Poems by Yu Jian (1954-)

The Beer Bottle-top  Luo Jiasheng  Mouse  Opus 112  A Fruit Full of Heart-broken Juices  Rivers  Speed  The Naming of a Crow 

The Beer Bottle-top

Translated by Simon Patton

unsure of how to address it
it was still sitting at the head of the table only a moment ago
the custodian of a bottle of stout
absolutely indispensable
it has a sense of its own status
signifying conviviality as the sun goes down
and the depth of froth in a glass
opened with a pop at the start of the evening meal
the action strikingly similar to that of a bullfrog
the waiter even believes that it really is a frog
believes that something on the table covered with cooked food has unexpectedly been brought back to life
he is vexed by his misunderstanding
and immediately shifts his attention to a toothpick
he is the last one
after him
the world gives it no further thought
with no other entries on it in the dictionary
no original meanings extended meanings transferred meanings
but those dishes originally arranged in submission before it
signify nothing less than the flavours of Sichuan cuisine
the napkin is touched by the hand of a general
the roses in full bloom
an allusion to privilege
in an eccentric arc it exited this gathering
an arc not its own
the brewery
never designed such a line for its product
it now lies on the floor with the cigarette butts
bones and other rubbish
an unrelated jumble
an impromptu design
of no use to anyone
but its plight is even more wretched
a butt reminds the world of a slob
a bone brings to mind a dog or a cat
and footprints of course allude to a human life
it is waste
its whiteness being nothing more than its whiteness
and its shape nothing more than its shape
it falls beyond the reach of our adjectives
I wasn't a drinker then
it was I who opened the bottle of beer
and for this reason I noticed its strange leap
its simple disappearance
I suddenly tried to imagine the pop it made
jumping out into space
but was unable
mine was the body of an author of a collection of poetry and sixty kilograms of corporeal existence
all I did was bend down
and pick up this alluring small white object
it was hard
with a serrated rim
which cut into my finger
and made me feel a sharpness unlike that of knives

February 1991

Luo Jiasheng

every day as the chimneys belch smoke
he comes riding to work on his
old “Bell”-brand bicycle

past the administration building
past the forging shop
past the perimeter wall of the storehouse
to that small hut

workers standing in workshop doorways
say     when they see him
Luo Jiasheng’s here

no one knows anything about him
no one asks him anything about himself
the whole factory calls him Luo Jiasheng

the workers are always knocking on his door
wanting their watches repaired     electric meters repaired
their radios repaired

during the Cultural Revolution
he was expelled from the factory:
in a suitcase belonging to him
someone had found a tie

when he was allowed to come back to work
he still rode that old “Bell”
Luo Jiasheng
got married without anyone knowing
he invited no one to the wedding
at the age of forty-two
he became a father

in the same year
he died
an electric furnace opened an enormous gash
in his head
it was shocking

on the day of the funeral
his wife did not attend
a few workers carried his coffin up into the hills
they said     he was short
he wasn’t heavy
the watches he repaired
were better than new

the chimneys belch smoke
workers stand in the workshop doorways
Luo Jiasheng
hasn’t come to work



you, little uninvited pest
made your stronghold in my room
sneaking in, creeping out     never stopping to say “hello”
it was only this evening when I saw your illustrious name
listed beside that of Donald Duck on the TV     that I realized you were a movie star
that was the end of my peace of mind
there was a mouse in my room
like a lump     growing inside my body
many times I’d been to the hospital     but they’d never found anything
half a steamed bread bun had been sawn away
there were suspicious black specks in my rice
who, after all, was the culprit?
I became more cautious     ears straining to hear the slightest noise
listening to cupboards     listening to floorboards
of course, I tracked down those small but solid sounds
but I had no way of knowing for sure
whether the little runt was nibbling on my favourite clothes
or gnawing away at antiques left to me by my grandfather
you were always so light on your feet
it was almost as if you wanted to spare my feelings
my mother’s mother used to be like this
in the middle of windy nights     she would quietly get out of bed     and close all the windows
you dance on cakes     piss on tablets
the books I like are riddled with gaping wounds
but when it came to the crunch, you had no idea what made a noise     and what didn’t
so when you knocked over my chinaware     which then jumped to the ground from a great height
you triggered, much to your surprise, an earthquake
that startled me from dreams     on tip-toes
unable to fly into a rage
having to be lighter on my feet than you
I felt my way from the bed-head to the book-shelf     worried that you would hear me
like you were in the middle of writing something     not to be disturbed
but I was clumsier than you     in the end, I knocked over a chair
panicked, I looked left and right    ashamed of something, it seemed
in fact, you, you little runt, were probably already fast asleep
after a drink of milk     and a change of bedroom
hiding in your hole     eyes like a couple of black beans, twitching in your head
watching me, big and lumbering     stark naked     stripped of all poise
and learning about what I looked like at night
you kept quiet     in this you were different from your father
this quality of yours     put me in an unbearable position
I couldn’t stand it any longer     I knocked and poked at random
hell-bent on a thorough search     to arrest you     and to put you to death
but when I saw the massive articles of furniture around me
and the bunkers concealed within countless household odds and ends
frustration got the better of me    and not knowing what to do
I called off the hunt
outsiders were under the mistaken impression that I had the room to myself
that I was calm and steady     devoted to study
actually, I was a nervous wreck     I avoided going out
I’d hurry home as soon as work was over
and, once inside, start opening cupboards    and cases
checking up on that rotten bastard who always kept me guessing
to see what new tricks he’d played on me

Opus 112

whoever notices how many leaves the wind
knocks from these trees
and whoever sees this many leaves
on such a beautiful, sun-lit afternoon
suddenly falling     all of them dying
is bound to shudder


A Fruit Full of Heart-broken Juices

a fruit full of heart-broken juices     placed on morning’s table
Cézanne tablecloth     diamond of beasts’ dreaming
the sunlight spins     moving shadows     directing the fruit’s blue face into the light-source
plunging its red face into deep darkness     its green face into mirrors
three flags covert in the spectrum     no discernible relation to any tree, ever
no moving creature near it     its existence an education
china dish, immobile     knives and forks, immobile     milk, immobile     a Sunday of the aristocracy
in that moment of enjoyment     its heart-broken juices are linked to a troupe of bears
but those bears have yet to come together     right now a thousand miles away they’re asleep under trees
dreaming of this diamond     full of unsweet, broken-hearted juices



there are many rivers in the mountains where I grew up
in deep gorges they flow
they rarely catch a glimpse of sky
there are no expansive sails hoisted high over their surfaces
nor huge flocks of river gulls drawn on by boat-songs
it’s only when you’ve climbed endless ridges and hills
that you hear this river sound
it’s only on rafts made of great tree-trunks lashed together
that you dare ride upon these waves
some areas will stay forever unknown to humankind
the freedom of those places belongs to the eagles alone
in the rainy season the waters turn brutal
gale winds on the high plateau push boulders down into valleys
mud dyes the rivers red
as if the mountains were actually bleeding
only when it’s calm
do you see the plateau’s bulging veins
those people who live on either side of these rivers
may never come to know of one another’s existence
but wherever you go in the place I grew up in
you will here people talking about these rivers
as if discussing their gods


the people planting potatoes are infected by dawn
infected by the sun as it rises
quickly they work     the world is quick at this time
quickly the dew dries     quickly the field voles scamper off
at times like this you need to be quick     labourers
are quick to remove their jackets     to bare their arms
a whole day's work depends on a good morning start     this is how
primary school teachers educate their students     they
react with speed     the invisible world in their classrooms
the morning’s Chinese lesson     is understood on paper as
a few     set phrases left over from yesterday
at dusk     the world slows right down
the ranks of the earth slow down facing westwards
formations of corn-fields and low hills
formations of rivers and forests
formations of villages and sunflowers
everything slows down facing westward
all those shadows dragged over things slow right down
like silk wrapped round the body of night
slipping away, bolt by bolt
the potato planters     carrying their tools
mingle with the kids coming home from school
they walk slowly over the uplands
home ahead of them     not worried about time
the children dawdle
no more homework to do
the adults dawdle
because the potatoes have all been planted
they’re all so slow
as if the earth had somehow got into their bodies
but those things planted at speed
have in no sense slowed down     nor have they ever gained speed
incapable both of speed and slowness
they’ve simply begun   and all they have to do is grow
is be     from morning to night
from spring to autumn
neither hurried nor slow     right to the very end

The Naming of a Crow

from somewhere invisible the crow kicks aside blocks of autumn cloud with its toes
and dives into the sky in my eyes hung with the wind and the light
the sign of the crow sulphur brew of a nun of black night
croaking and piercing a hole in a flocking bird mattress
to perch on a branch in my heart
just as in the days of my youth conquering crows’ nests in the treetops of my home town
my hands will never again touch that autumn landscape
hands scaling another tall tree intending to pluck another crow
from its darkness
crow once it was a kind of bird meat a pile of feathers and entrails
now a desire for narrative the impulse to speech
and perhaps it is self-consolation in the face of adversity
escape from a mass of inauspicious shadow
this kind of labour is invisible compared to childhood days
reaching with my bravest hand into black nests full of pointed beaks this is even more difficult
when a crow perches in the wilds of my heart
what I wish to give voice to is not is symbol not its metaphor or its mythology
what I wish to give voice to is crow just as in years gone by
I never found dove in a crow’s nest
since childhood my hands have been covered in the thick calluses of language
but as a poet I have never given voice to a crow

with the circumspection and far-sightedness of age proficiency in various inspirations styles and rhymes
just as when one begins to write dipping the brush deep into the ink-well
I thought that the syllables had to be drenched in black from the very start to handle this crow
skin flesh and bones the flows of the blood as well as
the flight-paths disclosed in the sky all drenched in black
a crow begins in this blackness in flight towards an outcome drenched in black
from the moment of birth it enters into solitude and prejudice
into universal persecution, pursuit and capture
no bird it is crow
in a world full of evil every single second
ticks its ten thousand pretexts in the name of the forces of light or beauty
guns are trained on this living representative of the powers of darkness and fired
but for all that it cannot escape beyond the bounds of crow-being
neither fly higher encroaching on eagle territory
nor condescend to the lowly realm of the ants
cave-maker of the skies both its own black hole and black drill-bit
on high and alone from the heights of a crow
it sets a course according to its bearings its time its passengers
it is one happy-go-lucky big-mouthed crow
and outside it the world is a mere fabrication
no more than the boundless inspiration of crow
you people the vastness of the land and the sky the vastness beyond the vastness
you people Yu Jian and ensuing generations of readers
are nothing but food in the nest of a crow

I thought that a few dozen words would be enough to handle this crow
description has made it a black box in words
but I do not know who holds the key to the box
who thinks up secret codes in crow-darkness
in another description it appeared as a priest wearing puttees
beneath the mighty walls of Heaven, this holy one in search of an entrance
but I know now that the abode of the crow is closer to God than the priest’s
perhaps while perched on the spire of a church one day
it saw the fair body of the Nazarene
when I describe the crow as a swan nourished on the everlasting blackness of night
the actual bird shining with the light of a swan flies past that radiant swamp beside me
and at once I lose all faith in this metaphor
I attach the verb to descend to its wings
yet it soars to the Ninth Heaven like a jet
I call it taciturn and it immediately comes to rest on wordless
as I look at this lawless wild witch-bird
a swarm of verbs is drawn to my head crow verbs
I cannot utter tongue fastened down with rivets
I see them speeding up into the sky vaulting
diving down into the sunlight then gathering again above the clouds
leisurely and carefree forming crow-motion pictures

that day like a hollow-hearted scarecrow I stood in an empty field
and all my thoughts were steeped in crow
I clearly sensed that crow felt its dark flesh
its dark heart but I could not escape the sunless fortress
as it soared so I soared
how would I ever get back out of crow in order to catch it
that day when I looked up into the blue sky each crow was already drenched in darkness
a corpse-eating crowd I should have turned a blind eye earlier in the sky of my home town
I stalked them once so innocent then
a whiff of the stink of death and I’d panic and loosen my grip
as for the sky I should have kept my eyes on the skylarks white cranes
how I love and understand those beautiful angels
but one day I saw a bird
an ugly bird the colour of crow
hanging from the grey ropes of the sky
with mangled legs stiff and straight as the limbs of a puppet
in crooked flight on the slopes of the sky
circling a centre of some kind out tracing
an enormous insubstantial circle
and I heard a chorus of ominous cawings
suspended somewhere out of sight
and I wanted to say something
to declare to the world that I was not afraid
of those invisible sounds

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