Day 20/30 - six four

I was reminded by a friends’s FB post that 2 days ago was June 4th. Today’s poem is in memory of that. 

When the TianAnMen incident happened in June 1989, I was 15. At that time, like many “woke” teenagers today, I was consuming news about the world as much as I could. I remember watching and reading about the dramatic encounters on that square of that ancient civilization and massive nation on the cusp of modernization. And the aftermath of that encounter. We were at the turn of a decade, a century - no, a millennia. And even for those outside of China, the confrontation on that square was amidst the rumblings that would lead to the Berlin Wall coming down, the breaking up of USSR, and closer to home, the narrative of emerging Asian tiger economies, our own political dissonances, and I remember, a really exciting slate of filmmakers from China, HK, Taiwan were getting recognized on film festivals around the world. 

In university I picked up a bilingual edition of Chinese poet BeiDao’s Old Snow (1991).  BeiDao was a seminal poet for that generation - and post-TianAnMen lived in exile. 

This poem “Celebrating the Festival” bears a note by the translators (Bonnie McDougall & Chen Maiping) that “festival” refers to June4 as the students who occupied TianAnMen had quoted Marx to the effect that revolution is the people’s festival. This poem is an example of how powerful imagery can be - and how with simple words, a poet can conjure scenes of desolation - that even an orange in the window can be, simultaneously, both an image of hope and its false construction. He gives us imagery at a mythological scale, and then swings immediately to the other extreme of a village scene. Every line plays with your emotional lens - we encounter a kind of ancient evil, then an abstract loneliness, the promise of a rural idyll, but wait, why are the dead fields eerily smiling and what, there’s an abandoned parking lot with either a village idiot or a government posterboy - is there a difference? 

It really is a powerful example of how poetry can represent a generation’s tragedy and also historic change. I do not think that those on that square, however complex their motivations and whichever side(s) they are on, thinks of poetry as a luxury.

Celebrating the Festival
The poisonous snake flaunts a nail in its mouth
on earth abides the silence
of snakes which swallow birds’ eggs
all clocks and watches
stop at the dreamless moment
a bumper harvest gathers in
the smiling faces of dead fields
people with paired shadows
who set out from the mercury mirror
take the family wheels
to market
in an abandoned parking lot
a local hero
is singing

The glass shines bright
the orange gleams.

(The original Chinese is in the second image. The cover of the book features a work by artist ShaoFei, BeiDao’s wife. Incidentally, the word snow 雪in Chinese is a combination of the radicals for rain and hand - makes sense huh, rain that you can hold in your hands.)


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