Chapter 4 Invisibility

In: In Search of Singularity
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Joanna Krenz
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The poetics and processes discussed in the previous two chapters all belong to what is usually considered the mainstream of contemporary poetry in Poland and China. Leaving behind the more and less substantive negotiations of poetic territories and hierarchies, in this chapter we will explore the less visible but no less powerful forces that played a crucial role in shaping the topography of the national poetries at the turn of the century. The significance of these forces was long underestimated in literary-critical discourse, when all eyes were instead locked on the poets who had come to make revolution, to dethrone and enthrone, desecrate and canonize, those who occupied the theatrical and musical stages. But when the dust of the feuds and polemics settled, the contours of a new landscape emerged in both countries and the accumulated effects of literary-critical discourse’s longtime persistent transformation by hidden, subcutaneous energies could no longer be ignored. The new landforms ranged from vast plateaus and valleys with peaceful and beautiful surroundings to single mountain peaks that offered little more than a difficult climb.

The protagonists of this chapter are four women poets: Wisława Szymborska and Wang Xiaoni 王小妮 in section two and Krystyna Miłobędzka and Zhai Yongming 翟永明 in section three. To continue the landscape metaphor, Szymborska’s and Wang’s poetry resemble isolated peaks on the horizon, while Miłobędzka’s and Zhai’s writing creates a broad expanse for others to develop and nourish. These poetics have flourished particularly abundantly since the beginning of the twenty-first century, hence the many connections that we will observe between this and the final chapter, which speaks of the most recent phenomena in Polish and Chinese poetry, including new approaches to language poetry and diverse experiments with ecopoetry, technologically supported poetry (cyberpoetry, AI poetry), and other forms of symbiosis between poetry and various disciplines of knowledge. However, I shall first explain what I mean by invisibility and why these particular authors have been selected for scrutiny.

1 The Meaning of Invisibility

As I anticipated in the introductory chapter, this chapter had not been intended as a chapter focused exclusively on women poets. Rather, I had hoped to offer a counterbalance to the phenomena discussed in chapters 2 and 3 that made poetry of the 1990s a political and tremendously adversarial activity, often detracting from the sense of intimacy and disinterested artistic, intellectual, and/or spiritual experience that many readers crave when reaching for a text in verse. Initially, I had included a compairative study of two male authors, but ultimately I found their propositions aesthetically and philosophically less convincing, and decided to give more space to the female quartet instead.

It is quite symptomatic that speaking of invisible men—especially the today almost proverbial “white straight men”—conventionally invokes associations with misanthropic geniuses or otherwise outstanding individuals who retire to their ivory towers to pursue higher goals that are unavailable to the masses; this is, for instance, what Wojaczek’s and Haizi’s legends partly hinge on. Invisible women, in turn, are—by default—housewives who silently contribute to the greater visibility of their male partners, relieving them of trivial burdens so that they might focus on “more important” public affairs. While men’s invisibility is associated with a quest for the transcendental, women’s invisibility is reduced to purely social context and axiologized, depending on one’s point of view, as a social virtue (by those who believe it is good for a man to have a woman sitting quietly at home) or as a form of social injustice or failure (namely, a woman’s failure to make her own way in a male-dominated world—or her fear, or perhaps lack of self-awareness, to do so). While men’s invisibility is liberating, women need to be liberated from their invisibility. While men’s invisibility is poetic, women’s invisibility is prosaic. Et cetera. The four authors discussed here complicate this cliché. Although, having gained popularity and respect among literary audiences, they could presumably live a visible life in the limelight, all of them, for different reasons, chose invisibility, not as a passive condition but as an active position, being aware of—and knowing how to maximally tap into—its potential.

In 2019, within the period of just one month, between early February and early March, two hugely different, widely echoing woman-authored studies on invisibility came out in the US, which illustrate what I mean by the distinction between passive and active invisibility, namely Caroline Criado Perez’s Invisible Women: Data Bias in a World Designed for Men and Akiko Busch’s How to Disappear: Notes on Invisibility in a Time of Transparency. Criado Perez makes a convincing case demonstrating how inherently biased and incomplete Big Data distorts the image of the world and leads to a situation whereby the everyday needs of women are ignored in various spheres of life, ranging from the seemingly trivial (e.g., the architecture of public toilets or the design of cell phones) to the glaringly significant (e.g., the composition of drugs or the construction of vehicle safety systems).1 Busch, in her turn, shows what she believes to be a perk of invisibility in the world of Big Data, where identity is “curated” in various ways, which “refers to the self-promotion, personal branding, and ability to create and cultivate assorted profiles—consumer, social, political, professional—on social media that are viewed as valued, indeed essential, commodities.”2 She advocates for invisibility as a desirable mode of existence, claiming:

When identity is derived from projecting an image in the public realm, something is lost, some core of identity diluted, some sense of authority or interiority sacrificed. It is time to question the false equivalency between not being seen and hiding. And time to reevaluate the merits of the inconspicuous life, to search out some antidote to continuous exposure, and to reconsider the value of going unseen, undetected, or overlooked in this new world. […]. The impulse to escape notice is not about complacent isolation or senseless conformity, but about maintaining identity, propriety, autonomy, and voice. It is not about retreating from the digital world but about finding some genuine alternative to a life of perpetual display. It is not about mindless effacement but mindful awareness. Neither disgraceful nor discrediting, such obscurity can be vital to our very sense of being, a way of fitting in with the immediate social, cultural, or environmental landscape. Human endeavor can be something interior, private, and self-contained. We can gain, rather than suffer, from deep reserve.3

For all the self-evident differences between Criado Perez’s and Busch’s approaches, there is no essential conflict between them. The two propositions should be considered mutually complementary rather than mutually contradictory. Criado Perez, in many places, signals that increasing women’s visibility by making them fit into the structures designed by and for men is not an ultimate solution but rather a temporary emergency measure. For example, discussing the job market, she points out that, unlike women, who tend to be quite realistic in their self-assessment, men’s self-assessment is usually inadequately high compared to their actual abilities. She criticizes Google’s well-intentioned initiative to hold workshops for women to “fix” them and encourage them to nominate themselves for promotion, as men do. “In other words, they held workshops to encourage women to be more like men. But why should we accept that the way men do things, the way men see themselves, is the correct way?,” asks the author, and adds: “Recent research has emerged showing that while women tend to assess their intelligence accurately, men of average intelligence think they are more intelligent than two-thirds of people.”4 Criado Perez also cites seemingly gender-neutral job adverts in which the criteria for applicants are formulated in a way that discourages women from applying, not because they feel they do not deserve the position, but because they simply do not share the worldview they are expected to conform to; they do not feel like being, for example, “aggressive and competitive.” One digital design company, for instance, observed that “when they changed the wording of their ad for a senior design role to focus more on teamwork and user experience and less on bombastic single-minded egotism,” the number of women’s applications grew immediately. “The role was the same, but the framing was different—and the number of female applicants more than doubled,” comments Criado Perez.5

Busch, without explicitly inscribing her own reflection into feminist discourse, actually puts Criado Perez’s implicit postulates into practice and works to create social demand for what many women can, and are willing to, contribute on their own terms to make the world a better place. Her attitude is shared by the four poets discussed in this chapter, who, each in her own individual way, develop affirmative projects of invisible existence in the most positive sense of the term, as an alternative to the dominant image of a successful life.

2 At Home in the World: Wisława Szymborska and Wang Xiaoni

This section has an autobiographical background, which I described extensively in the introductory chapter. In China, events such as the 2016 Gansu poetry festival are not rare. Heather Inwood’s book Verse Going Viral: China’s New Media Scenes (2014) offers a more elaborate account of this form of artistic activity and explains the cultural and economic mechanisms behind it that allow a businessman to become a poet and a poet to become a superstar. One recent example of such poetic stardom is Chen Ang 陈昂 (b. 1992), who first became famous for a poem about the Sichuan earthquake in 2008 he submitted for a competition. Today he is a TV celebrity and social activist. He was only twenty-five when, in 2017, Lin Xinrong 林新荣 published his biography Poetry Prince Chen Ang (诗歌王子陈昂). Maghiel van Crevel’s long fieldwork essay, titled “Walk on the Wild Side: Snapshots of the Chinese Poetry Scene” (2017), among many other fascinating observations, also provides insights into poetry as a particularly robust and eventful branch of the “culture economy,” which abounds in all sorts of social-literary (with the emphasis on social) initiatives: “the muchness and the speed of it are out of this world.”6

Against such a background, Wang Xiaoni’s model of poethood and her poetry of intimacy, modesty, understatement, and tactful whimsicality may not seem to be the most efficient strategy to draw the attention of wider audiences and gain broader recognition. But reality has shown the opposite. Her success on the national and international poetry scene, partly reflected in the number of prestigious prizes she has won (including the Lucien Stryk Award for a collection compiled and translated by Eleanor Goodman), achieved without any self-promotion, provocation, or even active participation in local poetic current affairs, allows one to conclude with moderate optimism that good poetry can speak for itself. I say moderate optimism because of course we will never know how much good poetry has failed to find readers for reasons that were anything but poetic, gender bias being one of them.

Poland, too, is known for the dynamism of its poetry scene, but, unlike in China, this is commercialized only to a very small extent. In the business world, poetry writing is almost taboo. And vice versa: business in poetry is taboo, too. Still, there is some kind of splendor and prestige that poets enjoy, especially compared to Western European countries; big festivals, poetry contests, or readings by well-known authors usually attract wide audiences in Poland, and public appearances of the Great Four often received broad media coverage. Wisława Szymborska dodged such public attention as far as she could, cherishing private, interpersonal communication instead. She is known for the handmade cards that she would make and send to her friends (many among the cultural elites) and for the quirky gifts that she would buy for them on her travels in which her famous taste for kitsch manifested itself.

Since 1996, when she was awarded Nobel Prize in Literature, dozens of anecdotes have circulated in Poland about her reaction. Her secretary, Michał Rusinek, recalls:

When, one year earlier, the Nobel Prize in Literature had been awarded to the Irish poet Seamus Heaney, Szymborska had sighed with relief. It had seemed very unlikely that in the near future another poet from Europe (as Barańczak adds, not just from Europe but from another Catholic country with a stormy history where potatoes constitute a staple food) would have received the prize […]. Her friends had been making whimsical remarks that she was probably the only poet in the world who did not want to win the Nobel, being afraid of the pandemonium the prize causes in one’s life. But the next year, in line with the principle that everybody gets what they want the least, the Swedish Academy decided to award Szymborska, “for poetry that with ironic precision allows the historical and biological context to come to light in fragments of human reality.”7

Marcin Świetlicki remembers the situation differently. One day, after some social event at Catholic Weekly (Tygodnik Powszechny), Szymborska invited several people for tea. Most of them quickly sought excuses to reject the invitation. Świetlicki wanted to go but was afraid that someone may “think something bad about us.” Two weeks later, Szymborska won the Nobel. “This makes you think. She was treated like a nice literary auntie. And then, suddenly, a Nobel,” comments Świetlicki.8 He mentions that he was unable to relish Szymborska’s success because he was concerned about her health and that she would be overwhelmed.9 Comparing Rusinek’s and Świetlicki’s accounts, for example, with the portrait of Wang Xiaoni sketched by her husband, the avant-garde poet Xu Jingya 徐敬亚, in his essay “My Wife Poet Wang Xiaoni” (我的诗人妻子王小妮), cited more extensively later in this section, one may venture that she would react to such honors in a similar way.

It is unlikely that Wang has never read Szymborska. Nevertheless, the many convergences between their respective poems that we will observe in this chapter are arguably not an effect of inspiration or intended dialogue with the Polish poet, for both authors tend to draw their material directly from their surrounding reality unmediated by texts, at least not in a way that would allow one to trace consistent influences. Rather, this is an effect of their similar sensibility and, perhaps to some extent, a consequence of the more general mode of artistic subjectivity they both adopted early on, whether consciously or otherwise, as the most fitting to their personalities.

2.1 Invisible Androgyne

For all the uniqueness of her idiom, Wisława Szymborska is, in many ways, very representative of Polish women poets, especially though not limited to those of the Columbus and New Wave Generations. Among authors born in the 1960s and 1970s, her model of womanhood and poethood is not uncommon either. It is characterized by a suspicion of male-dominated mainstream structures, not because they are created or shaped by men, but because the poet does not share the values on which they are built and/or the way in which they function. Instead of taking men as a crucial—be it positive or negative—point of reference, women authors who subscribe to this model construct their poetics on an alternative ethos and hierarchy of interests, needs, and goals, without hostility toward the world ruled by the men but also without expecting any particular support, if only a generous gesture of transferring part of the male-occupied territory into women’s hands. Anna Nasiłowska connects this attitude to what she identifies as female androgyny, “a typical formula of modernist individualism,” which proved particularly appealing in Poland in the twentieth century; besides Szymborska, its impact is visible in the work of authors such as Julia Hartwig (1921–2017), and earlier Kazimiera Iłłakowiczówna (1892–1983). Nasiłowska proposes:

It is, I feel, something more than an adventure of sex/gender [przygoda płci] in times of Young Poland [Młoda Polska], an epoch that was particularly inimical to women. This is the starting point from which we can observe the development of one of the most frequent models of the self, related to emancipatory efforts of women. The androgynous “I” defines herself vis-à-vis the world per se and does not consider the relationship with a man as the only, the most important, or the privileged model based on which one’s self-narrative can be developed. Of course, in many cases women poets can be seen as simply submitting to the dominant pattern, yet it should be emphasized that androgyneity does not imply a lack of female self-identification but rather its coexistence with models that are culturally identified as “more male” and, at the same time, the awareness of the nonfinality of all definitions, of the liquidity that is “underneath.” At the beginning of the previous century such self-identification required independence and courage. Today, this option is no longer as distinct and legible as in the past. But it has its continuations, and it is these continuations that constitute the main voice of poetry created by women.10

Obviously, the above formula is not a specifically Polish formula. One couldn’t not mention Virginia Woolf, the first advocate of female androgyny, and her famous book A Room of One’s Own (1929), which ends with what she calls a “peroration,” encouraging women:

When I rummage in my own mind I find no noble sentiments about being companions and equals and influencing the world to higher ends. I find myself saying briefly and prosaically that it is much more important to be oneself than anything else. Do not dream of influencing other people, I would say, if I knew how to make it sound exalted. Think of things in themselves.11

Its “continuations,” as Nasiłowska has it, among famous figures in the contemporary humanities outside Poland can be identified, for instance, in the work of Hannah Arendt who was cited in chapter 1 as a proponent of vita contemplativa, a necessary counterbalance to vita activa. Woolf’s words echo in Arendt’s response to Günter Gaus in their conversation in 1964:

You ask about the effects of my work on others. If I may wax ironical, that is a masculine question. Men always want to be terribly influential, but I see that as somewhat external. Do I imagine myself being influential? No. I want to understand. And if others understand—in the same sense that I have understood—that gives me a sense of satisfaction, like feeling at home.12

Arendt’s utterance brings to mind a famous experiment carried out by scholars from the University of Virginia and Harvard University in 2014 that suggests that women indeed seem to have greater predisposition to invisibility, taken in a positive sense, which preserves a healthy proportion between the active and the contemplative in life. The research showed that as much as 67% of men, and only 25% of women, were unable to sit in silence, alone with their thoughts, for 6–15 minutes, a skill that should be quite useful in writing poetry. To stimulate themselves, men, almost three times more often than women, took an irrational choice to press a button that gave them an unpleasant electric shock in the ankle, even though before the experiment they had declared that they would never agree to inflict this shock on themselves and had been willing to pay money to avoid it. One of the participants used the button 190 times within just a quarter hour.13

Drawing far-reaching conclusions from a small experiment in laboratory conditions is unjustified. Indeed, establishing the possible reasons behind, and implications of, the observed differences between men and women in the experiment would require thorough discussion. Still, it should be safe to say that the research illustrates that women tend to be psychologically more independent of their surroundings, meaning, as the researchers suggest, that they do not need so many external sensations to stimulate and organize their mental reality.14 This makes them more capable of invisible existence in the sense ascribed to the word by Akiko Busch. Men, on the other hand, even if they declare their desire to disappear, often tend to romanticize and theatricalize invisibility, turning it thus into its opposite. This is what Wang Jiaxin, for one, does when he fantasizes that if he had been born in the US in the nineteenth century, he might have been Emily Dickinson—in the same interview, cited in chapter 2, in which he discusses the communion of souls or the necessity of taking a “breathturn” at the graves of the Great Masters of world poetry. Frankly, it is difficult to imagine Dickinson doing such things. Oftentimes, when a male poet puts on an invisibility cloak, a limb still sticks out and, after taking several heavy steps, he stumbles and falls, exposing his not-so-transparent intentions. Perhaps a little light physical training—such as several centuries of foot-binding or corset wearing—would help remedy his clumsiness.

But jibes aside, it can certainly be argued that what I call the psychological independence of women is in fact a mechanism developed in reaction to their longtime suppression and social dependence on men, and that gains in this case are not necessarily equal to pains. However, even if the above hypothesis of the inglorious social origins of this difference is true, this should not diminish the achievement of those women who, instead of mulling over their victimhood or militantly settling accounts with the patriarchal system, have transformed their seemingly underprivileged—in the male understanding of privilege—situation into a precious aesthetic, intellectual, and/or spiritual asset. Patiently observing external reality, carefully selecting what they find valuable there, and rejecting everything else without regret, because they never actually identified themselves with it, these women created their own unique universes. As the man-made world threatens to go out of joint today, gradually pushed out of its orbit by its own madness, these universes have been attracting ever-bigger cohorts of intellectual and spiritual refugees. Once they arrive, they come to realize that the place is not just a cozy bunker in which to wait out the apocalypse but rather something of a rabbit hole that leads to a whole new dimension, as in Alice in Wonderland, a favorite book of Krystyna Miłobędzka, to which we will return in section 3 of this chapter.

To add credibility to my statement, I shall invoke at least one utterance of a male reader. In 2015, White Pine Press published the first, and thus far the only, English-language anthology of women poets edited by Karen Kovacik, titled Scattering the Dark. For many foreign readers, this was the first opportunity to familiarize themselves with female-authored poetry in Poland. In Miłosz’s famous anthology Postwar Polish Poetry from 1965, among the twenty-five featured authors there were only three women: Wisława Szymborska, Anna Swir (Świrszczyńska) (1909–1984), and Urszula Kozioł (b. 1931). Exactly the same proportion is found in the 2003 anthology Altered State: The New Polish Poetry edited by Rod Mengham, Tadeusz Pióro, and Piotr Szymor, which consists mostly of the works of the Brulion Generation; the three women selected by the editors are Julia Fiedorczuk (b. 1975), Marzanna Kielar (b. 1963), and Marta Podgórnik (b. 1979). One of the blurbs on the back cover of Scattering the Dark was written by Robert Hass, a respected poet, friend, and translator of Czesław Miłosz, and an admirer of Zbigniew Herbert’s work. Hass does not hide his delight and astonishment:

Wow! What a book! American readers are well aware of the powerful tradition of Polish poetry that produced Miłosz and Herbert and Różewicz and Szymborska. Here is something else—the tradition of women’s writing that flows out of the work of Szymborska and Anna Swir and Julia Hartwig and Ewa Lipska. This book also gives us a chance to see something else—the way this mighty tradition turns in the hands of a younger generation from the traumatic history of their country to a poetics of everyday life, of play, experiment, the poetics of a postmodern condition. An absolutely rich and appealing book.15

There are conceivably many social factors that contributed to the inception of the hybrid model identified by Woolf as female androgyny among Polish women poets in the first decades of the twentieth century, including things as different as, on the one hand, the spectacular success of Maria Skłodowska-Curie, a Nobel laureate in two “male” disciplines: physics in 1903 and chemistry in 1911 (Szymborska cites Skłodowska-Curie in her own Nobel lecture), and, on the other hand, a strong matriarchal trait in the social model adopted by indigenous Slavic communities, which in the Middle Ages resulted in the development of the Mariocentric form of Christianity, in contradistinction to the Christocentric model in Western Europe. However one assesses its overall impact on Polish history, the widely spread worship of the woman who conceived a child without a man as the Queen of Poland (officially crowned so by King John Casimir in the seventeenth century) must have left an imprint on the (self-)perception of women’s role and place in society, especially in the official discourse and among the intelligentsia, as common social practice certainly left much to be desired. Although in the current social-political circumstances this might sound difficult to believe, for many centuries Poland, which still often proudly calls itself “a country without stakes” (państwo bez stosów), was actually among the most inclusive European countries, with women enjoying a high degree of status and autonomy and the rights of minorities (national, religious, sexual) broadly protected by law. This is also reflected in Polish politics of the early twentieth century. Just seventeen days after regaining independence, on November 28, 1918, a document was signed securing women’s equal voting rights.

At any rate, it is arguably largely because of the prevalence of the implicit androgynous model and its various extensions that in Polish poetry discourse there was no specific revolutionary moment that could be identified as the moment of emancipation for female authors. In general, the explicit interest in feminist activism was very limited in poetry until the early twenty-first century, when the generation born in the 1970s entered the poetry scene. In postwar verse, the female undercurrent and the mainstream gradually merged without an active emancipatory effort on the part of women, based on the unquestionable merits of their writing.

The situation in China was quite different. It is not surprising that in the country where women’s oppression for centuries took radical—and officially legitimized—forms, the answer given by women, when they found themselves in the position to speak and be heard, was radical as well. The feminist movement was of course present in the cultural life of the first half of the twentieth century, but it lost its momentum after the proclamation of the PRC, its postulates selectively incorporated into Mao’s social politics, which granted women theoretically equal rights but at the cost of masculinization and a continued neglect of their needs. The mid-1980s witnessed an eruption of “female consciousness” among the authors of the Third Generation, which triggered a long process of discourse formation described by Jeanne Hong Zhang in her pathbreaking monograph The Invention of a Discourse: Women’s Poetry from Contemporary China (2004). It was initiated by Zhai Yongming’s 1984 poem series “Woman” (女人) and its accompanying essay “Night Consciousness” (黑夜的意识). Zhai was joined by authors such as Tang Yaping 唐亚平 (b. 1962), Lu Yimin 陆忆敏 (b. 1962), and Yi Lei 伊蕾 (1951–2018), all of whom were fearless and uncompromising in breaking taboos about female physical and mental experiences and sexual desires. These authors were resolute in their postulates of the feminine awakening. Unlike in Poland, where the androgynous model was actualized but rarely actually thematized and problematized, in China this and many other concepts were explicitly raised and constituted an ideological matrix of emancipation strategies. In the case of the reception of Woolf’s concept of female androgyny, this led to what might be perceived as a somewhat paradoxical situation in which the writer who called for women’s breaking out of the system of constant, be it positive or negative, references to the male-made world, provided her Chinese followers with arguments targeted quite unanimously against male domination, instead of offering encouragement to dismantle the structure of omnipresent references to maleness, although—as we will see in the section on Zhai’s work—this has obviously been evolving in the decades since the mid-1980s .

From this perspective, Wang Xiaoni’s poetry, which grows out of the Obscure poetry (朦胧诗) movement, often referred to as the second wave of Chinese modernism, is quite unique, and arguably might be much more effectively read through the model of female androgyny than the works of the abovementioned emancipationists as one that directly embodies and implicitly reenacts its postulates. Wang, one of two female authors, along with Shu Ting 舒婷, who excelled in the hugely popular Obscure school in the early 1980s, never accepted the category of “woman poet” (女诗人) as defining her artistic identity,16 because she did not consider gender or the man/woman divide the primary criterion upon which poetry should be written, read, or classified. Instead, she in various ways emphasizes the importance of having a room of her own to perform her literary experiments unnoticed and undisturbed by anybody.

This is of course only a very rough reconstruction of the history of women-authored poetry, which does no justice to its complexity and to the complexity of the ambiguous connections between womanhood, poethood, and invisibility. But it gives an idea of the main differences between Poland and China in this regard and partly explains why Wang Xiaoni seems to be somewhat closer to the Polish “literary auntie” Szymborska than to her own coevals from the Chinese poetry scene of the 1980s and 1990s.

2.2 Experiments with Gravity and Other Natural Laws

One feature that is common to both Wisława Szymborska and Wang Xiaoni is the nearly complete separation of the art and the artist. Moreover, the detachment of their poetic work from their respective biographies goes hand in hand with the almost anevolutionary development of their oeuvres, which are characterized by a rarely seen consistency in style and themes throughout the poets’ lives. After World War II Szymborska was briefly fascinated by communism. In the first years after her recovery from the official socialist-realist aesthetics, her poems were perhaps a little more “embellished” compared to those written since roughly the mid-1960s, but one cannot speak of a significant change of diction or tone in her oeuvre. Moreover, except for some extremely subtle poems about love and the deaths of those whom she loved, one can hardly distinguish any traces of direct interaction between her personal life and poetic project at large. It would require an interpretational equilibristic to argue that one poem or another from her oeuvre reflects the mental state of the author at the time of writing. When she had a difficult time in her life—after the Nobel Prize, that is—she just put down the pen.

A similar thing could be said about Wang Xiaoni. An important event in her life that certainly shaped her perspective was her forced migration from the north of China to the south, following her husband Xu Jingya in the mid-1980s after Xu had become a target of the campaign against “spiritual pollution” and lost his job as an editor of the local journal Can Hua 参花.17 She wrote about that experience in her book of essays Exiled to Shenzhen (放逐深圳, 1995). But even in her Obscure-style poetry of the early 1980s and her recent work from the 2010s one can identify the same driving force, the same sensibility, graceful dignity, and attention to detail. In the preface to her 1997 collection My Paper Wraps My Fire (我的纸包着我的火), she explained:

For the past ten years now, I have rarely looked at magazines or newspapers. […] These days, my standard for deciding what is good writing is getting more and more simple. […] Poetry is by no means the product of profundity or of ideas. The poets of today in particular have to resist the incursions of reason, of trends and fads as if trying to avoid a virus. However, much of what I read is nothing other than viruses that “play” with their readers. An individual is only granted a certain amount of wisdom. Poets should take in everything with their latent individual consciousness. Poets must release themselves with care. I have always argued for poetry’s naturalness and accessibility: to contain a large number of things within the most ordinary language is the basic skill of the poet.18

Szymborska disliked commenting on her verse, even in private. Yet, in her Nobel lecture, in one of her very few utterances on poetry, for which she claims to have “sacrificed one poem and one feuilleton,”19 she made several important statements that help us understand the secret of her creativity. They also concur with the above utterance by Wang. Having expressed her mistrust of all those who always “know” everything from the start and are afraid to broaden their horizons not to encounter something that might undermine their certainty—among them “[a]ll sorts of torturers, dictators, fanatics, and demagogues”—Szymborska goes on to explain the source of her poetics:

This is why I value that little phrase “I don’t know” so highly. It’s small, but it flies on mighty wings. It expands our lives to include the spaces within us as well as those outer expanses in which our tiny Earth hangs suspended. If Isaac Newton had never said to himself “I don’t know,” the apples in his little orchard might have dropped to the ground like hailstones and at best he would have stooped to pick them up and gobble them with gusto. Had my compatriot Marie Skłodowska-Curie never said to herself “I don’t know”, she probably would have wound up teaching chemistry at some private high school for young ladies from good families, and would have ended her days performing this otherwise perfectly respectable job. But she kept on saying “I don’t know,” and these words led her, not just once but twice, to Stockholm, where restless, questing spirits are occasionally rewarded with the Nobel Prize.

Poets, if they’re genuine, must also keep repeating “I don’t know.” Each poem marks an effort to answer this statement, but as soon as the final period hits the page, the poet begins to hesitate, starts to realize that this particular answer was pure makeshift that’s absolutely inadequate to boot. So the poets keep on trying, and sooner or later the consecutive results of their self-dissatisfaction are clipped together with a giant paperclip by literary historians and called their “oeuvre.”

Translated by Clare Cavanagh and Stanisław Barańczak20

Some of Szymborska’s most unyielding critics—those who always “know”—did not shrink from making scathing remarks that, by and large, boil down to the argument that Szymborska compromised both herself and Polish poetry in its entirety. How can a Nobel laurate say that s/he does not know and, moreover, question the authority of another (double) Nobel laureate, Maria Skłodowska-Curie? If not Nobel laureates, then who should know? Rusinek recalls one such reaction:

In the conservative Krakow-based Time journal, one feuilletonist expressed his astonishment that “such an outstanding poet delivered such a foolish speech,” for it is clear that “the fact that someone doesn’t know something is nothing to be proud of.” A true authority, and a true nonconformist, should—polemicizing with Szymborska—acknowledge publicly only that they know. Interestingly, the same feuilletonist is an expert on Socrates.21

It would be interesting to juxtapose Szymborska’s Nobel speech with Miłosz’s lecture from 1980, some three times longer, in which Miłosz carefully traces his poetic lineage back to ancient poetry and reconstructs the history of European literatures that fed into his oeuvre and their various metaphysical and theological implications. To Szymborska, the history of poetry reinvents itself with every single thing the poet encounters. Instead of comparing the lectures, however, let’s turn to a poem that best embodies the postulates expressed in her speech, and that Miłosz famously interpreted in the spirit of his own Nobel lecture. Szymborska’s reflection on Newton’s laws of gravity will subsequently be complemented with Wang Xiaoni’s reflection on the strange disruptions of these laws caused by humans and her attempts at retrieving basic physics through poetry.

A Little Girl Tugs at the Tablecloth
She’s been in this world for over a year,
and in this world not everything’s been examined
and taken in hand.
The subject of today’s investigation
is things that don’t move by themselves.
They need to be helped along,
shoved, shifted,
taken from their place and relocated.
They don’t all want to go, e.g., the bookshelf,
the cupboard, the unyielding walls, the table.
But the tablecloth on the stubborn table
—when well-seized by its hems—
manifests a willingness to travel.
And the glasses, plates,
creamer, spoons, bowl,
are fairly shaking with desire.
It’s fascinating,
what form of motion will they take,
once they’re trembling on the brink:
will they roam across the ceiling?
fly around the lamp?
hop onto the windowsill and from there to a tree?
Mr. Newton still has no say in this.
Let him look down from the heavens and wave his hands.
This experiment must be completed.
And it will.
Translated by Clare Cavanagh and Stanisław Barańczak)22
Mała dziewczynka ściąga obrus
Od ponad roku jest się na tym świecie,
a na tym świecie nie wszystko zbadane
i wzięte pod kontrolę.
Teraz w próbach są rzeczy,
które same nie mogą się ruszać.
Trzeba im w tym pomagać,
przesuwać, popychać,
brać z miejsca i przenosić.
Nie każde tego chcą, na przykład szafa,
kredens, nieustępliwe ściany, stół.
Ale już obrus na upartym stole
—jeżeli dobrze chwycony za brzegi—
objawia chęć do jazdy.
A na obrusie szklanki, talerzyki,
dzbanuszek z mlekiem, łyżeczki, miseczka
aż trzęsą się z ochoty.
Bardzo ciekawe, jaki ruch wybiorą,
kiedy się już zachwieją na krawędzi:
wędrówkę po suficie?
lot dokoła lampy?
skok na parapet okna, a stamtąd na drzewo?
Pan Newton nie ma jeszcze nic do tego.
Niech sobie patrzy z nieba i wymachuje rękami.
Ta próba dokonana być musi.
I będzie.23

The poem was written in 2001 inspired by a real-life scene. Its heroine is Michał Rusinek’s infant daughter, Natalia. One day, when Szymborska called her secretary, he was alone at home with Natalia. When he went to another room to answer the call, leaving the girl sitting in a baby chair at the table, she performed the “experiment” described in the poem. Informed of what had happened, Szymborska exclaimed: “this is a perfect topic for a poem!” and put down the handset. A couple of weeks later, she handed a manuscript to Rusinek and asked him to type it up for her, since she never learned how to use a computer.24

Miłosz appreciated the poem and, at a poetry house party at which Szymborska was also present, he praised her work, proposing a philosophical interpretation of the described scene. The author protested, explaining that it was just a reminiscence of an authentic situation and asked Rusinek to testify. But Miłosz was not convinced and elaborated on his understanding of the text in an essay published in June 2003 in Literary Decade (Dekada Literacka) under the title “Wisława Szymborska and the Grand Inquisitor” (Wisława Szymborska i Wielki Inkwizytor). Later, he also discussed it at seminars organized in Krakow by the University of Houston.25

Miłosz read Szymborska’s text through the lens of the famous poem included in Fyodor Dostoevsky’s novel The Brothers Karamazov in which Ivan envisions the Grand Inquisitor who believes Jesus was wrong to reject the three temptations in the desert: to turn stones into bread, to jump off the mountain for the angels to carry him, and to accept rule over the earth from Satan’s hands. Ivan holds that the three temptations were Satan’s concrete proposition of fixing the laws of physics and the order of human society; the triple rejection hampered the development of an ideal society which Jesus could then establish. When Jesus comes to earth again, the Inquisitor puts God’s Son in prison and continues his own project for a perfect world. Jesus gives him a symbolic kiss, as he did to Judas after his betrayal. Miłosz interprets this gesture as a kiss of pity and mercy: acknowledging the good will of revolutionists while knowing the futility of their efforts. Miłosz’s thought takes twists and turns through Søren Kierkegaard’s and Lev Shestov’s antistoic philosophies, to finally arrive at his favorite philosopher Simone Weil and her ultimately deterministic conception of le pesanteur (the force of gravity), which can only be overcome by God’s grace. And thus—he concludes—“we can see that under Wisława Szymborska’s innocent poem an abyss stretches, in which one can immerse endlessly, some dark labyrinth, which, whether we want it or not, all of us explore in our lifetime.”26

It is difficult to refute Miłosz’s argument, for the poem indeed is open to all the contexts he mobilizes. But one should also note that Miłosz does not in fact interpret the text as such but rather interprets the (seemingly) obvious continuation of the described scene. Szymborska’s poem is but a snapshot capturing the moment of the child’s pure curiosity and stretching it out across the twenty-six lines of the poem. She writes from the point of view of a one-year-old in whose eyes everything may happen and all perspectives are open, and who really does not know the result of her action. In the final stanza, the poet leaves the child with her hand holding an edge of the tablecloth and Newton with his hand suspended in the air in a gesture of pointless warning. The experiment has not yet been completed. “It will,” but its effect is beyond the frame of the poem.

Szymborska is not interested in Newton and his commonsense laws. She is fascinated by potentiality—with multiple versions of history, all possible trajectories of development, countless what-ifs that lead to alternative realities. This is a motif that often returns in her oeuvre, and is perhaps most evident in “Astonishment” (Zdumienie), where she begins her litany of questions with:

Why, after all, this one and not the rest?
Why this specific self, not in a nest,
but a house? Sewn up not in scales, but skin?
Not topped off by a leaf, but by a face?
Why on earth now, on Tuesday of all days,
and why on earth, pinned down by this star’s pin?
In spite of years of my not being here?
Translated by Clare Cavanagh27
Czemu w zanadto jednej osobie?
Tej a nie innej? I co tu robię?
W dzień co jest wtorkiem? W domu nie gnieździe?
W skórze nie łusce? Z twarzą nie liściem?
Dlaczego tylko raz osobiście?
Właśnie na ziemi? Przy małej gwieździe?
Po tylu erach nieobecności?28

It is also present in “Among Multitudes” (W zatrzęsieniu), where the I-speaker states:

I am who I am.
A coincidence no less unthinkable
than any other.
I could have had different
ancestors, after all. I could have fluttered
from another nest
or crawled bescaled
from under another tree
Translated by Clare Cavanagh29
Jestem kim jestem.
Niepojęty przypadek
jak każdy przypadek.
Inni przodkowie
mogli być przecież moimi,
a już z innego gniazda
wyfrunęłabym,
już spod innego pnia
wypełzła w łusce.30

This poem ends with an optimistic conclusion that among all those existent possibilities, fate has been kind to her; after all, she

might have been myself minus amazement
that is,
someone completely different
Translated by Clare Cavanagh31
Mogłam być sobą—ale bez zdziwienia,
a to by oznaczało,
że kimś całkiem innym.32

This amazement is arguably a, if not the, key to her work.

Szymborska’s imagination is not that of classical physics focused on continuity and large-scale processes in the world that lend themselves to a description within classical, Newtonian laws but rather that of quantum physics, which explores the strange nature of space, time, and matter as both continuous wavelike processes and discreet microparticles in which endless possibilities are encoded. What never ceases to puzzle her is why it is such and such an option that becomes actualized and not another one that is equally logical. Although she cannot change the course of things, she can at least preserve the alternative worlds in her writing. She speaks of it in one of her “school-textbook” poems “The Joy of Writing” (Radość pisania), where a “written doe” runs through a “written forest,” and its fate is entirely in the “mortal hand” of that who writes:

Each drop of ink contains a fair supply
of hunters, equipped with squinting eyes behind their sights,
prepared to swarm the sloping pen at any moment,
surround the doe, and slowly aim their guns.
They forget that what’s here isn’t life.
Other laws, black on white, obtain.
The twinkling of an eye will take as long as I say,
and will, if I wish, divide into tiny eternities,
full of bullets stopped in mid-flight.
Not a thing will ever happen unless I say so.
Without my blessing, not a leaf will fall,
not a blade of grass will bend beneath that little hoof’s full stop.
Is there then a world
where I rule absolutely on fate?
A time I bind with chains of signs?
An existence become endless at my bidding?
The joy of writing.
The power of preserving.
Revenge of a mortal hand.
Translated by Clare Cavanagh33
Jest w kropli atramentu spory zapas
myśliwych z przymrużonym okiem,
gotowych zbiec po stromym piórze w dół,
otoczyć sarnę, złożyć się do strzału.
Zapominają, że tu nie jest życie.
Inne, czarno na białym, panują tu prawa.
Okamgnienie trwać będzie tak długo, jak zechcę,
pozwoli się podzielić na małe wieczności
pełne wstrzymanych w locie kul.
Na zawsze, jeśli każę, nic się tu nie stanie.
Bez mojej woli nawet liść nie spadnie
ani źdźbło się nie ugnie pod kropką kopytka.
Jest więc taki świat,
nad którym los sprawuję niezależny?
Czas, który wiążę łańcuchami znaków?
Istnienie na mój rozkaz nieustanne?
Radość pisania.
Możność utrwalania.
Zemsta ręki śmiertelnej.34

Wang Xiaoni’s own play with Newton (or, perhaps, her playing Newton) begins in 1995 when she restores the classical notion of gravity in the poem “Suspended in Midair” (悬空而挂), which may be interpreted as Wang’s rejection of elevated poetics, and her declared interest in the, literally, down-to-earth aesthetics of everyday life:

Suspended in Midair
What a sin had they committed
that they were so desperately hanged?
Hanging on high
these objects flutter in the wind.
Eyeless waiting.
Umbrella. Crab apple.
Flowerpot. Maize.
I fear they will fall all of a sudden.
I want to liberate you from your hanging.
Here
hanging amounts to violating my laws.
I want everything to come back on the ground
I will cushion the land meaning all that is not ocean
with soft lamb wool.
I will collect fragrance finer than flower pollen.
I will make animals like hot springs
wear soles stuck to their paws to soften their steps.
I see the Sun and the Moon
throwing calm light on earth’s surface
and then black and white enter the world,
and things take shapes and colors.
The entire earth
flourishes because of me.
Like children of different height
sitting on the ground.
My bright red jewelry was still bumping.
But now it too obediently returned to the ground.
And with my free hand
I’m touching the peak of all things.
1995
《悬空而挂》
犯什么重罪
它们被绝望地悬挂?
高悬
那些半空中随风飘荡的物体。
没有眼睛的等待。
雨伞。海棠。
花盆。老玉米。
我害怕突然的坠落。
我要解放你们于高悬。
在我这儿
悬挂就是违反了我的法律。
我要让万物落地
我在海洋以外的全部陆地
铺晒羔羊的软毛。
接住比花粉更细微的香气。
让野兽,像温泉
贴着鞋底缓走。
我看见日月
把安详的光扑散在地面
世界才有了黑白
有了形色。
整个大地
因为我而满盈。
像高矮不同的孩子们
席地而坐。
我红亮的珠宝还在蹦跳。
它现在落地为安。
我正用疏松的手
摸过万物细密之顶。
199535

It might be said that Wang Xiaoni performs exactly what Mou Sen 牟森 did with Yu Jian’s 于坚 “File 0” (0 档案) on stage: she knocks nouns off from on high to release their kinetic energy and make them work in the world, moving her audiences. But, unlike Mou and Yu, who throw apples in the industrial fan, Wang does not want to smash or hurt them, nor does she want to create havoc. She paves the floor with wool to amortize falling nouns. This is one example of how her irony works—subtly ridiculing those who place umbrellas and crab apples in midair while at the same time alleviating the strangeness of the world they have arranged with her gentle imagery. By cushioning the fall, she also protects her privacy. What if the neighbors downstairs hear the sound? Perhaps they will come to see what happened? And this is the least desirable thing in Wang’s plan. She brings the things down to earth, back to grounded reality, where she can observe them and contemplate their reach in solitude, and not share with those who would fail to comprehend. Perhaps, similarly to Szymborska, she believes that there are experiences that can only be communicated through poetry. Sharing them in other ways amounts to squandering their rich potential.

To safely continue her poetic experiments with gravity at home, the poet first has to deal with the no-less-problematic laws of optics—in particular the transparence of (window) glass. In a poem written one year later, in 1996, “A Rag’s Betrayal” (一块布的背叛), the I-speaker complains that after cleaning the windows, she feels so helpless, so shamelessly and uncomfortably visible.

A Rag’s Betrayal
I didn’t imagine
after wiping the glass clean
the whole world would immediately infiltrate in.
The last shelter disappeared with the water
even the leaves thickened their eyebrows
to spy in.
I really didn’t imagine
with only two hours of work
and a rag, a huge mistake could be made.
Every thing is proficient at betrayal.
This most ancient craftsmanship
was easily done by a dirty soft rag.
Now I’m stranded in the midst of its violence.
Other people’s greatest freedom
is the freedom to see.
In this complex and beautiful spring
cubism walks across the canvas.
Everyone has gained a superhuman ability to traverse barriers
my life is penetrated in layers.
Hiding in the depths of the house
but exposed to people beyond these four walls
I am just an impoverished bared body.
A thatched peachwood chair
I hide in its wooden strips
my thoughts restless.
The earth ought to be abruptly reduced to dust
I should return
to the pit of that peach tree seed.
Only humans want secrecy
now I’d like to pass myself off
as anything but human.
Translated by Eleanor Goodman
《一块布的背叛》
我没有想到
把玻璃擦净以后
全世界立刻渗透进来。
最后的遮挡跟着水走了
连树叶也为今后的窥视
纹浓了眉线
我完全没有想到
只是两个小时和一块布
劳动,忽然也能犯下大错
什么东西都精通背叛。
这最古老的手艺
轻易地通过了一块柔软的脏布。
现在我被困在它的暴露之中
别人最大的自由
是看的自由
在这个复杂又明媚的春天
立体主义者走下画布。
每一个人都获得了剖开障碍的神力
我的日子正被一层层看穿
躲在家的最深处
却袒露在四壁以外的人
我只是裸露无遗的物体。
一张横竖交错的桃木椅子
我藏在木条之内
心思走动
世上应该突然大降尘土
我宁愿退回到
那桃木的种子之核
只有人才要隐秘
除了人现在我什么都想冒充。36

Wang apparently must have found a way to ensure invisibility by some cunning trick known only to herself. In a poem dated June 1996 and titled “Becoming a Poet Anew” (重新做一个诗人), known also as “Work” (工作), she again takes up her home-based experiments with natural laws and delivers an image of a place that appears enclosed by one-way mirrors through which the I-speaker can observe the external world but is not seen by others. Below, I quote the poem in my translation—although it was beautifully rendered by Goodman (as “Starting Anew as a Poet”)—in order to preserve the coherence between my discussion of this text in the present book and the argument I made in my doctoral dissertation. There, I illustrated the mechanisms of what I termed “quantum literature,” using this work as an example and proposing that Wang’s flat would be a perfect place to keep Schrödinger’s cat. This, incidentally, would make her home resemble Szymborska’s in “A Little Girl” and from “Cat in an Empty Apartment” (Kot w pustym mieszkaniu), to which I will return shortly. Yet Wang, instead of a dead-and-alive quantum cat, keeps quantum butterflies; her chenmo de hudie 沉默的蝴蝶 may be rendered either as lively “quiet butterflies” or as a dead body of the metaphor “butterflies of silence.”

Becoming a Poet Anew
At the shortest end of the century
the Earth bobs
humans bustle about like monkeys between trees.
While my two hands
dangle idly in China’s air.
The table and the wind
are both sheets of pure paper.
I make my sense
happen only at home.
When I rinse the rice
whitish water drips onto my page like milk.
The gourds, at the sight of new-grown fingers
cry out in fear.
Outside the sun shines with a stab wound
snow fills the sky.
Every day from dawn to night
my door is shut.
I hang the sun at the angle that I need it
people say in this city
lives someone who doesn’t work.
Walls tightly closed
sandwiched between two small glass shards the world self-ignites.
Quiet butterflies flutter everywhere
Creation unknowingly leaks out.
I predict the tiniest rustle of grass leaves in the wind
without eyes.
Without hands.
Without ears.
Every day writing but a few words
it’s like when a knife
cuts a tangerine’s skin to release a fountain of finely woven juice.
Let the layers of blue light
penetrate a world that’s never been described.
No one sees my
silklike finely woven light.
In this city I
silently work as a poet.37
《重新做一个诗人》
在一个世纪最短的末尾
大地弹跳着
人类忙得像树间的猴子。
而我的两只手
闲置在中国的空中。
桌面和风
都是质地纯白的好纸。
我让我的意义
只发生在我的家里。
淘洗白米的时候
米浆像奶滴在我的纸上。
瓜类为新生出手指
而惊叫。
窗外,阳光带着刀伤
天堂走满冷雪。
每天从早到晚
紧闭家门。
把太阳悬在我需要的角度
有人说,这城里
住了一个不工作的人。
关紧四壁
世界在两小片玻璃之间自燃。
沉默的蝴蝶四处翻飞
万物在不知不觉中泄露。
我预知四周最微小的风吹草动
不用眼睛。
不用手。
不用耳朵。
每天只写几个字
像刀
划开橘子细密喷涌的汁水。
让一层层蓝光
进入从未描述的世界。
没人看见我
一缕缕细密如丝的光。
我在这城里
无声地做着一个诗人。38

One can point out clear convergences between this poem and Szymborska’s “Joy of Writing,” both being poetic proclamations of a new world order that obeys its own laws defined by the poet. In both, the poet’s “mortal hand” acts unrestrainedly, aware of its power over the created reality, its gestures bordering on brutality. Szymborska projects a hunt threatening the written doe only to reveal it as a pretext to generously save the animal by stopping the bullets she herself produced in mid-flight; Wang Xiaoni stabs a tangerine with a knife for the purposes of an effective simile.

This is quite an unexpected turn if one considers the two poets’ sensitivity to the pain of every living thing. Consider, for instance, Wang’s elegiac “The Watermelon’s Sorrow” (西瓜的悲哀), in which she tries to guess how a watermelon she bought feels when traveling with her by bus “without rhyme and reason” (无缘无故),) “like a blindfolded prisoner […] with no bones but too much blood / who grew up being thumped countless times” (像蒙了眼的囚徒 […] 不长骨头却有太多血的家伙 / 被无数的手拍到砰砰成熟的家伙).39 Or take her poem cycle “Ten Water Lilies” (十枝水莲), in which she accuses herself of taking away the freedom of the lilies by placing them in a flower vase:

It is me who put them in this way
their ten faces turned to the walls
I haven’t expected that I too can become an oppressor. […]
I want to liberate them
I want to make them satisfied
let these peach-blossom faces look further out
是我放下它们
十张脸全面对墙壁
我没想到我也能制造困境。 […]
我要做一个解放者
我要满足它们
让青桃乍开的脸全去眺望40

Or think of Szymborska’s “Under One Small Star” (Pod jedną gwiazdką), where she produces a long list of apologies to everybody and everything for all she has and has not done, including animals and plants:

Pardon me, deserts, that I don’t rush to you bearing a spoonful of water.
And you, falcon, unchanging year after year, always in the same cage,
your gaze always fixed on the same point in space,
forgive me, even if it turns out you were stuffed.
My apologies to the felled tree for the table’s four legs
Translated by Clare Cavanagh41
Darujcie mi, pustynie, że z łyżką wody nie biegnę.
I ty, jastrzębiu, od lat ten sam, w tej samej klatce,
zapatrzony bez ruchu zawsze w ten sam punkt,
odpuść mi, nawet gdybyś był ptakiem wypchanym.
Przepraszam ścięte drzewo za cztery nogi stołowe.42

Why, then, in the two metapoetic texts in question are the authors so ruthless in their treatment of the creatures they called into existence? To answer these questions, we need to take a detour through a more metaphysical part of their respective oeuvres.

2.3 Metaphysics and Miracles

Wisława Szymborska and Wang Xiaoni rarely allow their emotions and mental states to permeate the tissue of their poems. They tend to desubjectivize their texts or sometimes indeed go even further and try to resubjectify them; that is, invert the relationship between the writing persona and the object written about so that the latter, in a sense, starts to observe and describe the former.

Szymborska often speaks of herself using passive verb forms, as one who is seen, or thought about, or imagined by someone (or something) else. In “The Old Turtle’s Dream” (Sen starego żółwia), she wonders how the fragile human world is remembered, and dreamed of, by the near-immortal reptile. The same mechanism is applied in “Cat in an Empty Apartment” (Kot w pustym mieszkaniu), probably the most personal and intimate poem in Szymborska’s oeuvre, where death is presented from the perspective of a cat who has survived its owner, the poet’s longtime partner Kornel Filipowicz.

Die—you can’t do that to a cat.
Since what can a cat do
in an empty apartment?
[…]
Something doesn’t happen
as it should.
Someone was always, always here,
then suddenly disappeared
and stubbornly stays disappeared
Translated by Clare Cavanagh43
Umrzeć—tego się nie robi kotu.
Bo co ma począć kot
w pustym mieszkaniu
[…]
Coś się tu nie odbywa
jak powinno.
Ktoś tutaj był i był,
a potem nagle zniknął
i uporczywie go nie ma.44

In “Sky” (Niebo), in turn, the poet describes herself as “a trap within a trap, / an inhabited inhabitant, / an embrace embraced, / a question answering a question” (Jestem pułapką w pułapce, / zamieszkiwanym mieszkańcem, / obejmowanym objęciem, / pytaniem w odpowiedzi na pytanie), assuring that the boundaries between subjects and objects are fluid and illusionary: “it’s not the proper way to contemplate this wholeness”45 (to nie jest właściwy sposób myślenia o tej całości).46

Wang Xiaoni, too, seems to be absorbed by the question of what secures her existence from the outside, whether and how she exists when she is not seen. In “Nights of Lightning” (闪电之夜), she sighs:

These nights of lightning fascinate.
Strange images follow the thunder
follow the light
and likely follow a few ghosts.
Perhaps I have or haven’t disappeared for a while,
then after a while appeared again.
The rapidly suturing hand hides in the sparkle of the murderer
Translated by Eleanor Goodman
闪电之夜让人着迷。
有些异象跟着雷来
跟着光来
很可能还跟着几只鬼。
我或有或无
一会儿消失,一会儿又出现。
谋杀的闪电里藏着飞快缝合的手。47

The poem, like Szymborska’s “Sky,” ends with a trait of mixed feelings of “rapture and despair”—simultaneous amazement and fear of what is beyond our bodies, in the space to which we have no direct access:

I know, I’m here for now.
But I don’t know anything
about what’s outside of myself
Translated by Eleanor Goodman
我知道,这会儿我还在。
可是我完全不知道
在我以外的全部。48

In the long poem “Fear” (害怕), she repeats similar thoughts pondering life after death:

One must finally bring up death, because after death there is no knowledge
the worst is before death, there is no discussion or cracks, people are deceived
Translated by Eleanor Goodman
最后得说到死,因为死掉以后什么都不再知道
最可怕的是死之前,没有商量没有缝隙,人是完全被蒙蔽的49

Earlier in the same work, she offers a description of a moment of extreme fear leading to what psychologists would call derealization and depersonalization, which from a psychological perspective is in fact a defense mechanism of the brain against longtime pressure:

Those holding wine bottles and scheming
those shaking with laughter, those with mouths open to overcast sky
get an eyeful going in and out
they don’t know if their shoes have soles,
if their feet and legs are still connected
Translated by Eleanor Goodman
端起酒瓶的,带着阴谋的人
笑得前仰后合,嘴巴正对着阴天的人
满眼的走进来又走出去
不知道鞋是否有底,脚是否还连接腿杆50

Normally, these things are automatic and obvious, but once their obviousness is undermined by an overinquiring mind, the world suddenly appears to be on the ropes, like a reticular construction that may disassemble at any moment, as in “Early Morning” (清晨). There, the poet wonders:

How much wisdom does it take
for them [humans waking up in the morning] to take their keys
from yesterday’s pants.
What force of connection is needed
when they set out on their journey
so that not a single intersection
makes them lose their way.
[…]
Disaster and luck
both hang from the thinnest thread.
The sun, like a gallbladder,
rises.
Translated by Eleanor Goodman
需要多么大的智慧
他们在昨天的裤子里
取出与他有关的一串钥匙
需要什么样的连贯力
他们上路出门
每一个交叉路口
都不能使他们迷失。
[…]
灾害和幸运
都悬在那最细的线上。
太阳,像胆囊
升起来了。51

In Szymborska’s “The Joy of Writing,” the hunters easily forget “that what’s here [on paper] isn’t life.” In Wang’s “Becoming a Poet Anew,” the “creation unknowingly leaks out.” There is no impervious barrier dividing the interior and exterior of a poem. The text is also not a passive mirror in which the author sees herself. It is an active, independent entity which mimics, reenacts, or in its own specific way “remembers” (and sometimes may “forget,” as in “The Joy”) rather than directly reflects the one who wrote it, preserving the touch of their “mortal hand,” the trace of their pen leaving a chain of signs on the paper surface of the textual cosmos.

When the poet Halina Poświatowska (1935–1967) passed away, Szymborska dedicated her beautiful poem “Autotomy” (Autotomia) to her memory.

Autotomy
In danger, the holothurian cuts itself in two.
It abandons one self to a hungry world
and with the other self it flees.
It violently divides into doom and salvation,
retribution and reward, what has been and what will be.
An abyss appears in the middle of its body
between what instantly become two foreign shores.
Life on one shore, death on the other.
Here hope and there despair.
If there are scales, the pans don’t
move. If there is justice, this is it.
To die just as required, without excess.
To grow back just what’s needed from what’s left.
We, too, can divide ourselves, it’s true.
But only into flesh and a broken whisper.
Into flesh and poetry.
The throat on one side, laughter on the other,
quiet, quickly dying out.
Here the heavy heart, there non omnis moriar—
just three little words,
like a flight’s three feathers.
The abyss doesn’t divide us.
The abyss surrounds us.
Translated by Clare Cavanagh52
Autotomia
W niebezpieczeństwie strzykwa dzieli się na dwoje:
jedną siebie oddaje na pożarcie światu,
drugą sobą ucieka.
Rozpada się gwałtownie na zgubę i ratunek,
na grzywnę i nagrodę, na co było i będzie.
W połowie ciała strzykwy roztwiera się przepaść
o dwóch natychmiast obcych sobie brzegach.
Na jednym brzegu śmierć, na drugim życie.
Tu rozpacz, tam otucha.
Jeśli istnieje waga, szale się nie chwieją.
Jeśli jest sprawiedliwość, oto ona:
Umrzeć ile konieczne, nie przebrawszy miary.
Odrosnąć ile trzeba z ocalonej reszty.
Potrafimy się dzielić, och prawda, my także.
Ale tylko na ciało i urwany szept.
Na ciało i poezję.
Po jednej stronie gardło, śmiech po drugiej
lekki, szybko milknący.
Tu ciężkie serce, tam non omnis moriar.
trzy tylko słówka jak trzy piórka wzlotu.
Przepaść nas nie przecina.
Przepaść nas otacza.53

Like in Wang’s “Fear,” in “Autotomy,” too, poetry is something created in danger—in the constant danger of death—in which one divides oneself into flesh and poetic word, or poetic whisper. But the poetic part that remains after the perishing of the flesh carries in itself both life and death. One can split oneself endlessly, but each part will always remain bipolar, like a magnet, which after cutting in half does not change its structure or lose its qualities. Pure immortality does not exist, be it in nature or in culture. Existence is always sustained in that tension between being and nonbeing, and the poetic word preserves both poles, not just one.

Reading “Autotomy” in the compairative Polish-Chinese perspective, I am reminded of a passage from another Polish poet, Justyna Bargielska (b. 1977), in the work “For the Departure of All Animals” (Na odejście wszystkich zwierząt). The poem is built on an intertextual play with the biblical story of Noah’s Ark and Zbigniew Herbert’s “Elegy for the Departure of Pen, Ink, and Lamp” (Elegia na odejście pióra, atramentu, lampy), in which Herbert recalls the beginning of his poetry writing, when he believed

that before the deluge it was necessary
to save
one
thing
small
warm
faithful
so it endures further
with ourselves inside as in a shell
Translated by John and Bogdana Carpenter
myślałem wtedy
że trzeba przed potopem
ocalić
rzecz
jedną
małą
ciepłą
wierną
tak aby ona trwała dalej
a my w niej jak w muszli54

Bargielska writes with a similar feeling of disenchantment and acute awareness of the frailty of human lives and cares, which she illustrates with an image of faceless Chinese people dying in a deluge caused by irresponsible interventions in the environment. This passage may strike the reader as politically incorrect, but in Bargielska’s poetry things rarely are what they appear to be. The deep existential irony which underlies her literary project is, first and foremost, directed against the poet/I-speaker herself and not toward the Other; one should arguably interpret it largely as a self-protective mechanism of an oversensitive mind. Her famously unceremonious verses present a distorted carnival-mirror reflection of reality as seen by the subject whose inner optical apparatus, which processes visual impulses, has been affected and significantly distorted by internal and external conditions, including traumatic personal experience. The bizarre, often seemingly inhuman images it produces become automatically framed in, very literally taken, scare quotes, and if the I-speaker wants to say something that she hopes will be taken seriously, she has to additionally emphasize it, as in lines 3 and 4 of the below excerpt, which begin with the explicit declaration: “But what really interests me.”

For the Departure of All Animals
From American movies I know that policemen
eat donuts and wear earmuffs. But what really
interests me is: were there vultures flying over
the ark? Do you still love me? Is inside a church
like inside a candy drop? An old woman
comes to me. She sits wearing her overcoat, teaches a cat to say
“mom.” When it becomes really bad, which street
will throw me happy crumbs? And when the dam collapses,
a million of Chinese people will die. All the Chinese
look the same, so I say hello
to all. Look at the ocean when it is looking at you.
Na odejście wszystkich zwierząt
Z amerykańskich filmów wiem, że policjanci
jedzą pączki i noszą nauszniki. Ale co mnie
ciekawi naprawdę, to: czy nad arką leciały
sępy? Czy mnie jeszcze kochasz? Czy w kościele
jest jak we wnętrzu landrynki? Przychodzi do mnie
stara kobieta. Siedzi w palcie, uczy kota mówić
“mamo”. Kiedy będzie naprawdę źle, która ulica
rzuci mi wesołe okruszki? A gdy tama pęknie,
zginie milion Chińczyków. Wszyscy Chińczycy
wyglądają tak samo, więc wszystkim mówię
dzień dobry. Popatrz na ocean, gdy patrzy na ciebie.55

Szymborska’s poetry is like a huge vessel where several humans (poets and those whom they invite onboard, e.g., Poświatowska and Filipowicz) and various species of animals, plants, and other natural forms—as listed in “Birthday” (Urodziny): moraines, morays, morasses, mussels, and so forth56—are saved from the worst, that is, from anonymous, collective death, from dissolving into the surrounding floodwaters of nothingness. But it will not save them from their individual deaths which follow them like vultures over Noah’s Ark in Bargielska’s poem and will happen sooner or later, during or after the deluge, only temporarily suspended like the bullets in midair in “The Joy of Writing.”

Art is not magic. This helplessness of a “mortal hand” in the confrontation with the force of gravity is perhaps best visible in the famous “Photograph from September 11” (Fotografia z 11 września), written after the attack on the World Trade Center and based on the famous photo of people jumping off the two towers.

Photograph from September 11
They jumped from the burning floors—
one, two, a few more,
higher, lower.
The photograph halted them in life,
and now keeps them
above the earth toward the earth.
Each is still complete,
with a particular face
and blood well hidden.
There’s enough time
for hair to come loose,
for keys and coins
to fall from pockets.
They’re still within the air’s reach,
within the compass of places
that have just now opened.
I can do only two things for them—
describe this flight
and not add a last line.
Translated by Clare Cavanagh and Stanisław Barańczak57
Fotografia z 11 września
Skoczyli z płonących pięter w dół —
jeden, dwóch, jeszcze kilku
wyżej, niżej.
Fotografia powstrzymała ich przy życiu,
a teraz przechowuje
nad ziemią ku ziemi.
Każdy to jeszcze całość
z osobistą twarzą
i krwią dobrze ukrytą.
Jest dosyć czasu,
żeby rozwiały się włosy,
a z kieszeni wypadły
klucze, drobne pieniądze.
Są ciągle jeszcze w zasięgu powietrza,
w obrębie miejsc,
które się właśnie otwarły.
Tylko dwie rzeczy mogę dla nich zrobić —
opisać ten lot
i nie dodawać ostatniego zdania.58

In Szymborska’s work we will not find the grandiose rhetoric of Romantic poetry that would promise the victims magnificent eternity and monuments more lasting than bronze. The poet may save their “particular faces” from melting into an anonymous ocean and ensure them an afterlife independent of physical laws in her safe and hospitable poetic world. But she cannot save their particular lives, amortize their fall with words, or even amortize the shock it causes in the hearts of their families and friends.

Wang Xiaoni, too, wrote a couple of poems in which the I-speaker is directly confronted with death, one of them being “Meeting Death’s Envoy on a Winter Afternoon” (在冬天的下午遇到死神的使者). When Death’s envoy sits at the opposite side of the table, “I” comes up with a similar way of escape as a holothurian in Szymborska’s work—but instead of dividing herself, she has an idea to “tunnel out from [her] insides” (从我里面钻出去). Who knows, perhaps Wang had holothurian-style ideas as well, as one poem, “Half of Me Hurts” (半个我正在疼痛), may suggest. There, she considers the suffering (from toothache) left part of her body, which “also is me / another good woman” (那也是我 / 那是另一个好女人), as if already divided herself into two along the axis of pain.59 In “Meeting Death’s Envoy,” however, she finally decides that:

It’s no good to run
no good to struggle
no good to leap away.
The most I can do to try to move heaven and earth
is to sit lazily in this listless afternoon
Time has treated me badly
all I can do is to shun him.
Translated by Eleanor Goodman
跑也不行
挣扎也不行
纵身一跳也不行。
我能做的最惊天动地的事情
就是懒散地坐在这个用不上力气的下午。
时间亏待了我
我也只能冷落他了。60

Consistently ignored, Death’s messenger indeed goes away, at least for some time. Wang characterizes him as “nondescript” (不能形容), and only allows “silence behind the back of silence” (沉默在从沉默里) to speak, perhaps knowing that if she starts to indulge in descriptions, he will stay and feel at home in her poems. She, too, like Szymborska, builds her poetic Noah’s Ark, much smaller than Szymborska’s but more mobile, on board of which she takes those most dear to her, while those she does not know she does not want to know, to paraphrase the title of another poem in her oeuvre.61 She decides to love them “in [her] own way” (以我的方式) at a distance, without grand romantic gestures like when “someone pulls out his heart / and throws it into the crowd / it’s really too authentic too childish” (一个人掏出自己的心 / 实在太真实太幼稚). In her ark, “all the lofty vessels are empty. / For example me / for example this shiftless / last half of my life” (崇高的容器都空着。/ 比如我 / 比如我荡来荡去的 / 后一半命).62 Her favorite animal onboard is a cuckoo from an old-style clock, as she confesses in “That Cuckoo Clock” (那只布谷钟):

She announces the time,
throws an eye on us
to immediately withdraw to her tiny wooden house,
all of this takes less than a while.
Fearing the Great Craftsman may catch her
she spends her life in a pine-wood cage.
[…]
Now when I cast a proud glance on her,
and see this sister of darkness,
this poor wooden bird sharing her name with a combine
I’m ashamed of my pride.
它把时间报诵出来
它匆忙看了我们所有人一眼
立刻退回密闭的小木屋。
不多停留一刻。
它因为恐惧被巨大的工匠逮住
生活在松木造的牢笼
[…]
现在,我傲慢地瞄一眼布谷钟
我见到了暗处的同类
那个可怜的和播种机同名的木俑。
我再不敢傲慢了。63

The atmosphere in Szymborska’s ark could be described as the atmosphere of a secular temple. There is no God, but some everyday rituals are still performed, in the manner of Saint Francis, through ascesis and communion with nature, which constitutes her intimate source of amazement and inspiration. And sometimes in these simple rituals one can even summon a soul as in “A Few Words of the Soul” (Trochę o duszy), where we read that:

We have a soul at times.
No one’s got it nonstop,
for keeps.
Day after day, year after year
may pass without it.
Sometimes it will settle for a while
only in childhood’s fears and raptures.
Sometimes only in astonishment
that we are old.
[…]
It’s picky:
it doesn’t like seeing us in crowds,
our hustling for a dubious advantage
and creaky machinations make it sick.
Joy and sorrow
aren’t two different feelings for it.
It attends us only when the two are joined.
We can count on it
when we’re sure of nothing
and curious about everything.
Among the material objects
it favors clocks with pendulums
and mirrors, which keep on working
even when no one is looking.
Translated by Clare Cavanagh and Stanisław Barańczak64
Duszę się miewa.
Nikt nie ma jej bez przerwy
i na zawsze.
Dzień za dniem,
rok za rokiem
może bez niej minąć.
Czasem tylko w zachwytach
i lękach dzieciństwa
zagnieżdża się na dłużej.
Czasem tylko w zdziwieniu,
że jesteśmy starzy.
[…]
Jest wybredna:
niechętnie widzi nas w tłumie,
mierzi ją nasza walka o byle przewagę
i terkot interesów.
Radość i smutek
to nie są dla niej dwa różne uczucia.
Tylko w ich połączeniu
jest przy nas obecna.
Możemy na nią liczyć,
kiedy niczego nie jesteśmy pewni,
a wszystko nas ciekawi.
Z przedmiotów materialnych
lubi zegary z wahadłem
i lustra, które pracują gorliwie,
nawet gdy nikt nie patrzy.65

In Wang Xiaoni’s poetic world, souls seem to have similar interests (e.g., old cuckoo clocks) and qualities. Especially in the moments of ultimate horror, one can feel the soul’s exact weigh: 21 grams, that is, just a little bit more than a packet of instant coffee, as Wang notes in “Fear,” referring to the famous experiment by Duncan MacDougall that inspired Alejandro González Iñárritu’s movie 21 Grams. From “A Person Singing in White Gloves” (戴白手套唱歌的人), we learn that the soul is transparent. And in “The One Sticking Close to the White Wall as He Leaves” (贴着白色墙壁走掉的人), we see it as it strives to follow a man who hurries on, “caring only for himself” (只顾自己) while the soul lags behind, “twisting and turning to follow close / as though terrified to lose its way / that poor helpless little orphan” (歪歪扭扭跟得紧 / 好像受够了迷失的痛苦 / 那个孤苦伶仃的弃儿).66 The soul somehow managed to survive the deluge of civilization—though sacred places where one can nourish one’s spirit have long disappeared.

The poetic space in Wang’s work is not that of a secular temple like in Szymborska, but rather that of an antifeudal palace. The poet is a lonely emperor without subjects, precisely, as the author puts it in “Thinking That, Then Thinking This” (那样想,然后这样想) with her signature self-mockery: the “emperor of dust” (灰尘之帝) wearing pajamas as imperial robes.67 For this emperor, claims Wang in an interview, poetry is just a luxurious pastime, for which she tries not to sacrifice too much of her everyday activities, especially family life.68 She does not admit it, but her readers, including her husband, insist that she has some spiritual powers exactly like those of ancient emperors, who were also considered leading priests. In “My Wife Poet Wang Xiaoni,” Xu Jingya recalls himself fortuitously falling prey to these powers:

To put it more exquisitely, in our fortuitous marriage, my own judgment became an accessory of her judgment, which was endowed with infinite gravitational force, and finally turned into another spiritual product captured by this apostlelike woman.69

Likewise Szymborska. For all her declared antimetaphysical stance, Miłosz intuitively detects a metaphysical abyss underneath her poems. One of the most outstanding Polish philosophers, Cezary Wodziński, in his lecture on ontology cites two lines from “The Three Oddest Words” (Trzy słowa najdziwniejsze): “When I pronounce the word Nothing, / I make something no nonbeing can hold” (Kiedy wymawiam słowo Nic, / stwarzam coś, co nie mieści się w żadnym niebycie),70 and sums up: “An old Krakow auntie joins our table and with just one sentence deals with the entirety of Heidegger. How the fuck is that possible?”71

Indeed. But moreover, how is it possible that these two “invisible” poets at some point materialized themselves on the galas of the most prestigious literary awards and miraculously distributed their books in bookstores around the world? This is a secret of poetry, which has proved more than once that it can speak for itself. And, frankly, I do not think we should try too hard to reveal this secret. Once revealed, it will almost certainly be turned by someone into a business plan or marketing strategy. Attempts are today being made, as we shall find out in the final chapter, to discover the code of poetry and implement it in intelligent machines, but thus far the awkwardness of these attempts makes one suppose that we are still far from creating the perfect poetic algorithm.

3 Submerging: Krystyna Miłobędzka and Zhai Yongming

Whereas the two poetics discussed in section 2 can be metaphorized as Noah’s Arks, the two that will be brought into focus in this section would be perhaps most effectively visualized as submarines, an image borrowed from Zhai Yongming’s poem “A Submarine’s Sorrow” (潜水艇之悲伤). While Wisława Szymborska and Wang Xiaoni explore the possibilities of invisibility in the midst of the deluge of civilization, Krystyna Miłobędzka and Zhai Yongming regularly submerge themselves under the surface of floodwater to observe, diagnose, and fix what can be fixed in language and script, and—in the case of Zhai—in the cultural memory that is encoded in them.

The oeuvres of Miłobędzka and Zhai are worlds apart in terms of form and content and their respective poems do not enter into direct reactions with one another in the manner that Szymborska’s and Wang’s do. But they both very actively react with their specific discursive environments. Therefore, this section will take the form of two separate monologues that resonate on the conceptual level and strengthen each other’s general message. The two authors’ secret work in language and textual tissue creates conditions for other individual poetics to grow.

Miłobędzka, inspired by Zen Buddhism, among other things, explores the metaphysical dimension of invisibility. The operations she performs on the grammar and syntax of the Polish language are spiritual exercises par excellence in which she annihilates the self. Ironically, as she makes progress in unbeing, her work is becoming increasingly visible in mainstream literary discourse and represents one of the most significant transformative forces of national poetry today. Long underestimated by her own generation, she was discovered by the Brulioners in the 1990s, when she was already in her sixties, and hailed by them as “Queen Krystyna.”72 The Brulion authors themselves did not absorb much of Miłobędzka’s language and style, but their popularization of her works contributed to her becoming a leading inspiration in the poetry of authors born in the 1970s.

Zhai’s project builds on extensive literary-archeological research. She was the most visible female poet of the 1980s, and the initiator of the emancipation of women’s poetry in China. After mixed success in this revolutionary undertaking, she became interested in invisibility as a strategic maneuver aimed at the evolutionary transformation of literary discourse toward a greater equality and inclusiveness. As she recuperates the silenced voices of ancient heroines and classical female poets, she discovers the strategic potential of invisibility as the preferred condition for her own work, which focuses on decoding, and sometimes secretly recoding, the DNA of Chinese language and script.

3.1 Miłobędzka: Disappearing Oneself in Language

Krystyna Miłobędzka was discovered when she started to disappear. Her artistic path was unusual from the outset. Majoring in Polish Language and Literature at Adam Mickiewicz University (BA) and Wrocław University (MA), in the 1950s she worked as an editor of a local technical journal published by the Poznań Institute for Wood Technology and coedited a scout magazine. It was around this time that she made her first literary attempts, initially not intended for publication, which were secretly “stolen” from her by her would-be husband, the philosopher and literary critic Andrzej Falkiewicz, and submitted for a poetry contest. Miłobędzka was awarded third prize and her debut cycle of short prose poems Anaglyphs (Anaglify) was published in New Culture (Nowa Kultura).

This handful of phenomenological poems—as Jacek Gutorow defined Anaglyphs, reading them in the context of the philosophy of Hegel, Husserl, Heidegger, Merleau-Ponty, and Wittgenstein73—passed without a broader echo and only reached larger audiences in the 1990s with the publication of Miłobędzka’s collected poems by a press associated with the Brulion magazine. Her first poetry book, Of Kin (Pokrewne), came out in 1970. In his review essay titled “In Statu Nascendi,” Stanisław Barańczak, one of those who first recognized Miłobędzka’s talent, wrote that her poetry “constitutes itself almost before the very eyes of the reader. Poetry that is far from any statistical perfection, apparently chaotic, running itself out of breath in pursuit of what begs to be named.”74

This breathless pursuit continued in the following two collections Home, Foods (Dom, pokarmy, 1975) and Register of Contents (Wykaz treści, 1984). Andrzej Falkiewicz recalls that the Czytelnik (Reader) publishing house accepted the text only after soliciting five internal reviews from established poetry critics,75 being unable to figure out whether Miłobędzka’s “faulty” language should be considered childish naivety or a serious artistic proposition. In the poems included in these two collections Miłobędzka relearns language from children, based on her experience as a mother, playscript writer for children’s theater, preschool teacher, and scholar with a doctoral degree obtained for a dissertation on the children’s theater of Jan Dorman. Looking at everything through the eyes of a child, she constantly stumbles over conventional syntax, deliberately making holes and other impairments in it that expose the deep fissures between the world and human thought, human thought and human speech, and human speech and human writing—as in the below untitled poem “here a house …” (tu dom), which illustrates this constant confusion:

here a house beside a house without “here is a house”
here what connects will re connect here it knows that it runs up to “too late” and runs on
thoughts about this thought
wherever this thing this object I loses itself begins
she’d love just here herself but where will the I dis connect from you
she’d love to have something of her own here and soon to shout it out to chop it up empty-handed mother here she carried here she sang here she was dreamt about
the dead stroke me on my head no longer shying from tenderness
I dream that I live with equal difficulty a floor speech an extended hand occur to us
there must be a reason why I dream that I am
of the father of the mother featureless of day and night grey this will do her no good no wrong no
she goes but why does she look at the trees will she add to their greenness
here a high mountain now and forever I have to go fall go hang go hear go shout enough go?
before she opens her mouth her eyes the whole will disperse the whole I separate in pain separate in tears separate itself
Translated by ELŻBIETA WÓJCIK-LEESE
tu dom przy domu bez “tu dom”
tu co łączy po łączy tu wie że biegnie do “za późno” i biegnie
myśli o tej myśli
gdziekolwiek ta rzecz ten przedmiot ja siebie traci zaczyna
chciałaby o tu sobie ale gdzie ja się od dzieli od ty
chciałaby tu coś mieć swojego i zaraz krzyczeć to drobić to matka z pustymi rękami tu niosła tu śpiewała tu ją śniło
umarli głaszczą mnie po głowie oni się już nie wstydzą czułości
śni mi się że żyję z równym trudem przychodzi nam podłoga mowa wyciągnięcie ręki
po coś śnię że jestem
z ojca matki nijaka z dnia nocy szara to jej nie wyjdzie na zdrowie na złe na dobre na nie
idzie po co patrzy na drzewa czy im doda zieleni
tu wielka góra teraz i zawsze mam iść spaść iść wisieć iść słyszeć iść krzyczeć dosyć iść?
zanim odemknie usta oczy całe się rozpadnie ja osobno boli osobno płacz osobno się76

Yet Miłobędzka never abandons her philosophical experiments. After all, even if language cannot express reality, it still remains an efficient cognitive tool: these moments of painful clash between the world and the word are moments when one most directly experiences the tough thingness of things in opposition to which one’s humanness is constructed. In the most-quoted essay on Miłobędzka, “Open Metaphor” (Metafora otwarta), Tymoteusz Karpowicz points out that the constitution of the metaphorical dimension of her work is a catallactic process in which the reader actively participates.77 Her small collection I Remember (Writings Under Martial Law) (Pamiętam (zapisy stanu wojennego), 1992) testifies to her attempts at constructing not only individual but also collective subjectivity through linguistic experiments in difficult political circumstances: the martial law introduced in Poland in 1981. But she is convinced of the futility of this enterprise; she summarizes these attempts with a sigh of resignation: “if only … if only one good poem could emerge from this war” (gdyby … gdyby z tej wojny został jeden dobry wiersz).78 This time, fortunately, critics were of a different opinion and quite unanimously appreciated her work, awarding Miłobędzka her first prestigious poetry award, Barbara Sadowska’s Prize (Nagroda im. Barbary Sadowskiej) for the year 1992.79

I Remember is the last collection in which the poet tries to construct something and expand the perspective, believing that strengthening one’s own subjectivity and broadening its horizon may bring better understanding of the world. In the next book, Before the Poem: Writings Old and New (Przed wierszem. Zapiski dawne i nowe, 1994), the course starts to change, and a long process of “disappearing herself” (znikanie się) begins that continues until today.

The volume was published in 1994 by the Foundation of Brulion (Fundacja Brulionu), whose authors were attracted by Miłobędzka’s uncompromising artistic vision. Along with texts from earlier collections, it also contained some new poems, giving a foretaste of the collection Participles (Imiesłowy, 2000), which I consider the turning point in Miłobędzka’s oeuvre. With Participles she starts to turn poetic grammar inside out, doing similar things to what Szymborska and Wang Xiaoni had done; that is, exploring the “passive voice” of existence. However, whereas in Szymborska and Wang participles are always anchored in some specific agent—usually in the nonhuman Other, for example the Old Turtle—Miłobędzka’s participles lack any hard ontological anchorage, instead growing out of an undefined source. The I-speaker is “looked walked lived / been / shed in tears uttered in words” (patrzona chodzona żyta). Her activity boils down to contemplating “her is and her will-be / her written and her unwritten / these things and nothings” (jej jest i jej będzie / jej pisane i jej niepisane / te cości i nicości).80 Or, at best, “merg[ing]” (scala[nie]) the vast “being-ing” (jestnienie) and “abridg[ing] [it] into existence” (skraca[nie] do istnienia).81

A more extensive explanation can be found in the opening lines of an untitled long poem placed as the second text in the collection. I quote these lines in multivariate translation, offering different renditions of some key phrases that are impossible to render literally:

Write down the run of the words in the running world. By/through/with/using which I run, which runs by/through/with/using me.
Speak, not write. And yet write down. Make it on time.
I don’t think with words. I think with images. The world thinks itself to me by/through/with/using running animals plants humans. I better say: through me they run / because of me they run. The world runs through my head with/by/using things. […]
Speak more runningly [biegle, lit. “fluently”; the Polish adverb is a derivative of the verb biec “to run”], run more runningly [ibidem]. (I speak is a loud leftover of what I silently think. I write is a leftover of that leftover).
Zapisać bieg myśli bieg słów w biegnącym świecie. Którym biegnę, który mną biegnie.
Mówić, nie pisać. A jednak zapisać. Zdążyć.
Nie myślę słowami. Myślę obrazkami. Świat myśli mi się biegnącymi zwierzętami roślinami ludźmi. Lepiej powiem: przeze mnie biegną. Świat biegnie mi przez głowę rzeczami. […]
Bieglej mówić, bieglej biec. (Mówię to głośna reszta tego co po cichu myślę. Piszę to resztka tej reszty).82

The main problem with translating this poem into English lies in Miłobędzka’s syntactic neologisms, which are even more difficult to recreate than her—though relatively few in her oeuvre—lexical neologisms. Polish syntax is much more flexible than English. It can be twisted almost at will without losing logical connections between words (even when located very far from one another in the sentence) which are determined by specific conjugational and declensional suffixes. Syntactic order often reflects the distribution of logical accents in a sentence, in which Polish is apparently a bit more similar to Chinese than to English. Also, the complex inflection of the Polish language allows for creating, for example, case government without a preposition or coverb. Sometimes the suffixes are the same for two or three verb/noun forms, but in general communicational practice they never cause misunderstandings. Decontextualized, as they are in Miłobędzka’s poems, they produce new and unexpected meanings. For example, the phrase “[świat] Którym biegnę” in the first line may mean “[The world] through which I run” or “[the world] by which I run” (i.e., the world which I use to run, as if the earth were her shoe, or perhaps her foot).

Another grammatical feature of the Polish language that Miłobędzka plays with is the reflexive pronoun się (-self). Się is the only reflexive pronoun in Polish and has no specific forms for different grammatical persons (oneself, myself, yourself, her/him/itself, ourselves, yourselves, themselves), but it is employed much more frequently than its counterparts in English. Miłobędzka persistently “overuses” się, as if to emphasize that everything in the world leads its own, self-driven existence and agency, and does not need a human subject to confirm this fact. Sometimes it even imposes itself on humans (“The world thinks itself to me”). We will observe a similar experiment with się in chapter 7 in the poetry of Maciej Taranek (b. 1986), discussed in the context of posthuman writing, for which Miłobędzka’s poetry laid arguably the earliest foundations in Poland.

Finally, the eponymous participles in Polish can be distinguished into four types, from which Miłobędzka is specifically interested in one: the passive adjectival participle, used to create passive voice constructions. Unlike in English, the passive adjectival participle has no other application in Polish. For instance, it is not used in the construction of active forms in past tenses; for example, the word byta (“been,” fem.), a passive adjectival participial form of the infinitive verb być (“to be”), is never used in normal communication and clearly stands out in poetry. Its uncanny effect is almost effaced in English without a broader grammatical context—as is the case in the above-quoted short poem: “looked walked lived been,” which should be read as: “I am looked at I am walked I am been [by someone/something else],” and not “I have looked I have walked I have been.” The high flexibility of syntax in Miłobędzka’s work translates directly into the high modality of its ontological substance. Her nuanced modifications of grammar reflect—and sometimes actually project—transformations of subjectivity in the extratextual world: “I” gradually pales and blurs with the surrounding objects. Like Szymborska and Wang, Miłobędzka sometimes disappears at home or hides “among the animals” (między zwierzętami), which give poetic camouflage, as we read in “I Am That I Can See That I Can See That I Go By” (Jestem że widzę że widzę że mijam) from Home, Foods.83

Many commentators note that the crucial element of Miłobędzka’s poetic world is movement,84 but unlike in Różewicz’s and Yu Jian’s poetics, it does not hinge on verbs (the Chinese “words-that-move” that we discussed earlier) but on nouns instead. Its dynamic stems from the poet’s restless pursuit of reality. In “Cobwebs, Dust …” (Pajęczyny kurz …) from Home, Foods, she expresses her yearning for a “language that would play a role of a prop (a word shaken instead of a hand)” (Język, który spełniałby role rekwizytu (słowo podane zamiast ręki)) and ends with a rhetorical question whether it is possible to “speak with/using/by/through trees” (drzewami mówić).85 This postulate becomes foregrounded in her next collection after Participles, also published in 2000, Omnipoems (Wszystkowiersze), in which texts become objects, and many of them take the form of calligrams, thus invoking Guillaume Apollinaire, who is sometimes listed among Miłobędzka’s inspirations.86 There is, for example, “Poem Rose” (Wiersz róża), which resembles a rose printed symmetrically on two pages as in a mirror reflection, or “Poem Bridge” (Wiersz most), leading, literally, from one page to another, which in Polish can be interpreted metaphysically due to the presence of the ambiguous word strona, meaning both a page and a side (as in this side and the other side in a metaphor of life and death). In a poem from After a Shout (Po krzyku, 2004), Miłobędzka explains: “I lose verbs quickest, nouns, things remain” (najprędzej gubię czasowniki, zostają rzeczowniki, rzeczy).87 Sometimes, verbs are simply transformed into nouns as in “Write down …” where we encounter a construction “I speak is …” or in another untitled piece from lost (gubione, 2008) where she writes about different is-es:

the is growing into a tree
the is flowing
the is running, the is flying
the is from the beginning
the is not what it should be
the is not the one, the is to the end
Translated by Elżbieta Wójcik-Leese
jest rosnące drzewem
jest płynące
jest biegnące, jest latające
jest od początku
jest nie tak
jest nie to, jest do końca88

The various objects seem to stimulate the movement of the lyrical subject and of the author, who tries to catch things before they escape or evolve, like a Heraclitean river. “[E]ven if I managed to quickly shout I am to this lowest cloud, you are will be already different, in a different place” (nawet gdybym zdążyła krzyknąć jestem tej najniższej chmurze, jesteś będzie już inne, w innym miejscu; the phrase “you are” in the English translation should be read as a noun), she sighs in the poem that follows after “Write down the run …” in Participles.89 The movement stimulated by nouns is navigated by prepositions which describe the subject’s spaciotemporal location vis-à-vis specific objects. Extreme examples of this phenomenon are “A Poem from the Train” (Wiersz z pociągu) from Omnipoems, which constitutes a variation of the nouns “field” (pole), “home” (dom), and “forest” (las), and the prepositions “before” (przed), “behind” (za), and “after” (po); and two lines of an earlier poem from Register of Contents composed exclusively from prepositions, which unfortunately blur in translation:

from from [z od], from from [z ode], from to, from toward, from in, from with, from behind, from beyond, from after, from before, from before before, from between, from up to, from then. All eternity
z od, z do, z ode, z ku, z w, z, z za, z zza, z spoza, z po, z przed, z poprzed, z między, z potąd, z potem. Cała wieczność90

All in all, the (d)evolution of parts of speech in Miłobędzka’s work could be summarized as follows: verbs turn either into passive participles or into nouns, and nouns become gradually replaced by pronouns. The process that starts with “I lose verbs quickest, nouns, things remain” (najprędzej gubię czasowniki, zostają rzeczowniki, rzeczy) continues until

now only personal pronouns (lots of I, more and more I)
and names? lost, conjunctions lost
three words, two words
finally my—mine in me
mine with me—
world
I in the first and last person.
Translated by Elżbieta Wójcik-Leese
już tylko zaimki osobowe (dużo ja, coraz więcej ja)
a imiona? giną, spójniki giną
trzy słowa, dwa słowa wreszcie mój, mój we mnie
mój ze mną
świat
ja w pierwszej i ostatniej osobie91

The exposition of “I” is not a manifestation of empowerment; rather, it emphasizes the nakedness of the subject deprived even of a name to hide herself behind it. In another short poem from After a Shout this postulate is expressed as an imperative:

strip yourself of Krystyna
of child mother woman
lodger lover tourist wife
what’s left is undressing
trails of discarded clothes
light gestures, nothing more.
Translated by Elżbieta Wójcik-Leese
rozbierz się z Krystyny
z dziecka matki kobiety
lokatorki kochanki turystki żony
zostaje rozbieranie
smugi zrzucanych ubrań
lekkie ruchy, nic więcej92

The next poem is even more radical:

I am for vanishing
I want to give testimony
with nothing to take
nothing to have
nothing nobody
to keep
and those God knows journeys
to make me more
to make me see a great deal
I am everything I have not
gate without its garden
Translated by Elżbieta Wójcik-Leese
jestem do znikania
chcę niczym świadczyć
niczego wziąć niczego mieć
nikogo zatrzymać
i te żal się Boże podróże
żeby mnie było więcej
żeby mi się dużo widziało
jestem wszystkim czego nie mam
furtką bez ogrodu93

And three pages later another minimalist poem urges again:

write write on till you vanish in writing
look look on till you vanish in looking.
Translated by Elżbieta Wójcik-Leese
pisz pisz aż w pisaniu znikniesz
patrz patrz aż znikniesz w patrzeniu94

The ultimate experiment in vanishing takes place in Miłobędzka’s last collection to date, Twelve Poems in Colors (Dwanaście wierszy w kolorze, 2012), published by the Literary Bureau on the occasion of her eightieth birthday. The work consists of twelve brief poems, including some as short as three or four words, printed on loose cards that resemble postcards placed in a white carton box. In one of them, a semi-neologism przejrzyścieję (I’m becoming transparent) printed in a “transparent” (pale gray) font runs top-down like tears through the entire page of a micro-psalm: “my god / I’m becoming transparent / behind a vitreous cry” (mój boże / przejrzyścieję / za szklistym płaczem). Another poem consists of a question in the top right corner, in red font, underlined: “I?” (ja?) and a black-font line at the very bottom of the card: “I couldn’t un-be more” (mnie już nie może bardziej nie być).95

Among the most important inspirations behind what is sometimes termed her senile poetry, Miłobędzka points to Eastern mysticism, especially Zen Buddhism, and Japanese haiku,96 where an individual strives to merge with the natural world. But she stops at the threshold, somewhere between Buddhist enlightenment and Christian epiphany of the personalist God. With a pinch of bitter self-mockery, she concludes: “broken twisted I-am [I-am printed in “transparent” font] / doesn’t hold a candle to your you-are [red font]” (połamane poskręcane jestem / gdzie mi tam do ciebie, do twojego jesteś).97

There is some irony in the fact that the moment of Miłobędzka’s greatest public visibility was also the moment in which her poetic and existential project of invisibility entered the most intense phase. On the other hand, conceivably precisely because of her unobtrusive attitude and unostentatious independence, the Brulion authors, who brutally rejected all precursors and Old Masters, took her as their kindred spirit, and praised and promoted her work in the 1990s. In the 2000s, among authors and readers one could observe a “Miłobędzka fever” reflected in the number of publications of her work. Besides Twelve Poems (2012), the prestigious Literary Bureau published her collection lost (2008), a big volume of collected poems collected lost (zbierane gubione, 2010), a transcript of four poetry readings I disappear I am (znikam jestem, 2010), an edited volume with collected reviews, interviews, and essays on her work Polyphony (Wielogłos, 2012), a collection of her playscripts for children Where a Country Woman Sowed Poppies (Gdzie baba siała mak, 2012), and her and Falkiewicz’s correspondence with Karpowicz Two Conversations (Dwie rozmowy, 2011). Literary-critical and academic publications include several monographs, a number of PhD theses, and countless journal papers focused on various aspects of Miłobędzka’s work.98

Although the Brulioners considered Miłobędzka their most important ally, her dismembered language was not a particularly effective medium of the revolutionary postulates they raised, and thus one can hardly find echoes of her idiom in their own poetic output. But their efforts to popularize her work contributed to a very intimate relationship between Miłobędzka and the next generations of poets: authors born in the 1970s and 1980s who entered the poetry scene at the beginning of the new century. Her influence is visible especially in two distinct though mutually interconnected big threads that developed in the first two decades of the twenty-first century: language poetry and ecopoetry.

Since the early modernist avant-gardes, the poetry of language experiment has been quite commonly seen as an almost exclusively male domain requiring abstract, philosophical, “male” thinking; topics reserved for women rather included everyday life, love, and all sorts of somatopoetics.99 Miłobędzka’s work brought a breakthrough, showing that these two spheres of activity—in language and in everyday life—do not need to stand in contradiction but, conversely, can mutually enhance each other. Everyday life can actually be a key, and not an obstacle, in the explorations of the mysteries of language and probing its limits. Her work attracted to language poetry many Post-70 women authors, who became a driving force on the Polish new poetry scene. One example is Joanna Mueller (b. 1979), a cofounder of the Warsaw-based neolinguist (neolingwiści) school, who took up the theoretical initiative in the movement. In 2002, neolinguists made a splash on the poetry scene with their famous manifesto, which I will discuss in the final chapter as one of the first presages of cyberpoetry in Poland. After neolinguism, which proved to be a short-time collective project, Mueller developed her individual microparadigms: archelinguism, biolinguism, anarchomysticism, and ecomysticism. Mueller, herself a literary scholar, critic, and a mother of four, points to Miłobędzka as the author who opened up many crucial questions in Polish poetry:

How to “write down the run of words in the running word. By which I run, which runs me”? How big is the “gap between I think and I speak? By what to run it through”? And how “to say something ultimately, beautifully, and unreservedly”?100

Among other broadly recognized women authors whose poetics resonate with Miłobędzka’s, we should add Maria Cyranowicz (b. 1974), also initially associated with neolinguism, and Joanna Roszak (b. 1981), who started her outstanding academic career with a doctoral thesis on the “synthesis of speech” (synteza mowy) in Miłobędzka’s mentor and friend Tymoteusz Karpowicz.

Miłobędzka’s significance for ecopoetry was comprehensively discussed by Jakub Skurtys in his paper “Instead of Szymborska?” (Zamiast Szymborskiej?, 2017). I find Skurtys’s opposition between Szymborska and Miłobędzka rather artificial, for there is in fact much in common between the two poets in terms of their efforts to deanthropocentrize poetry, as the present chapter has illustrated, but it is true that it is Miłobędzka’s organic idiom that more profoundly shaped ecopoetry. Among other poets indebted to Miłobędzka, Skurtys invokes Ilona Witkowska (b. 1987), Bianka Rolando (b. 1979), Julia Fiedorczuk (b. 1975), Natalia Malek (b. 1988), Małgorzata Lebda (b. 1985), Julia Szychowiak (b. 1986), and the aforementioned Joanna Mueller.101 In Mueller’s work, like in Miłobędzka’s, linguistic consciousness and ecopoetic consciousness are linked in a particularly close way. We will encounter some of these authors again in the final chapter, where I will discuss the explosion of ecopoetry in Poland in the 2010s in greater detail. Male voices are relatively rare in this newly emergent discourse and they gravitate, as Skurtys notes, toward anthropocentrism, but there are exceptions, such as Edward Pasewicz (b. 1971).

For Miłobędzka herself, the interest of young readers, poets, and academics in her writing since the mid-1990s came as a pleasant surprise, of which she speaks with a disarming frankness. Let me quote a longer excerpt from her conversation with Tomasz Mizerkiewicz, which tells us a lot about Miłobędzka’s personality, her beautiful (non)understanding of poetry, and unbelievable carefulness with language, which she sometimes playfully calls “language hypochondria”:

TM: Today, your work is extremely carefully read by younger and older readers. You’ve been awarded many prizes, conferences devoted to your poetry are held. How do you feel in this role? […]

KM: First, I find it embarrassing, but also moving. When I look at my texts from near and far, I conclude that if I were them, I wouldn’t be so much interested in this stuff. Perhaps there’s some energy or the price of writing hidden inside. Well, that would be wonderful, if in those words that I couldn’t write down, and those I felt were inapt and struck out, something interesting and important for those who read were concealed. A thing that they can grasp, and I don’t know of.

TM: Do you sometimes find something new about yourself in texts written by critics?

KM: Definitely. I learn unexpected things about myself and my texts all the time. Actually, almost everything I read surprises me.

TM: The fact that in an environment and time that were unpredictable [or unknown] to you someone took to heart what you wrote—is that an important part of this surprise?

KM: This is very important for me. Of course, I’m too old to take the various things discovered by young people into account in my writing. I read it a little bit as if I were reading about another person. These are texts written about someone [else].

[…]

TM: The second edition of one’s collected poems confirms that one has become a classic. Doctoral theses and master’s dissertations appear.

KM: I wish I could understand this. Perhaps for people younger by two generations my texts are not entirely distant, not entirely obsolete. Perhaps there’s something lively, something intimate in them. Perhaps there exists some aerial, extratextual communication between people of which we know very little.

TM: Young people who sometimes try to name their aerial, extratextual communication with your poetry say that for them it is important autonomous poetry. Would you agree that your poems are built with an effort of finding your own language?

KM: Exactly! When someone says: “There are no readymade words,” this sounds ridiculous, because I use readymade words, but they are found at the moment of writing, and not devised over a sheet of paper to fit one topic or another, they come from somewhere. Perhaps they always arrive when they are necessary, because they are alive. When I’m talking to you, I don’t know the next word I will say … That’s probably why I have to revise a lot.102

Interviewed by the former Brulion poet Marcin Sendecki, who calls her After a Shout one of the most important books of the twentieth century, Miłobędzka admits that in the past she felt a bit upset that critics and readers did not give attention to her first books, but now,

when one has written so much and is so old, almost eighty, one will not get involved that much, and care that much about this. Something was well received? Wonderful. I did not expect [it]. But there is certainly a number of people of whom I don’t know and who think differently and believe that what I do is worthless and overrated. Well, fine. It doesn’t particularly bother the me of today.103

3.2 Zhai Yongming: Geneticist in a Submarine

The first and most intense period of Zhai Yongming’s poetic career was in the mid-1980s when she was considered the leader of the emancipation of women poets. After a brief fascination with feminism followed by a pronounced rejection of its postulates, in 1990 Zhai, together with her husband, the painter He Duoling 何多苓, left China for the United States. In emigration she experienced an artistic crisis; only after returning to her hometown of Chengdu in 1991 did she again take up a pen and continue writing. The brief break, however, proved to have a refreshing effect on her poetry and her work entered a diametrically different phase with the long poem “The Song of the Café” (咖啡馆之歌), inspired by observations made by customers about her newly opened bar White Night (白夜) and usually considered the turning point in her oeuvre.104

Part of her mature poetic project was to create a solid ground for women’s poetry, which she had earlier brought, without warning, onto the (as it turned out) totally unprepared poetry scene in China. Even as late as thirteen years after the publication of the series “Women,” in 1997, Tang Xiaodu, one of the most respected poetry critics in China, admitted in the essay “Who Is Zhai Yongming?” (谁是翟永明?) that he still could not answer the question in the title. All his attempts at solving this riddle, he said, boiled down to repeating debatable cultural patterns:

In fact, I made [women’s writing] turn into a new tenor [of a metaphor]. In front of this new tenor, not only Zhai Yongming, but apparently all potential objects of discussion could be transformed into a certain “copy” or “footnote.” This mistake was caused by my attempts to define “women’s poetry” without deeper and more efficient reflection on poetics, and, what is more, taking into consideration only one perspective, namely that of a male. This is unforgivable.105

Aware of the revolutionary character of her artistic proposition, in the mid-1990s, when her male fellow poets were busy with fratricidal battles, Zhai made attempts to trace (and fix) the root of the problem of the biased reception of women poetry in China. Instead of presenting it as a new development transplanted from Western culture, as was the case in the 1980s, she focused on embedding her and her fellow women authors’ writing in Chinese indigenous tradition. This, however, required a complex archeological enterprise. Not only did she have to unearth the female threads of the (literary-)historical narrative but also to cleanse them of all the undesirable features that had stuck to them throughout the centuries in the annals written by the male hand, including unjustified accusations and condescending interpretations of their lives and works. Zhai “restores [women authors’] reputations,” as Andrea Lingenfelter argues, smeared by “generations of Confucian historians as well as the unexamined contemporary cultural attitudes that have grown out of them.”106

Among the earliest artifacts excavated by Zhai the literary archeologist were four ancient myths whose protagonists are women sacrificing themselves for men. In 1996, she wrote “Three Beauties” (三个美人), a reinterpretation of three ancient legends: about Meng Jiang 孟姜, whose cry of grief after her husband’s death made part of the Great Wall fall down; about the White Snake 白蛇, who transforms itself into a woman and falls deeply in love with a man, heroically fighting for him against dark powers, only to finally be imprisoned under the Leifeng pagoda; and about Butterfly Lovers, two “male mates,” one of whom after long years of friendship turns out to be a woman disguised as a man to get access to an official education. In all these stories, Zhai concentrates on the nuances that enable her to reconstruct the women’s psychology and emotional struggles, showing that the female characters are worth attention in themselves and not only as a background for, or an appendix to, male adventure. Two years later, in 1998, in “The Song of Weaving and Acting” (编织和行为之歌),107 Zhai likewise rewrites the myth of Hua Mulan 花木兰, a young woman who disguises herself as a man to take her father’s place in the army. Zhai selects the least heroic part of the legend: the moment when soldiers come to see their leader in “his” house and find “him” sitting at the looms as a woman. In this long poem, probably for the first time in Zhai’s oeuvre, archeology is intertwined with the strategy Nancy Miller called “arachnology,”108 which would later often reemerge in Zhai’s work. Mulan and other women in “The Song” weave “art, war, love” (艺术、战争、爱情); in their hands, the thread of language is transformed into a texture of poetry.

After “straightening” mythical memory, Zhai Yongming sets out to fix cultural memory. She focuses on women who have played not only symbolic but also actual roles in the history of Chinese literature and culture. Zhai tries to reconstruct a provisional lineage of women poets since antiquity, assuming the role of a continuator rather than “inventor” of the discourse of women poetry in China, to allude to Jeanne Hong Zhang’s study.109 In 2005, she wrote “Ode to Yu Xuanji” (鱼玄机赋).110 Three years later, her essay “Female Consciousness, Wife’s Perspective, Female Voice” (女性意识,妇人之见,雌声) was published in Today. The piece discusses Yu and two other classical poets: Li Qingzhao 李清照 (1084–1155) and Xue Tao 薛涛 (768–831).111

The Tang dynasty poet Yu Xuanji was, in Zhai’s view, the poet with the most developed female consciousness among classical authors.112 We do not know much about her life. Her surname Yu (“fish”) is one of the least frequently seen in history. Her given name, Xuanji 玄机, means a secret, mysterious principle, or mystical religious truth. Yu was a Daoist nun who reportedly led what today seems to be a particularly un-nun-ly life, which however was not unusual in China at the time, and was sentenced to death at the age of twenty-six or twenty-eight for the alleged murder of her own maidservant. Yet Zhai does not trust the source of this information, Huang Fumei’s 皇甫枚 collection of “gossip stories,” Little Tablets from Three Rivers (三水小牍), suggesting that Huang’s account, like Yu’s death sentence, stemmed from the patriarchal society’s rejection of independent women, something that continues to bring bitter fruits to this day.113

Recalling the research she undertook before writing the ode, Zhai mentions that after entering the keyword “Yu Xuanji” in popular internet browsers, she would only get titles that resembled pornographic movies: “The Empress of Desires” (情欲世界的女皇), “From an Abandoned Wife to a Loose Woman” (弃妇荡妇”), “Yu Xuanji Who Killed Out of Jealousy” (因妒折命的鱼玄机), “A Loose Nun” (风流女道士), and so forth. Her work offers an alternative history of Yu and her maiden. In the first part of the poem “No Human Knows a Secret Between One Fish and Another Fish” (一条鱼和另一条鱼的玄机无人知道), alluding to the semantics of the poet’s surname and invoking many motifs from her oeuvre intertwined with excerpts from Huang’s account, Zhai presents the baseline situation as follows:

This is a story about killing and the killed
In the year 868
Yu Xuanji wearing convict’s robes
arrives at the execution ground her head in a pool of blood
hitched by fresh flowers
So many ancient women in convict’s robes
float in the sky one could connect them
into a white kite they won’t ascend to heaven
[…]
Years still lash green but powerless
flowers sometimes haunted by pain but fiery like flames
clear sky after a spring rain that’s when they died
“many officials advocated for her” but to no avail
Yu Xuanji in white
Lu Qiao in red
sword raises head falls their fish scale
pale and turn into snow that fills the sky
Golden eyes keeping watch in front of the screen
can’t see the hexagonal crystals of snowflakes
the sky shooting out ink
strips them of their colors
fish and fish
and thus their secret
will never be revealed to people
这是关于被杀和杀人的故事
公元 868
鱼玄机 身穿着枷衣
被送上刑场 躺在血泊中
鲜花钩住了她的头发
很多古代女人身穿枷衣
飘满天空 串起来
可以成为白色风筝 她们升不上天
[…]
岁月固然青葱但如此无力
花朵有时痛楚却强烈如焚
春雨放晴 就是她们的死期
朝士多为言那也无济于事
鱼玄机着白衣
绿翅穿红衣
手起刀落 她们的鱼鳞
褪下来 成为漫天大雪
屏幕前守候的金属眼睛
看不见雪花的六面晶体
喷涂墨汁的天空
剥夺了她们的颜色
一条鱼和另一条鱼
她们之间的玄机
就这样 永远无人知道114

The second part of the long poem “Why Write Complaint Poetry?” (何必写怨诗?) tells of Yu’s night life after her separation from her husband. This “night life,” in Zhai’s interpretation, consisted in “practicing virtue” (清修)—used ironically to describe women’s self-restraint and their ability to stifle negative emotions and tears to conform to social convention—and reading poetry in secret. During the day, Yu enjoyed the company of her contemporary male poets, listed by name in the poem. “Yu Xuanji writes like a man / and socializes like a man” (鱼玄机 她像男人一样写作 / 像男人一样交游), imagines Zhai.115

Zhai elaborates on this idea in her essay, concluding not without regret that the degree of “male-ness” of women’s poetry still remains the main criterion of its quality in the eyes of critics who focus on assessing to what extent a woman author managed to get rid of the common (= stereotypical) characteristics of female writing; that is—we can roughly guess—infantility, cowardice, pettiness, lack of a broader perspective on things, and so forth. This is how the other two protagonists of the essay “Female Consciousness,” Li Qingzhao and Xue Tao, have been read. Their work, claims Zhai, was appreciated for its “male-ness,” and female traits have been consistently ignored or even intentionally effaced.116

In the third part of the ode, we finally hear the female voice of Yu Xuanji. It can fully resound only after her death, which liberates her from the chains of social biases. This part takes the form of a musical dialogue sung to a classical melody huadiao 花调 and yan’erluo 雁儿落 between Yu and her maiden Lu Qiao 绿翘, the only person who can understand her sorrow. The ancient poet sighs:

Candles, incense, backgammon
dice, domino, gambling
if I were a man
after 360 moves it would be clear who’s better
蜡烛、熏香、双陆
股子、骨牌、博戏
如果我是一个男子
三百六十棋路 便能见高低117

Lu Qiao tries to cheer Yu Xuanji up, but the only comfort she can offer is the promise of a peaceful, happy life after death, in which “you will provide mutilated poems / and I will compose music for you” (你为我搜残诗 / 我为你谱新曲).118 Besides breaking the stereotype of a submissive woman, another convention is overcome here, namely the feudal stratification of society. The aristocrat and the maidservant establish a covenant against the unfair male world of which they are both victims. On the other hand, one may note that the two lines pronounced by the maidservant echo a popular poem by the early modernist author Xu Zhimo 徐志摩 (1897–1931) entitled Canshi (残诗), a phrase which appears in Zhai’s text, translated by me as “mutilated poem[s].” Xu’s work begins with a rhetorical question: “To whom complain? / To whom complain?” (怨谁? 怨谁?), which corresponds with Yu Xuanji’s reflection on complaint poetry, and goes on to reflect on the fate of fish, namely precious long-tailed anchovies left in a sapphire aquarium to fend for themselves; in a couple of days “their bellies up eyes bulged / they will float dead on the surface let a piece of ice smash them flat” (翻着白肚鼓着眼,不浮着死,/ 也就让冰分儿压一个扁).119 Thus, Lu Qiao’s words of comfort in fact conceal one more metaphorical complaint about the injustice suffered by women who are treated by men like specimens of expensive fish to enjoy and exhibit, and abandoned when the owner becomes bored or busy with other things. Ironically, even this silent protest against men is ciphered in the words that belong to a man: Xu Zhimo.

Part four, “Epitaph for Yu Xuanji” (鱼玄机的墓志铭) conveys a sad conclusion:

Here lies poet Yu Xuanji
born and dead in the wrong time
eight centuries too early
[…]
her womanhood obscured her talent
looking at sages and masters far removed from everyday matters
she will never admit defeat.
这里躺着诗人鱼玄机
她生卒皆不逢时
早生早死八百年
[…]
美女身份遮住了她的才华盖世
望着那些高高在上的圣贤名师
她用不服气120

The final part, “Report of the Analysis of Yu Xuanji’s Death” (关于鱼玄机之死的分析报告), elaborates on the question of whether now is finally the “the right time” to be born as a woman. Zhai reflects:

if the year 868 were the year 2005
perhaps she would live until 85
have a normal job as well as daughters and sons
although her female consciousness would certainly raise doubts
she wouldn’t be taken to court for it and sentenced to death.
如果公元 868 变成了公元 2005
她也许会从现在直活到 85
有正当的职业 儿女不缺
她的女性意识 虽备受质疑
但不会给她吃官司 挨杖毙121

Yet this is only a half-optimistic statement about the contemporary reality, in which one can still hear undertones of the author’s helplessness against deeply rooted patterns and stereotypes when Zhai realizes the impossibility of changing history by means of historical narrative, even the most noble one:

These guesses and imaginations
can’t speak for her in court
it’s just an analysis of an amateur textual researcher
in Autumn she had to die
Here lies Yu Xuanji recalling all those things
buried in the earth she will never admit defeat.
这些猜测和想象
都不能变为呈堂供证
只是一个业余考据者的分析
在秋天 他必须赴死
这里躺着鱼玄机 想起这些
在地下 她永不服气122

One year after publishing “Ode to Yu Xuanji,” Zhai started to look for other ways to rewrite history that would allow her to inject her archeological findings into the bloodstream of Chinese literary discourse. She moved further back along the timeline to Su Ruolan, a poet born five centuries before Yu, during the Six Dynasties period (222–589), whose work leads Zhai to turn to arachnology, tentatively tested earlier in “The Song of Weaving and Acting.”

Like Arachne for Nancy Miller, Su Ruolan in Zhai Yongming’s metaliterary reflection is an ancient prefiguration of literary postmodernism in its feminist incarnation. In her mature work, the model of text-as-a-web or text-as-texture whose threads are intertwined fibers of language and personal experience, and on which the author leaves her fingerprint,123 is prominently foregrounded. In this model, writing is a kind of performative art, as Zhai proposes in the essay “Infinite Palindrome Is a Model of the Universe” (回文无尽是璇玑) devoted to Su.124

The title of the essay invokes Su’s most famous “hyperpoem,” the great palindrome-calligram “Picture of the Turning Sphere” (璇玑图). The work is a visual composition shuttle-woven on brocade. It consists of a 29 × 29 grid filled with Chinese characters, which—read in different directions and starting from different places in the big square—form over three thousand poems ranging in length from several to several dozens of characters. The most popular version of its history is that Su created the “Picture” for her husband, a state official delegated to another province. Jealous of her husband’s relationship with his concubine, Su refused to accompany him. However, when her longing for her husband became unbearable, she created this unusual multipoem and sent it to him; and he reportedly returned.125

According to an account ascribed to empress Wu Zetian 武则天, in a comment to her work Su noted that her husband is the only person who can understand the entire message ciphered in the text.126 On the other hand, besides this mysterious microcosmos of the poet’s personal life, scholars point out its connections to the map of the macrocosm—a graphical representation of the knowledge and beliefs of her contemporaries about the functioning of the celestial spheres.127 These two universes are additionally connected to a third universe—the universe of language, which in a sense determines the relationships between the elements of the other two, entangling individual words and notions into constellations of poems.

In “Infinite Palindrome” Zhai polemicizes the way of reading Su’s work as an example of the genre called boudoir complaint poetry (闺怨诗), one of few genres reserved exclusively for women, whose paradigm boils down to a series of stereotypes and biases. Like in “Ode to Yu Xuanji,” where the author consciously employs this genre to revalorize it, in “Female Consciousness” she freely plays with the commonly depreciated form. Nan Z. Da insightfully notes:

Women poets risk pigeonholing (and worse) when they write about women who aren’t loved, appreciated, counted, or understood, women who have lost youth or beauty or both. Zhai seems to take on that risk completely. Rather than write pronouncedly feminist verses about pronouncedly feminist issues, Zhai rebrands feminism as a layered consciousness of the sinological world, and a lyrical reclamation of its past literary cultures. This type of consciousness indulges in the topos of love, separation, and their complaints in order to surveil alternative histories and futures: gender subjectivity, the formation of modern China, and the transversal impact of mediation.128

Demonstrating the multidimensionality of “Picture,” Zhai treats it as a starting point for her own ethics, in which equality and justice are inscribed in the very structures of the language as a mechanism that regulates the transcription of cultural DNA. Juxtaposing the ancient palindrome-calligram with postmodern Western art, the poet argues:

Many contemporary artists use written text as a material, probing the limits of textuality. […] “Picture of the Turning Sphere” […] refers to the specific nature of the Chinese character in order to recode and reestablish the relation of legibility and order between the characters, examining and proving the infinite semantic potential of Chinese script. Conceivably, there exists no other script in the world that would evince a similar capacity of self-transformation and self-driven broadening of its own scope.129

In the situation of the incompleteness and asymmetricity (that is, dominance of the male point of view) of explicit cultural memory, perhaps the only way out is restoring the proper mechanisms of “genetic memory” to culture, responsible not for the transmission of specific content but for the transmission of certain structures along whose lines content is distributed, assessed, and valorized. “Picture,” in Zhai’s opinion, approximates the original structure of the Chinese language, which in its pure form “coded” the world according to the equitable principles of natural order. In the final part of the essay, she notes that modern technologies may facilitate the deciphering and activation of the diverse meanings of Su Ruolan’s masterpiece, for example by transforming “Picture” into an interactive application in which the user can click on the characters of their choice, creating multiple poetic sequences.

In Zhai Yongming’s reflection, the directions of development of modern technology and of modern literature are largely convergent. Both, in a sense, return to the most basic qualities and structures of the world, rediscovering their primary potential, which so far, as civilization has progressed, has been gradually reduced to fit our narrow minds rather than expanded. Zhai’s arachnology can be taken as a source of a new idea of archeology, which understands that the only hope for the past is the future—using more developed tools and methods, earlier history and deeper structures can be unearthed and reconstructed.

The third and last strategy of Zhai Yongming’s therapy of Chinese cultural memory is an experimental blend of the other two and is located somewhere between science, art, and fantasy; hence my proposition to call it alchemy, justified by the fact that the poem in which it was introduced is situated in ancient reality and not in a contemporary laboratory of genetic engineering. The poem is called “A Letter from the Past Dynasty—from Qiu Yanxue, a Woman Poet Whose Existence Wasn’t Documented” (前朝来信无考女诗人邱研雪信札). Its lyrical subject is a fictitious persona created by Zhai, who “after finishing endless chores / write[s] a letter to scholars from the next epoch” (放下作不完的家务事 / 我给后朝的书生写信). This statement returns several times throughout the poem as a chorus, between excerpts from the letter and an account of Qiu’s writing process. Three different layers permeate the text and merge with one another in certain places: a narrative of Qiu’s everyday life, from which she cuts out a shard of spacetime to write the letter; a metaliterary and metasemiotic narrative about the methods and techniques of writing employed by Qiu; and the proper content of the letter: a message addressed to future humanity.

In many places these three perspectives blur, co-occurring within a single stanza or a single line, as happens, for example, in the passage below:

Paper made from rice sprinkled with tears
turns into a painting a drop of ink will do
to grow there a bamboo branches and plantains
[…]
I write on a fan and on white silk
and on xuan paper and on embroidered kerchief
writing becomes so precious
brush strokes breathe in my body
[…]
Silkworms spin silk threads from threads yarn is made
when there is yarn silk can be weaved
A thin brush and ink dancing in Autumn wind
spreads squares of characters and I use them
米作成的纸滴上眼泪后
就变成图画 用墨点染后
就写意为竹子 折枝和芭蕉
[…]
在扇子上写字 也在白绢上写
在宣纸上写字 也在罗帕上写
写,变得如此贵重
一笔一划的气息 在身体中呼吸
[…]
桑蚕吐丝 就可以纺织成丝
有丝 就有帛
毛笔和水墨 随秋风扫过
就有了小小的方块字 我使用它130

The image of a silkworm in this context may be taken as strongly sexualized given a specific biological feature of female moths, namely producing pheromones that are strong enough to attract male moths from a distance as far as ten kilometers away. At the same time, it is also analogous to the figure, known from the Western discourse of women’s writing, of a female spider; it conveys the notion of text as a texture, signaling the synthesis of existence (tears, breath), matter (silk, paper, ink), and sign (characters) into one work, which constitutes an independent and unique whole, a product of a fully formed, legitimate female artistic subject. This artistic subject is installed in history by Zhai as an implant of memory that is expected to take roots in its tissue. The belief that the operation will be successful and the implant will not be rejected is based on Zhai’s trust in language and its ability to recode consciousness. Continuing the reflection of the “squares of characters,” Qiu adds:

And I know that several centuries later you will use them as well
I can control them to produce a feeling of pleasure in your mind
like a beam of blue light attract your attention
In this hallucinatory mist
you will infinitely walk forward approaching [me]
知道 几百年后你们还是用它
我控制它,制作你大脑的欣快感
如同一团蓝光 引起你注意
它 一团迷幻雾气
使你无限向前 靠近131

Even if one cannot change the “content” of history, reverse past events, perhaps one can repair the language, restoring its primary function so that the transmission and distribution of cultural genes follow fair mechanisms that are inclusive and not excluding. Zhai’s/Qiu’s poem is not just a symbolic literary monument or a collective grave raised to commemorate anonymous, invisible ancient women poets whose voices were silenced by history. It is a living poetic tissue produced by a female spider or silkworm. This tissue has to be reconnected to the bloodstream of the contemporary discourse that feeds its cells, at the same time drawing from it elements that are indispensable to the entire literary organism. Although the letter from the unknown poet cannot push out events that already happened from history, nor can it add new facts to the past, it still can become part of cultural memory, which is something more than a mere archive of documented facts from past eras. Rather, it is a collective, consensual, and dynamic picture of the past, which acquires new meanings in new contexts.

Cultural memory, according to Jan Assmann, the father of the term, cannot store the past as such; rather, it transforms the past into symbolic figures on which our idea of what came before hinges. Thus history becomes real; that is, it acquires normative and formative power.132 Cultural memory is not as much past-oriented as it is future-oriented; it breaks free from chronology and constitutes a foundation for a projection of timeless eternity in a given culture. Throughout the poem, Qiu expresses only one wish—to be remembered:

I want you to remember the writing of a poet whose existence has not been confirmed
just as I want you to remember my death
I want you to know it
just as you know eternity—
我要你记住无考女诗人的写……
就像要你记住我的死
我要你认识它
就像你认识永恒133

The postulate to become accepted by the “community of memory,”134 to use another term from Assmann’s lexicon, is not an indictment or a (female) beggar’s plea for a place in the (male) canon. It is rather a promise of what will happen if the female voice becomes included into literary discourse in its own right. Only then will the world unfurl in all its diversity and abundance in poetry. Akin to Zhai in the essay “Female Consciousness,” where the author expressed her hope in the future (including technical development) as a salvation of the past, Qiu predicts:

In the perspective of eternity
you will start to know me, you will know my epoch
its environment its climate
its pastel landscapes
its cool and quiet poetry
its wars and beacon towers
destroyed by climate destroyed by soil
destroyed by uprisings
从永恒的透视点里
你开始认识我,认识我的朝代
它的水土 它的气候
它的淡而清的山水
它的冷而静的诗书
它的战争和烽火台
它亡于气候 亡于土壤
亡于人民起义135

The work of Zhai Yongming itself bears evidence that these are not just empty promises. If after hundreds of years people from the future wish to explore our epoch through poetry, Zhai’s oeuvre will be among the most valuable sources. It contains meticulously drawn pictures of “heavily wounded cities” (重伤的城市) inhabited by “lightly wounded people” (轻伤的人), to allude to the title of a poem from 2000.136 There are portraits of these wounded people—realistic, psychological, lyrical, artistic, as well as grotesque and ironic—painted by a skilled and steady but also gentle and tender hand. There are loud conversations in the café and intimate inner monologues. Notes from media communications and analyses of modern language. Quasi-religious psalms and commemorative poems dedicated to friends acquainted in a bar. Traditional myths and modern ads. And many other things. All of them add up to a wonderful testimony of a woman who in her poem “Submarine’s Sorrow” speaks of herself as the captain of the eponymous vehicle, assuring us that:

When necessary and when not necessary
my submarine is on duty
its lead gray body
hides under the surface of a shallow pond
有用或无用时
我的潜水艇都在值班
铅灰的身体
躲在风平的浅水塘137

Every day she solemnly plans in which place “to submerge the submarine / and in whose veins to anchor” (在何处下水 / 在谁的血管里泊靠). “Fans, hipsters, heavy metal in discos” (追星族、酷组、迪厅的重金属) are not strange to her. She analyzes every single image that reaches her through the “periscope of writing” (写作的潜望镜) and adds to her poetic catalogue. And if the layer of events is too thin for her to submerge, she “generates water” (造水), adding depth to “the sadness of all those things” (每一件事物的悲伤),138 subtly covering the world with soothing, “most tactful phrases.”

3.3 Miłobędzka, Zhai, and Their Influence on Recent Poetry from Poland and China

Zhai Yongming’s explorations open similar paths to Krystyna Miłobędzka’s radical experiments. By loosening poetic syntax, Miłobędzka makes the textual structures more flexible and adaptable to different conditions, topics, and media. This broadened the spectrum of Polish poetry and allowed it, on the one hand, to develop an intimate relationship with nature (ecopoetry), and on the other hand, to enter into a productive symbiosis with technology (cyberpoetry), two phenomena that flourished in the 2010s in Poland. It also encouraged further experiments with poetic language as such among neolinguists. Zhai’s theoretical reflection on language and script based on Su Ruolan’s “Picture of the Turning Sphere,” although not taken up in her later work, still carries huge artistic potential, including inspiring ideas that might feed into language poetry and cyberpoetry. In 2008, Andrea Lingenfelter published a comparative paper on Zhai and Hsia Yü 夏宇 (b. 1956), an experimental woman poet from Taiwan, focusing mostly on their bold take on feminine themes.139 This comparison, I believe, could go much further today. Hsia’s creative postmodern play with language and text, often with the use of advanced technology—as in her famous collection Pink Noise (粉红色噪音), which employs machine techniques of translation, among other things—are much in line with Zhai’s theoretical-philosophical reflections. In fact, Zhai laid the conceptual foundation for the development of technologically supported posthuman poetry in the PRC, which, however, thus far has made rather insignificant progress. The possible reasons why are discussed in chapter 7.

On the other hand, one can also observe how Zhai’s lyrical “I” develops a growing environmental sensibility and perfectly synchronizes herself with the surrounding nature. This is beautifully shown in her book-length landscape poem “Roaming the Fuchun Mountains with Huang Gongwang” (随黄公望游富春山) from 2015, and many short poems that lend themselves to reading through the lens of ecocriticism. Justyna Jaguścik effectively does so in two recent studies, focusing on the texts’ “gendered ecocritical edge.”140 Ecopoetry, which will be discussed in the final chapter, is one of the most promising and dynamically developing current trends in Chinese poetry, and Zhai, like Miłobędzka in Poland, with her well-deserved authority and position among Chinese authors, is among its most strategic pioneers.

The many linkages between this section and the final chapter of this book—which will be focused on the most recent phenomena in Polish and Chinese poetry and the intensified search for the Singularity located beyond the horizon of human language—testify to the transformative power and visionary character of the two authors’ invisible laboratory work. Their writings teach new poets how to productively con-verse with the world to develop new grammars of creation and cognition.

1

Criado Perez 2019.

2

Busch 2019: 7.

3

Ibidem 9.

4

Criado Perez 2019: 108–109.

5

Ibidem: 110.

6

van Crevel 2017c: 2–3.

7

Rusinek 2016: 13–15, trans. J K.

8

Świetlicki and Księżyk 2015: 147, trans. J K.

9

Ibidem: 170.

10

Nasiłowska 2004: 119–120, trans. J K.

11

Woolf 2012: 128.

12

Arendt and Gaus 2000: 5. Many thanks to Frank Kraushaar for reminding me of Arendt in this context.

13

See, e.g., Sample 2014.

14

Wilson et al. 2014: 75.

15

Kovacik 2015, back cover.

16

Xu Jingya 2008.

17

Wu Jinhua 2021: 146.

18

Quoted in Poetry International 2004, translator unknown.

19

Rusinek 2016: 35, trans. J K.

20

Szymborska 1996.

21

Rusinek 2016: 43, trans. J K.

22

Szymborska 2016: 332.

23

Quoted in Rusinek 2016: 150–151.

24

Ibidem: 149–151.

25

Ibidem: 152–154.

26

Miłosz 2003, trans. J K.

27

Szymborska 2016: 322.

28

Szymborska 2007: 181.

29

Szymborska 2016: 177.

30

Szymborska 2007: 326–327.

31

Szymborska 2016: 177.

32

Szymborska 2007: 326–327.

33

Szymborska 2016: 109–110.

34

Szymborska 2007: 113–114.

35

Wang Xiaoni 1995, trans. J K.

36

Wang Xiaoni 2014: 20–23.

37

Krenz 2018: 99–100.

38

Wang Xiaoni 2010: 28.

39

Wang Xiaoni 2014: 36–37, translated by Eleanor Goodman.

40

Wang Xiaoni 2017: 175, trans. J K.

41

Szymborska 2016: 192.

42

Szymborska 2007: 195.

43

Szymborska 2016: 296, translated by Clare Cavanagh.

44

Szymborska 2007: 300–301.

45

Szymborska 2016: 282, translated by Clare Cavanagh.

46

Szymborska 2007: 286–287.

47

Wang Xiaoni 2014: 74–75.

48

Ibidem.

49

Ibidem: 104–105.

50

Ibidem: 98–99.

51

Ibidem: 14–17.

52

Szymborska 2016: 183.

53

Szymborska 2007: 187.

54

Herbert 2000: 178–179.

55

Bargielska 2016: 10, trans. J K.

56

Szymborska 2016: 178, translated by Clare Cavanagh and Stanisław Barańczak.

57

Szymborska 2016: 344.

58

Szymborska 2002: 35.

59

Wang Xiaoni 2005: 44–45, trans. J K.

60

Wang Xiaoni 2014: 78–79.

61

《不认识的人不想再》, translated by Eleanor Goodman as “Those I Don’t Know I Don’t Want to Know,” in Wang Xiaoni 2014: 12–13.

62

Wang Xiaoni 2014: 12–13, translated by Eleanor Goodman.

63

Wang Xiaoni 2006: 15, trans. J K.

64

Szymborska 2016: 336–337.

65

Szymborska 2007: 337–338.

66

Wang Xiaoni 2014: 82–83, translated by Eleanor Goodman.

67

Ibidem 2014: 8–9, translated by Eleanor Goodman.

68

Wang Xiaoni 2005: 17–24, trans. J K.

69

Xu Jingya 2008, trans. J K.

70

Szymborska 2016: 328, translated by Clare Cavanagh.

71

Quoted in Liszka 2012, trans. J K.

72

Borowiec 2007.

73

Gutorow 2012.

74

Barańczak 1973: 176, trans. J K.

75

Sendecki, Miłobędzka, and Falkiewicz 2012: 688.

76

Miłobędzka 2013: KL 599–622.

77

Karpowicz 2011.

78

Miłobędzka 2010: 202, trans. J K.

79

Nyczek 2012: 121.

80

Miłobędzka 2013: KL 668–673, translated by Elżbieta Wójcik-Leese.

81

Miłobędzka 2010: 224, trans. J K.

82

Ibidem: 212, trans. J K.

83

Miłobędzka 2013: KL 445–450, translated by Elżbieta Wójcik-Leese.

84

See, e.g., Karpowicz 2011; Barańczak 1973; Łukasiewicz 1971; Suszek 2014.

85

Miłobędzka 2010: 127, trans. J K.

86

See, e.g., Karpowicz 2011; Smolka 2012.

87

Miłobędzka 2013: KL 854–890, translated by Elżbieta Wójcik-Leese.

88

Ibidem: KL 971–981.

89

Ibidem: KL 650–651, translated by Elżbieta Wójcik-Leese.

90

Miłobędzka 2010: 150, trans. J K.

91

Miłobędzka 2013: KL 849–858.

92

Ibidem: KL 934–940.

93

Ibidem: KL 941–953.

94

Ibidem: KL 959–961.

95

Miłobędzka 2012, trans. J K. Cf. Krenz 2012.

96

On Eastern inspirations in Miłobędzka’s poetry, see, e.g., Suwiński 2012.

97

Miłobędzka 2012, trans. J K.

98

The monographs include Suszek 2014; Bogalecki 2011; Żygowska 2018; Suwiński 2017; Zastępa 2016; Kałuża 2008.

99

Grądziel-Wójcik 2018b; cf. Legeżyńska 2012.

100

Mueller 2019.

101

Skurtys 2017: 216–218.

102

Miłobędzka and Mizerkiewicz 2012: 676–677, trans. J K.

103

Sendecki et al. 2012: 690, trans. J K.

104

See, e.g., van Crevel 2003: 677; Luo Zhenya 2006; Tang Xiaodu 2005: 33–34; Tao Naikan 1999: 415. For Zhai’s own view on the breakthroughness of the poem, see Zhai Yongming 2015: 307–308; Zhai Yongming and Yan Liang 2012.

105

Tang Xiaodu 2005: 26, trans. J K.

106

Zhai Yongming 2011: ix.

107

Zhai Yongming 2015: 185–188.

108

Miller 1986: 270–296.

109

Zhang Jeanne Hong 2004.

110

Zhai Yongming 2008a: 74–81.

111

Zhai Yongming 2008b.

112

Ibidem.

113

Ibidem.

114

Zhai Yongming 2008a: 74, trans. J K.

115

Ibidem: 74–75, trans. J K.

116

Zhai Yongming 2008b.

117

Zhai Yongming 2008a: 77–78, trans. J K.

118

Ibidem.

119

Xu Zhimo 1925, trans. J K.

120

Zhai Yongming 2008a: 79, trans. J K.

121

Ibidem, trans. J K.

122

Zhai Yongming 2008a: 81, trans. J K.

123

Miller 1986: 288.

124

Zhai Yongming 2008a: 136.

125

Ibidem: 131–132.

126

Yang Jeffrey 2017: xv.

127

For an incisive essay on the connections between Su Ruolan’s work and Chinese astral imagination, see Wang Eugene 2007.

128

Da 2015: 690–91.

129

Zhai Yongming 2008a: 135–136, trans. J K.

130

Zhai Yongming 2015: 227–228, trans. J K.

131

Ibidem: 228, trans. J K.

132

Assmann 2009: 84.

133

Zhai Yongming 2015: 228, trans. J K.

134

Assmann 2009: 87.

135

Zhai Yongming 2015: 229, trans. J K.

136

Zhai Yongming 2014: 202.

137

Zhai Yongming 2015: 195–197, trans. J K.

138

All citations from Zhai Yongming 2015: 195–197, trans. J K.

139

Lingenfelter 2008.

140

Jaguścik 2018, 2019.

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