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The Blossoming of Bei Dao

The Rose of Time by Bei Dao

Marly Youmans

  The Rose of Time: New & Selected Poems.
Bei Dao.
New Directions Publishing, 2009.
288 pages, $16.95 (paperback).
ISBN: 0811218481 (Library of Congress).
Buy at Amazon.

For a collection of new and selected poems, Bei Dao chose a title poem that stressed human flowering and change over time.

when a pen draws the horizon
you're awakened by a gong from the East
to bloom in the echoes is
the rose of time

in the mirror there is always this moment
this moment leads to the door of rebirth
the door opens to the sea
the rose of time

A pen-line awakens echoes from the place where the sun and Chinese poetry rise, enforcing new life and forcing bloom. Self-scrutiny and strangeness of mirrors lead to transformation: a Magritte-like door onto sea, generative and vast. Ink and the examination of the reflected self on a flat plane like a sheet of paper or a computer screen point to the repeated unfolding of a larger life.

Red Guard teen, laborer, man whose poems were claimed by the Democracy Movement, wanderer who knows delay and "sorrow of the road," exile who speaks to mirrors, family man, and older poet: these selves are present in The Rose of Time. Each steps through doors of birth.

The poems can be opaque, resistant, "setting alphabets upside down," showing their genesis in a China where the author had to discover language that could play a game of hide-and-speak. A priest of words becomes "lost in prayer," someone finds an "air shaft" that leads "to another era," and "escapees climb over the wall." Even now, a poet must fear a homeland that has "lost its memory" to materialism. Even the birches debate whether to "sacrifice themselves for art or doors."

Much is on offer here; I longed for more. Bei Dao is praised for the musicality of his vernacular Chinese. I missed having some sense of that virtue. I wanted transliteration so that I could attempt to hear, particularly when a poem seemed somewhat flat in the English version. My ideal would be a volume of poems with a CD of readings tucked inside.

I wished for critical notes, in part because the poet relies on images that appear loosely connected by syntax or association but may or may not be bound more tightly than appears in translation. A typical example: in the little poem, "The Way Back," I wanted to know if using "leaves" in a way that suggests both departure and trees reflected any dual elements in the original or simply the translator's reluctance to choose, and whether line two linked to line one, three, or both. The translations made me wonder about allusions to other writers (particularly Chinese contemporaries), proverbial sayings, and long-familiar expressions—when I read "death's door," is that an equivalent of some Chinese expression?

Bei Dao is regarded by many as the foremost living Chinese poet. I look forward to an edition that will more clearly argue his case, reveal the music of his words, and set him in context.

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