of space inherent in the sentence structure. Both in terms of the individual and the Chineseness we should go beyond the prevailing "you are not here" and resurrect the demolished notion "we are all here". "Dig it out - that bottomless wounded sea-bed - stands still/ where a storm can never stand." After spending five years in exile, I wrote the long poem "Where the Sea Stands Still". Using a structure of four themes and four sections, I united the "four places" into "one place" - "now is furthest away" - and four progressing levels. Until the time flow disappears, it flows forward into the form of a poem; and what language form demonstrates is nothing but our absence. In a certain sense I am even happy to call myself a formalist. What is literature if not form? For the past two thousand years there has been a separation between the system of written Chinese and so-called "spoken language", resulting in the existence of a great tradition of formalism, from the fu prose-poetry of the Han Dynasty, the pianwen parallel prose, the jue Quatrains, the regulated lü verse to the bagu eight-legged essay. But the anti-intellectualism of the Communist Party led to collective mental debilitation and turned literature into ruins. I have no intention of copying models translations as models of my own writings (even if that would be in accordance with the law of the survival of the fittest), but to open up, deliberately, a distance between each work. /I do not quite understand/. I am awaiting the day when my Return of the Exile will appear as a numbered series of poetic works, with no need to date when they were written, only caring about their internal relationship, and thus constitute one definitive work. A small tradition of my own: Penetrating my "physical" being to reach the "metaphysical" realm. Only poetry is that cliff outside the city of Sydney, constantly growing. Let me say: "This shore is where we see ourselves set sail."

"Moved again by ancient betrayal", my long poem "Concentric circles" presents a model of life and language. For me,"leaving the country" was no turning-point. The word exile has for a long time encompassed all geographical and even psychological meanings. Determined by the selection of poetry it was equivalent to writing and life themselves. Poetry is the basic questioner, incessantly emitting energy from the centre of darkness and transforming into questions the texts, the hands that write, the authors, the memories and what has been forgotten by generations. For ever asking but not worth answering. May one perhaps put it this way: If there were no tradition of literary inquisition and repeated bloodshed on Tiananmen Square, what could then prove the natural freedom of poetry? If I did not feel homesick and had almost forgotten the feeling of being a poet in my own country, then what meaning would the words "starting from the impossible" on a sheet of white paper have? If there were not the small leaking cottages in New Zealand, the goats in Berlin's Zoo which in the cold night sound like crying children, the staring wild cats outside the basement in Brooklyn - then how could the days be transformed into draft manuscripts, approaching that poem that has never been written, that prototype of exile that is concealed in our hearts? My ever longer journey has never had any other destination than the depth of myself. My "original land" includes all "other lands". One grey winter afternoon in London a phrase jumped into my head: "Reality is part of my nature." Just like the poet is part of poetry. Cruel or beautiful poetics, there never exists any "beyond the border". In "Concentric Circles" I wrote:

      Destruction is our knowledge
      but this convicted tower
      mouth eyes filled with pitch
      not yet attained wordlessness

* Transl. note: The quotations from Yang Lian's poem are rendered Brian Holton's English versions.