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    Friends, Real and Imagined: The Poetry of Wang Yin

    The longtime poet’s new collection, “A Summer Day in the Company of Ghosts,” searches for companionship in an often lonely world.
    Mar 25, 2023#literature

    This article was originally published by The Asian Review of Books. It has been republished here with permission.

    One of the first poems in Wang Yin’s recent collection, “A Summer Day in the Company of Ghosts,” finds the Chinese poet in an unexpected place: Vermont.

    “The Task of the Poet, Written in Vermont After Robert Bly” opens with a pastoral scene on a front lawn, where the poet peacefully observes — and records — the sights and sensations of a slow suburban morning.

    Not yet noon
    A black dog comes running up the lawn
    The gardener tidies up flowering shrubs under the windows
    His wife sits in a chair beneath the tree
    Cheeks suddenly burn hot as
    Sunlight slips through the gaps between leaves
    And the lawn flickers from light to dark
    Marking the moment when clouds drift past

    The sudden sound of the weed-cutter’s motor
    Breaks the reverie of the spirit of this place
    I shouldn’t write poems I haven’t gotten around to writing yet
    Or poems about this place
    Instead, I should open my ears and listen
    To the cracking of iron
    Thousands of miles away

    Just as Wang begins to immerse himself in the natural scene before him, the grating sound of a lawn mower interrupts, reminding him of the wider world he is trying to cut himself off from. By the end of the poem, Wang realizes he has led himself astray by coming here to write: the poetic subjects that call to Wang are not those found in this idyllic American landscape. They are more akin to the city: industrial, cold, active, and loud.

    Mysterious, introspective, clever, and wistful, “A Summer Day in the Company of Ghosts,” newly translated into English by Andrea Lingenfelter, captures the profound loneliness and bewilderment of modernity together with its strange, surrealist beauty. Presented bilingually in English and Chinese, “A Summer Day” traces Wang’s nearly 40-year career over the span of five books: “Recitation (1981-87),” “House of Spirits (1987-88),” “A Summer Day in the Company of Ghosts (1990-93),” “Limelight/Greylight (1993-2004),” and “The Evening of My Life Has Come Too Late (2015-2021).” A sixth section of new, previously unpublished poems accompanies the older selections.

    Throughout, Wang transforms the modern metropolis — the predominant setting of the book, whether Shanghai or Katowice or Paris — into a melancholic dreamscape of rainy mornings and sleepless nights, wry meetings and nostalgic contemplations. As he travels the world, people and places lose any sense of concreteness, becoming instead ghostly yet vivid impressions. While on a plane:

    Flying towards a borderland of rain
    the Boeing 757 in its rigid pose
    steals some rest in flight
    Paper phantoms sit beside me
    watching a two-hour movie
    The blue stewardess hands me an ice-cold cola
    Jello quakes faintly in a foil cup
    The wings expose their bones

    As Lingenfelter notes in the translator’s preface, Wang inherits his atmospheric style partially from the Misty Poets, a generation of Chinese poets whose writing challenged realist literary norms of the time through hazy imagery and obscure metaphors. In addition, Wang draws inspiration from American Deep Image poets — like Robert Bly — who were interested in the emotional and experiential resonances afforded by a close attention to a particular image, as well as from photography and the visual arts generally. Wang blends these influences together to create dramatic and intensely visual — and sometimes political — scenes, like his 1983 poem “Thinking about a Czech Film, but I Can’t Remember the Title”:

    Cobblestone streets, soaking wet
    Prague, soaking wet
    On a corner by the park a girl kisses you
    You do not blink
    Later as you face the guns you still don’t blink
    Waffen-SS rain slickers inside out
    like shiny leather overcoats
    A three-wheeled motorbike speeds by
    When you and your friends fall to the ground
    rain is still falling
    I see one raindrop and another raindrop
    chasing along a powerline
    and finally tumbling to the cobblestone road
    I think of you
    lips moving
    No one sees

    Despite such darkness found in the city, “A Summer Day” also contains surprising pockets of companionship. Wang is often in a friend’s or lover’s company no matter where in the world he is — even if that company is spectral. In the poem “Talking Through the Night With Robert Bly,” Wang communes again with the American poet:

    Thick grasses in the night
    No one has left footprints here in a long time
    I haven’t thought about you in a long time
    your solitary chin flickering
    like that red star up in the sky

    Throughout “A Summer Day,” the poem itself becomes a space for conversation and companionship despite loneliness — a place for connection. In the poem “To Liang Xiaoming,” Wang shares the space of the page with his contemporary: “On the same sheet of paper / your hand rests beside mine.” Indeed, many of Wang’s poems include second-person subjects, and in repeatedly addressing this familiar “you” over the course of the entire collection, Wang builds a sense of closeness with the reader. Having that friend, whether real or imagined, provides enough solace for the poet:

    You should know how happy it makes me to imagine you
    in an utterly unfamiliar city
    like Jerusalem or Marrakesh, or Johnson, Vermont
    or some other city whose name neither of us can pronounce

    The structure of “A Summer Day” contains a twist: the book in fact follows Wang’s poetic career backward starting with his most recent writing and moving to his earliest works by the end, endowing the whole book with an odd but satisfying sense of return. It is a strangely poignant feeling to arrive at the end of a book’s life to find the beginning of the author’s, like seeing for the first time a childhood photograph of a long-time friend.

    Reviewed by Lily Nilipour.

    (Header image: Shijue/VCG)