Chapter 5 Making Names and Saving Names

In: In Search of Singularity
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Joanna Krenz
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In Poland and China alike, poets born in the 1970s were the first generation in the modern history of their respective countries to not define their identity along the lines of historical grand narratives or vis-à-vis spectacular historical events. Sometimes called in the Polish context Generation Nothing (pokolenie nic), they were not united by any specific common experience, goal, or battle. To many older authors, they were the lucky ones, who just got in on the act and could enjoy new and unprecedented freedom and the fruits of economic and technological development (as a result of democratic transition in Poland and the policy of “reform and opening up” led by Deng Xiaoping 邓小平 in China). Nevertheless, while there was no distinct negative historical point of reference in the 1990s in either country, there was also no distinct positive standard around which young authors could orientate themselves. In Poland, those who had made their mark as “Solidarity” activists in the 1970s and 1980s proved to be awkward politicians and even worse diplomats in the 1990s. Today, three decades later, Poland’s integration into European structures still leaves much to be desired and the impression of its provinciality lingers among many Western Europeans. Religion, a pillar of freedom and national unity in the socialist period, apparently also lost its allure after 1989. In the eyes of many people, the Catholic Church has failed to convincingly formulate a raison d’être for faith in the newly emergent reality of a free, democratic country. The institution which for four decades had invested most of its energy into fighting totalitarianism, when real danger ceased, kept fighting imagined enemies such as “Western liberalism” or Western “spiritual corruption,” entering into strategic alliances with political parties and often neglecting its metaphysical mission. In China, unpopular decisions taken by state officials have been generally either glossed over or presented in glorious ways, even though it is almost impossible that the Chinese population never learned, for instance, about the Tiananmen massacre, for which their great reformer Deng Xiaoping was personally responsible and which certainly undermined his authority as a leader.

The world the Post-70 (70) generation of poets in both countries remember from their youth and early adulthood is perhaps most aptly illustrated by Zhai Yongming’s 翟永明 (b. 1955) image in “Submarine’s Sorrow” of the submarine in the shallow pond and the grotesque prospect of having to generate more water in order to submerge it. It was a moment when poets, those passionate explorers of the ocean floor, seemed to have had no alternative but to start rebranding themselves as hydrological engineers distributing H2O over the spiritual desert to create new depths in which to submerge themselves. How to transform thin air into the Poetry Rivers and Lakes (诗江湖) enjoyed by the Third Generation? How to create a new quality in an era described by older poets has having no qualities? In the absence of historical tidal waves, the only pragmatic solution was to build from one’s individual experiences, memories, observations, inner conflicts, struggles, imaginations, or from one’s own body—particularly, as we will see from the discussion below, the lower part of one’s body. Another, no less important thing is that readers had to learn how to read such poetry, and critics and scholars how to write about it, as the proven reception patterns—be it those mobilized to discuss great masters and classics or those that served to handle the major polemics of the 1990s—no longer sufficed to effectively approach and appreciate the work of the Post-70 poets.

As noted in the introductory chapter, each poem without exception to a greater or lesser extent contributes both to negotiating the shape of (national) poetry at large and to the picture of its author’s singular poetics. Nevertheless, the distribution of interest between these two aspects of literary activity in local poetry discourses has significantly changed over time. The spectacular debuts of the first two protagonists of this chapter, Krzysztof Siwczyk (b. 1977) and Yin Lichuan 尹丽川 (b. 1973), are among the earliest manifestations of the process of shifting accents after the nationwide polemics—between the Barbarians and the Classicists in Poland and the Intellectual and the Popular poets in China—in which the very definition of poetry was at stake, toward the focus on individual poetics. In literary-critical practice, this implies a change of tone from declarative to descriptive: from what (national) poetry should be to what (individual) poetry is. In Poland this transitional process proved to be relatively fast, while in China it took more time and had an intermediary stage: between dualism and pluralism, there was what I call a dialectic period. This phase roughly overlapped with the period in which the Post-70 poets reached artistic maturity, but its echoes can still be heard today in various critical discussions and sometimes translate into personal relationships between authors. I will try to draw a panoramic picture of this evolving landscape in the final section of this chapter through the prism of the notion of imagination and its specific development as a literary-critical category in Polish and Chinese poetry.

Were we to generalize, we might say that with regard to the general topography and main focus of poetry-critical discourse, poets born in the 1980s in China at the time of their debuts were in a similar situation to poets born in the 1970s in Poland at the initial stage of their careers. The two authors discussed in section 2, Tomasz Różycki (b. 1970) and Li Hao 李浩 (b. 1984), in spite of the notable difference in their dates of birth, developed their poetics against a roughly comparable background; their long poems on which my reflection will center, Różycki’s Twelve Stations (Dwanaście stacji, 2004) and Li’s “Homecoming” (还乡, 2017) were published when they were at almost the same age (thirty-four and thirty-three, respectively), like Tadeusz Różewicz and Yu Jian 于坚 when writing their “card indexes” (thirty-nine and thirty-eight). As there are between The Card Index (Kartoteka) and “File 0” (0 档案), there are many mutual resonances between Twelve Stations and “Homecoming.” Some of these commonalities have a literary-historical explanation—that is, the poets’ partly convergent inspirations from world literature—and others stem from the similarity of personal experience they address. Both long poems display the authors’ uncompromising search for identity and individual voice in the evolving cultural, natural, social, and spiritual landscapes. Unlike Yin and Siwczyk, who made their names as “water engineers,” generating poetry from seemingly unpoetic everyday matter, Różycki and Li strive to keep the dramatically lowering metaphysical “water level” above zero and save the names of others, especially those who live “underwater,” in the collective and ritual memory of their local communities, nourished by drying ideals and spiritual values. This is symbolically shown in the opening scene of Li’s “Homecoming,” where the I-narrator drags the spirit of a suicide onto the riverbank.

1 Initiations: Krzysztof Siwczyk and Yin Lichuan

Krzysztof Siwczyk and Yin Lichuan appeared on the poetry scene almost out of nowhere. Before his spectacular debut, Siwczyk, then still a high school student, had for some time read and practiced poetry at home in one of the apparently lesser poetic regions of Poland, namely Silesia. Yin Lichuan, before writing her first poem, had studied French in Beijing and filmmaking in Paris and had not been interested in poetry at all. Both entered the stage without prejudices, expectations, and calculations, with similar concerns and themes to raise in their poems. Like in the case of “one dawn, two evenings” apropos Czesław Miłosz and Ai Qing 艾青, the different trajectories their literary paths assumed in the subsequent years largely reflect the increasingly divergent patterns of the field forces in Polish and Chinese poetry discourses at the time. Siwczyk was successful due to what was perceived as his impartiality in the ebbing nationwide polemic and the unpredictability of his writing, for which he invented a new formula with every released collection. Yin rose to fame as a star of the emerging group called the Lower Body poets (下半身诗人), seen as a young hit squad of the Popular camp, and almost quit writing after several years of intense artistic and social activity.

In the following sections, after a brief reconstruction of Siwczyk’s and Yin’s artistic paths, we will witness what I playfully call an intertextual date, when the I-speakers from their respective poems exchange meaningful looks on the opposite sides of a sportsground’s fence. I will take this unique opportunity to invite them for a longer man-woman intercultural con-versation on the experience of initiation, coming of age, early adulthood, identity formation, the role of sacrum, and the complex interactions between local and global factors in the era of transformation, including the problem of perceived provinciality of their respective native places, which both authors had to cope with early on in their writing.

1.1 First New Voices after the Polemics and What Happened to Them Later

In Polish literature, seventeen-year-old Krzysztof Siwczyk’s enter-the-dragon debut is comparable only with that of Rafał Wojaczek in 1965 (as Jakub Winiarski first pointed out1) and perhaps with Dorota Masłowska’s (b. 1983) cult hip-hop novel Wojna polsko-ruska pod flagą biało-czerwoną (lit. “Polish-Russian War under a White-and-Red Flag”2) of 2002 written when the author was a third-grade high school student.

Siwczyk’s first poems appeared in 1994 in a poetic brochure published by the NaDziko (“GoWild” or “Wildly”) group, established by his older friends based in his native Silesia district, the most industrial area of Poland. The same year, he won a one-poem competition organized by a local poetry club called Perełka (“little pearl”) in his hometown of Gliwice. In 1995, he published the poetry collection Wild Children (Dzikie dzieci), which immediately drew the attention of critics. It won first prize in the Jacek Bierezin National Poetry Competition and received an award from Culture Times (Czas Kultury) magazine.

Commentators were struck by the maturity of his sincere (but not naive), simple (but not vulgar), and detabooized (but not desecrating) account of coming of age in a “depersonifying stone world,”3 as Paweł Majerski described Silesia in his anthology of Silesian poets. Tomasz Majeran emphasized the ease with which Siwczyk overcame the dualism that marked the poetry scene, noting that the young author “on the one hand, skillfully operates with elements of classicizing forms, and on the other, eagerly reaches for the colloquial idiom, purportedly typical of the ‘Barbarians.’”4 Karol Maliszewski, in turn, wrote that the I-speaker in Siwczyk’s collection “waits and strains his ears. His generation, too, is waiting for something,”5 taking Siwczyk’s debut as a portent of something new that was going to happen in Polish poetry.

Siwczyk did not disappoint those who pinned his hopes on him. In 2006, Piotr Śliwiński recalled Siwczyk’s debut book as a prelude to what in the mid-2000s already counted as an impressive and mature oeuvre:

Out of the banal, he extracted singular elements, initiatory motifs such as love, eroticism, the feeling of belonging to the surrounding world; at the same time [he showed] a growing indifference to this world, disbelief and the yearning for belief, [seeing] parents as both loved ones and strangers, and happenstance as the source of crucial choices in life. […] This persistence in forcing his way toward himself, accompanied by the increasingly acute awareness of the difficulty of this task in the following years, remained a hallmark of his poetry.6

As Śliwiński and many others observe, “this persistence in forcing his way toward himself” has been the only unchanging characteristic throughout Siwczyk’s unbelievably dynamic and diverse oeuvre to date. His next collection after Wild Children, titled Emil and We (Emil i my, 1999), was written in the nihilist spirit of Emil Cioran. After that, in several books, the author meditated over what philosophers like to call the fall into language, consistently unmasking the slippages of its hidden mechanisms. In his recent collections, Siwczyk gradually regains his former trust in the written word as a medium for existential expression. This is visible in particular in the book-length nine-part (resembling the term of pregnancy) long poem Where Either (Dokąd bądź, 2014), written before the birth of his daughter. In a sense, in Where Either the poet returns to initiatory motifs, this time experiencing his initiation into fatherhood.

There are some uncanny poetic coincidences in Siwczyk’s life that stimulate readers’ and critics’ imagination alike, although the poet—unlike Świetlicki, who eagerly cites his quasi-mystical connections with Mickiewicz—is far from overemphasizing their importance. Siwczyk attended the same high school in Gliwice as Adam Zagajewski and Julian Kornhauser, leaders of the New Wave. Unlike the Brulion poets, he avidly read the New Wave authors, and—as he recalls—was pleasantly surprised when a question about the New Wave appeared in his final high school oral examination. He also recalls fondly that Kornhauser’s visit to Gliwice once saved his skin in a mathematics class:

At grade four, shortly before the final high school exams, in a math class, I was asked a question about probability. I had no bloody idea how to answer. And then the door opened, and someone entered and said that Kornhauser was in Gliwice and had an author’s meeting in the city. As the school verse monger, I was delegated, and rescued. Later, I acquainted him. Today we are friends. And I’m in a very close relationship with his son Jakub, who is an outstanding poet as well, and almost a professor.7

In an essay describing the atmosphere of Gliwice during the period of transformation and the place of poetry in this reality, he adds:

Standing at the school bulletin board, I used to read poems written by graduates of this noble institution. The very way in which the surname “Kornhauser” sounds delighted me. There was something provocative, rough, and strange in it. In “Zagajewski,” in turn, a Parnassian undertone could be heard. For a young man attending a high school that was focused on the production of mathematical-physical brains, the school bulletin was passé, but it referred one to the distant, analogue era of samizdat and underground publications. This fact alone spoke in favor of the bulletin board heroes. It allowed them to be perceived as candidates for models with whom one can identify oneself, for a teenager who could thus set himself apart from the mass of colorless, mutually indistinguishable adolescents.

Reading poetry proved to be a challenge thrown in the face of the pragmatic majority of the would-be economists, informaticians, etc. Reading poetry also turned out to be a glove thrown to the city, which, after the transformation began in 1989, decided to put some technological makeup on its face.8

Gliwice, although seemingly anything but poetic, is also the city where Tadeusz Różewicz settled in 1949 to join his wife-to-be and stayed for almost twenty years; it is where he wrote his most important works. Siwczyk saw him once in a cemetery, at his mother’s grave. The young poet expressed his admiration for Różewicz on many occasions, as the one who “reached the limits of what is expressible in literature.”9 In a recent interview from April 2020, commenting on the Covid-19 pandemic and life in quarantine, Siwczyk invokes Różewicz as a “master of isolation” and a “prophet of apocalypses”:

Isolation is something that needs to be learned. One of the masters of isolation was Tadeusz Różewicz. I don’t know how many times in my life I’ve been reconfirmed in my belief that Różewicz was a prophet of apocalypse. Let’s add in haste: a prophet without followers. For followers always deform and trivialize the ascetic rule of the apocalypse.10

Krzysztof Siwczyk’s good friend, the poet Maciej Melecki, cofounder of the NaDziko group, was born in Mikołów, a small city in Silesia and the hometown too of Wojaczek. When Lech Majewski, the director of the movie Wojaczek (1999), first read Melecki’s poems, he immediately decided that he wanted him to write the playscript, not knowing of his connections to Mikołów. When Majewski’s team arrived in Mikołów for trial shots, Siwczyk happened to be in the city. Passing nearby, he stopped to observe the staff’s work. The director asked him for help because he needed someone to walk in front of the camera to test some technicalities. As he did an old woman appeared, looked at Siwczyk, and exclaimed, “Oh, Rafuś!” (a diminutive of Rafał), mistaking him for Wojaczek, who had died almost twenty years earlier.11 And thus Siwczyk got the main role and subsequently won several prestigious prizes for his performance at various festivals in Poland. He was also nominated to the European Film Award, along with Richard Harris and Brunon Ganz, and was subsequently offered a role in a Wim Wenders movie. Yet he rejected this and other offers and continued his career as a poet. Only once did he make an exception. Ten years later, he agreed to take part in the production of a noncommercial film titled Expelled (Wydalony, 2010), based on Samuel Beckett’s plays with a playscript written again by Melecki.

Instead of a career in the film industry, Siwczyk started to cooperate with the then niche Mikołów Institute located in Wojaczek’s old family house. Today, the institute is a renowned cultural organization. Melecki is the director, and Siwczyk serves as the deputy director. They publish a literary journal, Arkadia, and a literary series, The Library of “Arkadia” (Biblioteka “Arkadii”), and undertake various initiatives promoting poetry.12

In 1999, the year when Siwczyk was taking his first steps in the film industry, Yin Lichuan, fed up with European life and cinematography, decided to go back to Beijing.13 Within a few months of her return, the twenty-six-year-old graduate of the Department of Western Languages of Beijing University and the Parisian College of Cinematography (École supérieure d’études cinématographiques) made her name as a poet, essayist, fiction writer, and charismatic organizer of poetry events. Unknown, with no experience of literary writing, and unaware of the growing animosities on the poetry scene, in August that year she surprised prominent poets in both camps with an invitation to a national poetry reading to commemorate Jorge Luis Borges. The event was dedicated to her friend, the emerging poet Hei Dachun 黑大春 (b. 1960), who had confessed to her over a beer that he “felt like having a poetry performance.”14 Curious of this “beautiful woman poet who has just returned from France,” as the director Jia Zhangke 贾樟柯 recalls,15 and wondering “how come she knows so many poets,”16 as the poet and rock musician Yan Jun 颜峻 (b. 1973) admits, many artists accepted the invitation. Among them were renowned authors such as Zhai Yongming 翟永明 (b. 1955), Che Qianzi 车前子 (b. 1963), and Ouyang Jianghe 欧阳江河 (b. 1956). Encouraged by the success of the event and by the poets she befriended, Yin too started writing.17

Yin’s first published work was the essay “Patriotism, Sexual Suppression … and Literature: Open Letter to Mr. Ge Hong … bing” (爱国、性压抑……与文学——致葛红…兵先生的公开信). The text was written in late 1999 and appeared in January 2000 in the journal Lotus (芙蓉). It was a response to Ge Hongbing’s 葛红兵 paper “Mourning Twentieth-Century Chinese Literature” (为二十世纪中国文学写一份悼词), in which the scholar attacked major figures in Chinese literary history, including Lu Xun 鲁迅, for their allegedly immoral attitudes in personal life. Yin’s piece—a combination of merciless irony targeted at Ge and deep understanding of, and sympathy toward, what is weak and impure in human nature—echoed widely in the literary environment and earned her the status of a vaunted columnist.

In 2000, Yin’s short stories and poems started to appear in unofficial literary journals. One of them was Lower Body Poets (下半身诗人), established that year by Shen Haobo 沈浩波 (b. 1976) and several other authors born mostly in the 1970s, whom Yin joined, as she holds, because she was attracted by their provocative poetry.18 She also frequently published online, especially on a forum called Shi Jianghu (诗江湖, lit. “rivers and lakes of poetry,” but also translated as Poetry Vagabonds)19 launched by the Lower Body group. The first issue of Lower Body Poets included the best-known poem in Yin’s oeuvre, “Why Not Make It Feel Even Better” (为什么不再舒服一些), which includes a playful reference to the Intellectual-Popular polemic that appears, in Maghiel van Crevel’s words, almost “as an afterthought”20 following a not entirely satisfactory sexual act:

Why Not Make It Feel Even Better
ah a little higher a little lower a little to the left a little to the right
this isn’t making love this is hammering nails
oh a little faster a little slower a little looser a little tighter
this isn’t making love this is anti-porn campaigning or tying your shoes
ooh a little more a little less a little lighter a little heavier
this isn’t making love this is massage writing poetry washing your hair your feet
why not make it feel even better huh make it feel even better
a little gentler a little ruder a little more Intellectual a little more Popular
why not make it feel even better
Translated by Maghiel van Crevel21
《为什么不再舒服一些》
哎再往上一点再往下一点再往左一点再往右一点
这不是做爱这是钉钉子
噢 再快一点再慢一点再松一点再紧一点
这不是做爱 这是扫黄或系鞋带
喔 再深一点再浅一点再轻一点再重一点
这不是做爱这是按摩、写诗、洗头或洗脚
为什么不再舒服一些呢 嗯 再舒服一些嘛
再温柔一点再泼辣一点再知识分子一点再民间一点
为什么不再舒服一些22

The first collection of Yin Lichuan’s works, Even Better (再舒服一些), came out in 2001. Although it was titled after Yin’s most famous poem, the latter was not among the twenty-eight poems included in the book. The volume also featured eleven short stories and eighteen essays representing a wide range of topics and styles. In the introduction to the collection, Shen Haobo refers to the opinions of users of the Shi Jianghu forum, who called Yin “Ku Ayi” (酷阿姨, “Cool Auntie”), and lists “seven kinds of weapon” she possesses, in his view: “coolness,” “carnality,” “female consciousness,” “bright talent,” “willfulness and wanton,” and “reasonable thinking and adroitness.”23 He also quotes poems written by other members of the Lower Body troupe: Hou Ma’s 侯马 “Rainy Night” (雨夜) and Duo Yu’s 朵渔 “Yin Lichuan on a Lotus” (芙蓉上的尹丽川), both of which were dedicated to Yin and testify to her position as a new celebrity in poetry circles.24 Nevertheless, as noted by Yan Jun in “Give Me Orgasm, Give Me Love” (给我高潮,给我爱), scandalizing and “cool” as Yin’s works were, at the deepest level they express the “suffering,” “split,” and “struggle” of the author. As a person who grew up with the ethos of intellectual work, Yan Jun argues, Yin must pay a high psychological price for her attempts to stay close to the common people, including the most debauched ones, such as rural workers, prostitutes, and criminals.25 Hu Chuanji 胡传吉 calls her poetics “soft rock” (as distinct from “hard rock”), arguing that Yin’s work reflects the modern experience of urban life with its moral confusion and spiritual disintegration.26

The determination to explore the dark side of social life is manifest also in Yin’s 2002 novel Fuckers (贱人), which gives an account of the life of city thieves and focuses on their psychological portraits, sketched in the course of a minimalist plot. In reviews posted on Shi Jianghu, Wu Ang 巫昂 points out that the novel “ridicules all the rules,” and Li Shijiang 李师江 calls Yin an “extremist,” arguing that Fuckers does not aim to give the pleasure and joy that permeates her early poetry, but instead invites the reader to experience firsthand the process of self-debauchment, to the point at which “under pressure, all meanings explode and disappear, and one is granted a certificate of debasement.” Shen perceives the book as a turning point in Yin’s career and “the first step on her way to become a truly influential author.”27 In 2003, Yin published a book of essays, 37.8°, and a collection of short stories, Thirteen Self-Sufficient (十三不靠).

Yin’s activity as a poet at the time centered on poetry websites and later also on her blog, which she launched in 2005. In the period 2003–2004, she was invited to international poetry festivals in Sweden, Denmark, and Norway. In 2006, her friend and former Lower Body poet Huang Lihai 黄礼孩 published all her works in verse to date in Cause and Effect (因果, also translated as Karma). The 167 poems featured in the book show the gradual shift of Yin’s artistic interest from “lower-body” experiences to social concern, and the evolution of the general atmosphere of her poetry from provocative to increasingly melancholic.

The same year, on June 14, Yin posted on her blog: “From today on, I will play a director,”28 and so she did successfully for several years. Her debut The Park (公园) won the FIPRESCI Prize at the 2007 Mannheim-Heidelberg International Film Festival, and her second production, Knitting (牛郎织女), premiered at the 2008 Cannes Festival. In 2010, with A Mei 阿美 and Gu Xiaobai 顾小白 she wrote a screenplay of Zhang Yimou’s 张艺谋 famous drama Under the Hawthorn Tree (山楂树之恋), and the next year she directed the romantic comedy Sleepless Fashion (与时尚同居). In 2012, she became the mother of twin daughters.

Twenty poems Yin created at irregular intervals during her career in the film industry, along with a selection of her earlier works, are included in The Doors (大门, 2015). The title alludes to the famous rock group, while the eponymous poem, written in 2009, reflects on the early death of its vocalist Jim Morrison. The tone of most of these new poems is contemplative, their diction moderate. Many of them ponder on life in its physical, emotional, and philosophical dimensions, including Yin’s own experience of parenthood described in “For My Babies” (给宝贝) from 2013, as well as nostalgic memories of past loves, as in “Missing” (思念) from 2014.

After many years of different artistic and personal choices, in the experience of parenthood Yin’s and Siwczyk’s literary paths come closer to each other again. The childhood and youth experiences that feature in their debut and early poems echo in their later work as they ponder on the future of their children and their relationship with them.

1.2 Poems Dating Poems

The intimate con-versation between Krzysztof Siwczyk’s and Yin Lichuan’s poetry which I present in this section begins with an intertextual “love at the first sight,” perpetuated in Siwczyk’s “Warm-Up, Cooling Down” (Rozgrzewka—stygnięcie) and Yin’s “Sportsground” (操场).

Krzysztof Siwczyk
Warm-Up, Cooling Down
for Robert Adamczak
These are not even flashes It’s not
clear anymore Memory cools down
like colorful disco pod lights after switching off
I only remember the smell of the asphalt covering the handball
pitch on which after rain
female students would go out for trainings
They were all horribly pale
like lemon wafers I was eating
when observing their warm-up
No one would come for their trainings
except myself They were so meaningless Indistinguishable
All wearing same washed-out shorts
Only once one of them—probably the fullback
turned to me pulling up her tube socks
We looked at each other
For the rest of the game she played great
I know I was important to her It must have been so
Next week the team was dissolved
Rozgrzewka—stygnięcie
dla Roberta Adamczaka
To już nawet nie są przebłyski To już nie
jest wyraźne Pamięć stygnie
jak wyłączony po dyskotece kolorofon
Pamiętam tylko zapach asfaltowego boiska
do piłki ręcznej na które po deszczu
wybiegały trenować studentki
Wszystkie były tak strasznie blade
jak cytrynowe wafle które jadłem
przyglądając się rozgrzewce
Na ich treningi nie przychodził nikt
oprócz mnie Były tak nieistotne Nierozpoznawalne
Wszystkie w tak samo spranych spodenkach
Tylko raz jedna—chyba rozgrywająca
odwróciła się do mnie podciągając getry
Popatrzyliśmy na siebie
Już do końca meczu grała wspaniale
Wiem że byłem dla niej ważny Musiało tak być
Tydzień później rozwiązano sekcję29
Yin Lichuan
Sportsground
On the other side of the wire mesh, snow, several kids playing
I take out a cigarette, light a lighter
behind me a row of single-story houses, inside
there’s a friend of mine, lying in a sickbed
it’s the first time I’ve seen an IV
dripping little by little
I inhale a lot of cold air, the smoke I exhale
is cold too. How long it’s been since I last saw
a piece of vast land, or sky
(this is but a matter of geography)
Day by day at home, facing a screen or a partner
or go out, to another house with
wine, friends, and lovers
For example, a sportsground, a good few years
or perhaps more? This word, this place
will soon vanish from my memory
Standing so close to the sportsground, I recall
something as if from childhood, something related to time
what is that, I want to speak out
but it increasingly resembles
a camera shot: a melancholic man
approaches the fencing, takes out a cigarette, lights up
kids making noise on the other side of the wire net
what was between me and that man
what finally happened on that sportsground?
《操场》
隔着铁丝网,一片雪,几个孩子
我掏出一根烟,点着火
身后是一排平房,里面有
一个朋友,躺在病床上
我第一次看见打点滴
它是一点一滴的
吸起很多冰凉的空气,吐出的烟
也冷。有多久我没见过
一片广阔的地、或是天
(这仅仅是个地理问题)
我天天在家、面对屏幕和爱人
或是出门,另一间房子里
总有酒、朋友和情人
就说操场,大概好几年?
还是更久。这个词,这个地方
快从我的想象里消失了
站在操场边,我确实想起了
像童年一样的东西,跟时间有关
到底是什么,我很想说出来
但这越来越像
电影镜头: 一个阴郁的男人
走向铁丝网,掏出一根烟,点着火
孩子们在远处,隔着铁丝网,尖叫
我跟这个男人,是什么关系
操场上到底,发生过什么30

When I first observed the correspondence between these poems, my imagination produced a suggestive picture of a teenage Siwczyk staring at a slightly older Yin Lichuan as she plays with other girls. And another one: Siwczyk as the man with a cigarette from Yin’s poem. After all, distance is “but a matter of geography,” and imagination covers such distances in the blink of an eye.

Besides the obvious convergences in terms of the scenery and topic, this association came to me so quickly perhaps partly because of the direct juxtaposition of the themes of sport, disease, and a romantic thread in Yin’s “Sportsground,” which is present also, although in different configurations, in other poems by Siwczyk, most prominently in “A Fall: Playing a Doctor” (Upadek—zabawa w lekarza). There, “I” recalls a cycling accident from his childhood in which he broke his collarbone. A “friend from the fourth floor” (koleżanka z czwartego piętra) visited him at home every day as a “doctor”; she injected his teddy bear with ink, and “slightly touched my cheek with her lips to check / whether everything was fine with my eyes” (zahaczała wargami o policzek sprawdzając / czy wszystko w porządku z moimi oczami).31 So, who knows, perhaps Yin’s and Siwczyk’s textual avatars met already in earlier childhood, before that “date” on the sportsground.

One problem posed by Yin’s “Sportsground” in a closer reading is that we do not know on which side of the wire net the I-speaker actually was in the scene recalled in the second part of the poem—that is, whether her contact with the man with the cigarette was just eye contact and she describes her childish infatuation that stimulated her imagination, as in the case of Siwczyk who remembers how he naively created a love story in his mind, or whether the experience was less innocent, to put it euphemistically. Taking into account that Yin basically has no problem with straightforward descriptions of sexual acts, one could assume that this might have indeed been some less tangible, elusive experience. One example of her straightforwardness is “Justice” (公平), written on September 15, 2000, which opens Even Better. The poem, a seemingly conventional account of the romantic love of “two divinely beautiful people” (一对璧人), ends with the image of “highly nutritious semen” (营养丰富的精液) which “spreads whitely on the ground” (白白地流在地上);32 this is probably a reminiscence of Yin’s sexual intercourse with her “first man,” with whom, as she reveals in “My University Life” (我的大学生活) from 37.8°, she made love on a square covered with snow.33

Siwczyk is not always innocent in his poems either, but, in general, he tends to be much more subtle than Yin. In “Emptying” (Pustoszenie), he too describes what was likely his sexual initiation, but in much less extreme conditions than Yin’s sex in the snow—at home, and carefully arranged beforehand:

Emptying
This will begin after some time
which I still try to control
petty activities concocted in haste: breakfast
(fish from yesterday’s supper or a cheese sandwich), winding
the already smelling humid wool around the chopping board
The only thing I found within hand’s reach
Everything out of spite escapes from me It’s almost
after I’ve reached the limit of my imagination The doorbell
rings I try to wait out I surrender She
enters Takes off her gray sweater Her sweating body
emits vapor as if taken from a butcher’s and put in the freezing cold outside
We make love so quietly that one can hear how our mouths swell
We are two mimes who forgot the alphabet
of scream We finish unable to recall when we started She leaves
On the table an unfinished slice of cheese
already shrunk and dried and sweated too Several real
hours passed Now it’s already after
No movements Changes of speed No
falls convalescence and recoveries Only
regular slow emptying I’m sitting living the rest of my life
deprived of foundations like a fillet
Pustoszenie
To zacznie się za jakiś czas
który próbuję jeszcze sam ustalać
Pospiesznie wymyślane zajęcia: śniadanie
(ryba z kolacji albo chleb z serem) nawijanie
już zalatującej wilgotnej wełny na deskę do krojenia
Niczego więcej nie znajduję pod ręką
Wszystko złośliwie umyka Już prawie
po Na więcej nie starcza wyobraźni Dzwonek
do drzwi Próbuję przeczekać Kapituluję Ona
wchodzi Rozbiera szary szetland Jej spocone ciało
paruje jakby wystawione z masarni na mróz
Kochamy się tak cicho że słychać jak puchną usta
Jesteśmy dwójką mimów którzy zapomnieli alfabetu
krzyku Kończymy nie pamiętając kiedy zaczęliśmy Wychodzi
Na stole nie dojedzony plasterek sera
zdążył skurczyć się wyschnąć i spocić się Minęło
parę prawdziwych godzin Teraz jest już po
Żadnych ruchliwości Zmian tempa Żadnych
upadków rekonwalescencji i ozdrowień Tylko
regularne powolne pustoszenie Siedzę Dożywam
pozbawiony podstaw jaki filet34

The above text sheds yet a different light on Yin’s “Sportsground.” In light of “Emptying,” “Sportsground” might indeed be read as a narrative of sexual initiation. Before, sexual experience had appeared to the I-narrator to be something mysterious and magical, but when the imaginations turned into reality, only some strange void remained that one cannot verbalize and explain: a mixture of satisfaction, disenchantment, and disbelief, accompanied by a weird feeling of the unreality of everything (“What was between me and that man?”).

This kind of elusive experience of derealization echoes in another poem from the same collection: “Bed” (). There, Yin constructs a fifteen-line-long argument proving the realness of the bed to herself, having caught herself with awkward phrasing: “On a real bed … / Have you ever slept on an unreal bed?” (在一张真正的穿上…… / 你睡过一张虚假的床吗?). The monologue ends with: “So / please lie down on the real bed … / Without liquid and speed. / You lie and lie and finally close your eyes” (请躺在一张真正的床上…… / 没有液体和速度。 / 你醒着醒着就闭上了眼).35 Again, we do not know what the function of the bed in that particular situation was, nor whether sleeping means sleeping or rather “sleeping,” but it is exactly this teasing, sometimes waggish ambiguousness where Yin’s poetic flair manifests itself, and not necessarily in her openly “pornographic” poems.

Yin sometimes acts as if she is afraid to show her more sensitive side. Especially in her early poems, when it comes to socially engaged topics, she writes in a way that resembles Yu Jian’s and Han Dong’s laconic idiom, as van Crevel noted,36 but at the same time, she clearly subverts or even derides it. In Even Better, we find two texts that encourage associations with Yu’s “Luo Jiasheng” (罗家生), discussed in chapter 3, namely “Retired Worker Old Zhang” (退休工人老张) and “A Woman I Know” (我所知道的一个女人), the last poem in the collection. The former text tells an absurd story of Zhang, a retired worker who spends long hours looking at a nail in the ceiling. One day, the nail loosens and pierces Zhang’s left eye. Yin concludes:

In the ceiling, there’s a hole now, like his left eye
in which now there’s a hole too. So he can see the hole in the ceiling
only with his right eye. Only after looking for a long time
does the alarm clock sound and the day starts
天花板上,有一个洞,就像他的左眼
是一个洞。所以天花板上的洞
他是用右眼看见的。他要看上老半天
闹钟才会响,天刚蒙蒙亮了37

One may venture that in this poem Yin, intentionally or otherwise, sets Yu Jian against Han Dong, in whose poem “A and B” (甲乙) the two protagonists take different positions on the bed, trying various perspectives and angles to look at the branches through the window, closing one eye or the other. The combination of Yu’s quasi-plot and technique of writing with Han’s experimental optics produces a parodistic effect.

“A Woman I Know” begins with an elliptic description of a car accident: a woman rides a bike with one hand while fixing her hair is hit by a truck. Yin comments:

Perhaps this is the first time I’ve seen this woman
and obviously the last
(except in dreams)
She was fixing her hair at the time
there was no wind
perhaps she just loved beauty
I think I already know her very well
her attitude to life and her fate
but I don’t want to speak of her
this poem wants to say that:
1. It’s snowing in Beijing today.
2. The snow is going to freeze.
我可能是第一次
当然也是最后一次
(梦除外)
看见这个女人
当时,她正用手捋了捋头发
当时也没什么风
可能出于爱美
我觉得我已经很了解她了
她的人生态度和她的命
不过我不想再说她了
其实这首诗说的是:
1. 北京在下雪
2. 雪会结成冰。38

This poem, although more dramatic, bordering on cruelty, is also more complex than “Retired Worker” and contains a hue of self-mockery. The author ridicules her own automatic assumption that she knows everything about people she encounters, and her tendency to pass judgment based on appearances. It also smuggles in some emotional content, if only in parentheses, as a brief digression which suggests that the scene of the accident will long haunt the witness.

Similarly, the high-and-mighty, excessively self-confident attitude, specific to some of the Brulion Generation poets, is something that Siwczyk tries to deal with in his early work. In the poem that opens Wild Children entitled “My Youthful Narcissism” (Mój młodzieńczy narcyzm), the I-speaker recollects his friendship with an old woman:

My youthful narcissism went off the rails this year
I’m already a big, old boy
I don’t go for pornographic movies and don’t ride a mountain bike
I prefer to visit an old lady
drink together raspberry tea and eat cheesecake
We discuss whether it still makes sense for her
to put a new bathtub instead of the old one
Whether they will deliver coal for winter
and who will throw it to the basement
[…]
Only my friends in sleeveless shirts
under which one can see their freshly pink nipples
say that I’m a fart
and that I shouldn’t care about this old bag
Mój młodzieńczy narcyzm wykoleił się w tym roku
Jestem już dużym starym chłopcem
Nie chodzę na filmy porno ani nie jeżdżę na rowerze górskim
Wolę odwiedzać starszą panią
pić z nią herbatę z malin i jeść sernik
Rozmawiamy o tym czy warto jeszcze
wstawić nową wannę w miejsce starej
Czy przywiozą ze składu węgiel na zimę
i kto go zrzuci do piwnicy
Przeglądamy także kartki pocztowe od wnuków z wakacji
[…]
Tylko koledzy w podkoszulkach na ramiączkach
spod których świecą ich świeżo-różowe sutki
mówią że jestem pierdoła
i nie powinienem zajmować się tym starym próchnem.39

Siwczyk, unlike many of Yin’s male friends from the Popular camp, apparently has no ambitions to be a tough macho. He is almost religiously solemn in reconstructing his adolescence, with all its mixed emotions, naiveties, expectations, discoveries, and concerns.

In contrast to Siwczyk, in Even Better Yin Lichuan opens up perhaps only in one poem, namely “Mom” (妈妈), in which she recalls how she, as a thirteen-year-old girl, wondered why and for what or whom her mother lived, “how it is possible that one woman / becomes the mother / of another woman” (一个女人 / 怎么会是另一个女人 / 的妈妈), and whether motherhood is worth the sacrifice. Her mother strikes her as the most familiar and at the same time the strangest person in the world:

On my way home I saw
the back of an old woman carrying a basket of vegetables
Mom, is there anybody stranger than you
当我回家的路上瞥见
一个老年妇女提着菜篮的背影
妈妈,还有谁比你更陌生40

The observation that one’s parents are getting old can be one of the most shocking discoveries of adolescence, one which sparks an acute awareness of the passing of time. It also marks one’s symbolic psychological disconnection from one’s parents, a moment in which one no longer feels organically linked to them, and instead starts to perceive them as strangers and look at them with a new critical distance. Some children strive to intuitively protect themselves from this experience, trying to push this inconvenient and disturbing knowledge out of their consciousness. Siwczyk as a fourteen-year-old boy has similar thoughts to Yin. In “Parents Sleep in the Afternoon: I’m 14” (Rodzice śpią po południu—mam 14 lat), he imagines his parents in their bedroom and compares his mother after her last diet first to Jesus Christ on the cross and then to a woman painted on a match box (the latter image is, in his opinion, more beautiful).41 In another poem, “Hurraaay! A Sparrow Is Dying, My Mother Sleeps Safely” (Hurrraaa!—Wróbel zdycha—matka śpi spokojnie), he recollects how he would monitor his mom’s afternoon naps, checking every now and then that she is still breathing.42

Besides the vicarious experience of the inevitability of time, which they realize observing the bodies of their parents, the subjects of Siwczyk’s and Yin’s poems face the necessity to consciously define their relationship with the surrounding space. The two authors share the painful awareness of provinciality of their native cities, but finally come to embrace the “provincial” atmosphere and “provincial” aesthetics.

Yin was not born in Beijing but in Chongqing, some 1,500 km away from the capital. She was the third child and only daughter in her family of five. Both her parents were teachers, her father at a university and her mother at a high school. When Yin was one year old, her dad was assigned to work at Guizhou University, and the whole family moved to Guiyang, where the poet spent her early childhood. In 1980, when she was seven, after many failed attempts her father managed to obtain permission for the family to relocate to Beijing. He was convinced that only in the capital city could they live a decent life and give the kids a chance at a better future. As recalled by Yin in the essay “Commemorating Beijing” (为北京的纪念) from 37.8°, their entire luggage consisted of some “broken utensils and one hundred kilograms of rice,” because “reportedly, rice in Beijing was expensive.”43 Yin and her mother lived in a nine-square-meter room, while her father and two brothers stayed in a dormitory, so the Beijing of her childhood conceivably bore little resemblance to the hypermodern cityscape of a world-class metropolis. Only after ten years did the family get a new apartment in a residential area in Fengtai District in the then suburbs of Beijing. It took Yin many years to integrate into the city. She recalls that the further from the city center her family moved, the more Beijingese she felt.44 A similar paradoxical mechanism was at work when she left China for Paris. Her emigrant experience allowed her to look at Beijing from a critical distance but also with a greater sense of sentiment than before her studies in Paris. It is only after her return that she started to consider Beijing her home.45

In the poem “For This One Glance” (为这一眼), she ridicules what we might identify as mechanisms of the (self-)Orientalization of China vis-à-vis Western culture. She also observes an analogous problematic dynamic within Chinese society as such—between cities and the countryside, and between poets and so-called common people. The work in question is a reflection of a train traveler who enjoys the landscape when crossing less developed areas:

I am on the train, they live in my window
I pass them by, they pass by
my look of a Beijinger, for this one glance
I hope they would continue living like this, the style of the Southern Kingdom
is so plain and modest. You should never build
skyscrapers here, kids should never play
Transformers, women should never use Chanel perfumes,
rice should be always planted by hand,
if house roofs don’t leak, how can poets
write out poetry?
[…]
For one glance of a foreigner,
I had to denounce the high building where I lived
and every now and then ingratiatingly smile to flies in the streets,
so for my glance from the train
I wish village kids to love trash, and grow up amid trash,
and give birth to other kids, and pass the ballad of the native soul on them
我在火车上,他们活在我的车窗
我路过他们,他们路过
我来自京城的一眼,为了这一眼
希望他们继续这样生活,南国的风情
多么朴素。千万不要盖起
高楼大厦,孩子们千万不要玩
变形金刚,女人们更不要用夏奈尔香水,
水稻将永远是人工播种,
房子若不漏雨,诗人还怎么
写得出诗歌
[…]
为了外国朋友的这一眼,
我不得不痛斥我所住的高楼,
并时常对街边的苍蝇们谄笑
所以为了我火车上的这一眼
祝福农村孩子们热爱垃圾,在垃圾中长大,
生出另一些孩子,传唱民族灵魂的歌谣。46

Yin’s reconciliation with her native country and the city of her youth, despite the many absurdities she detects in the way they function, is an important stage in the process of self-identification. It is no longer the city that describes her and determines her actions; instead, she starts to describe the city and gives meaning to its various locales, associating them with different experiences from her life.

In the final poem from Wild Children, “Alright” (Wszystko dobrze), Siwczyk likewise meditates on the debatable aesthetics of his surroundings. His window view consists of “trash container car park empty carousel blocks of flats skyscraper / trash container / blocks of flats skyscraper nothing blocks of flats road sign” (śmietnik parking pusta karuzela bloki wieżowiec / bloki wieżowiec przerwa bloki i znak drogowy)—all of this makes for a “living zone of death” (strefa zamieszkania śmierci). But “it’s alright” (wszystko dobrze), concludes the I-speaker, “I have nested in the place / where the bed sags a bit I also tamed // the cold tape along the edge of my blanket” (Zagnieździłem się w tym miejscu / gdzie nieco zapadł się tapczan / Oswoiłem także // zimną tasiemkę obszywającą koc).47 Poetry can exist without a special landscape, be it the leaking roofs of village cottages (like in Yin’s “For This One Glance”) or the stunning cutting-edge architecture of modern cities, which was nowhere to be found in Siwczyk’s Gliwice in the 1990s.

Moreover, unlike many other seedy cities in Poland that required modernization but might at least exhibit some remnants of their former glory, such as picturesque old markets and churches, Gliwice has never been particularly famous for its sightseeing value. The complicated history of the city and the entire Upper Silesia is a central problem of many of Adam Zagajewski’s poems and one book-length essay, Two Cities (Dwa Miasta, 1991), referring to Gliwice and Lvov, where the poet was born. It is also important in understanding Tomasz Różycki’s work, to which we will turn in the next section. Situated on the borders of Poland, Czechia, and Germany, for many decades,

the region [of Upper Silesia] used to be a genuine melting-pot. This is where Polish, German, Jewish, Silesian, Czech, and also Ukrainian and Belarusian elements met and clashed, creating a new form of borderland culture. The trajectory of this historically Germanic region describes a centuries-long battle for ownership, in which Poland and Germany were the main contestants.48

After World War II, Silesia, together with several other regions known as the Recovered Territories (Ziemie Odzyskane), was detached from Germany and incorporated into Poland. The German population of the city was forced to return to their homeland, and their houses were assigned to Poles who had been relocated from Eastern borderland territories which, in turn, become part of the Soviet Union.49 Yet this multiculturality was never acknowledged by the Polish communist government, which carried out the politics of homogenization, more or less actively destroying all manifestations of heterogeneity. Thus Gliwice became a city that could boast neither national tradition nor multiethnic diversity on which rich local culture could be built. In a place like this, conceives the young Siwczyk, there is no material for poetry. Therefore, a poem must come from inside and must be carried to term in the poet’s body, not lower body, not upper body, but exactly in the middle, in the womb, under one’s heart. “Alright” ends with the lines:

Now I must
carry this anxiety and this poem to term like a fetus which is so difficult
to release and even more so to abort.
Teraz muszę
donosić ten lęk i wiersz jak płód który tak trudno
uwolnić a tym bardziej usunąć50

There is one more resonance between the work of Krzysztof Siwczyk and Yin Lichuan worth highlighting, one that surprised me when I reread their oeuvres with a compairative eye since I had tacitly assumed that this is not a topic that might be of any significance to Yin. Siwczyk is very much concerned with the question of God. In roughly half his poems in Wild Children, he makes explicit allusions to the Christian faith or its symbols, which constitute an inextricable part of the landscape of everyday life in Poland, as the reader may remember from my discussion of Lei Pingyang’s 雷平阳 trip to Poland in chapter 2. In “A Poem for Anne Sexton” (Wiersz dla Anne Sexton) and “For” (Dla), both located in the first part of his debut collection, Siwczyk writes of God as his rival, against whom he has to compete for his girlfriend—who, as we may guess, is a well-behaved young woman that obeys the conservative Catholic ban on premarital sex. He naively assures her that his breath is more fragrant than her old pope’s (John Paul II’s, that is) and that he can perform similar rituals as she can see in the church on her body. He even declares that he can play God for her if she gives herself to him.51 In the texts belonging in subsequent parts of the collection, he is increasingly annoyed with the indifference of God and finally loses faith altogether. In the eponymous poem “Wild Children,” he captures the moment of disillusionment, constructing a peculiar scene in a church. Two scruffy kids approach Jesus hanging on the cross. A girl starts to tickle Jesus’s feet and a boy reports on His facial expressions. The narrator joins them:

I don’t know why but I approach them and
now we tickle together using various techniques
the frozen God We wait a while and then start again
We decide to continue until
something changes
We wait without a word
strain our ears
I am waiting
I am straining my ears
Nie wiem dlaczego ale podchodzę do nich i
już razem łaskoczemy różnymi technikami
zmarzniętego Boga Odczekujemy chwilę i dalej
Postanawiamy robić to tak długo
aż coś się zmieni
Czekamy nie mówiąc do siebie
Nasłuchujemy
Czekam
Nasłuchuję52

There is one poem in Yin Lichuan’s oeuvre, “In a Little Town” (在小镇), written in 2002 and included in Cause and Effect, a reminiscence of her stay in France, where she too reports an intriguing clash of spontaneous childishness with the daunting seriousness of Christian sacrum. She leaves the church early before the end of some unidentified religious ceremony and waits for her friends outside. When they appear, they walk ahead together through the anonymous town. As they stroll, on the way

a blond-hair blue-eyed little girl
sucks my finger
staring blankly as we slowly pass in front of her
without a word
一个金发碧眼的小女孩
吮着我的手指头
呆呆看我们从街心缓缓经过
不发出一点声响53

Strictly speaking, this is a physically impossible scene, but the preceding lines shed some light on it. “Then too I had nothing to do / with myself” (那时候我和我自己 / 也没有什么关系了), writes Yin, recalling how she felt in Paris three years before, when she almost married a Frenchman, as we learn from her autobiographical essays and interviews.54 The feeling of estrangement in a foreign country likely escalated in the gloomy church and prompted her to leave the building to take some fresh air and soothe her eyes by looking at the natural landscape and observing an ant climbing on her shoe. This estrangement finally becomes internalized and turns into self-estrangement. It disturbs the connection between her mind and body, which seems to receive physical impulses from other objects and people rather than from its own brain. Or, maybe, she is reminded of her own childhood and these memories at some point are transformed into a sensory experience of the foreign girl sucking her (Yin’s) fingers? At any rate, some deep split had appeared in her consciousness in reaction to these contrastive images: the unnatural sacred space of the church that provoked repulsion, on the one hand, and the innocent child in the street, on the other, a split that remains still unhealed after three years.

1.3 Siwczykfication of Yin Lichuan? Affordance and Concordance in Compairative Reading

Yin Lichuan’s poetry does not hinge on ostentatious blasphemy and cheap exhibitionism, as some critics tend to see it. Instead, I posit, it stems from a specific mental disposition, which makes the poet feel overwhelmed with, and thus unreceptive to, many forms of transcendence and metaphysics in art and in life alike. This type of sensibility, even if often disguised as irony that borders on cynicism, by no means should be perceived as inferior to, or taken less seriously than, the sensibility of those who feel comfortable among elevated ideals and metaphysical visions. Disentangling Yin from the Chinese literary-historical context of her writings, which I have attempted by bringing out resonances between her poems and those of Krzysztof Siwczyk, allows one to see those features of her work that have been effaced in the local Chinese discourse but which were felicitously recognized and appreciated from the very beginning in Siwczyk’s oeuvre by its Polish commentators.

The fact that Siwczyk’s work was approached within a clearly different paradigm of reading, although it shares many features with Yin’s poetry, resulted arguably from several factors. The first and most general reason is that Polish poetry discourse at the time was entering a different phase than the Chinese one. This phase was aimed at the increase of pluralism: authors who maximally constricted the spaciotemporal horizon of their poetics, and filtered the world through their subjective consciousness and body, like Siwczyk, were particularly welcomed. Second, Siwczyk’s poetry did not need to break any taboos, as most of the taboos had been already broken by the Brulioners and the “cursed poets”; therefore his work did not shock anybody and was received with a greater attention to detail. Last but not least, Siwczyk is a man. Many lines of his poetry that were considered neutral in terms of their compliance with social conventions, or even taken as a manifestation of the author’s tenderness and delicacy of feelings, might have incited scandal rather than encourage incisive, nuanced reading had they been written by a woman.

It is not my intention to question Yin’s choice to join Shen Haobo and others in the Lower Body group, particularly since had it not been for their influence, she may have never started writing poetry. But it is true that by so doing, she automatically made herself a particularly easy—much easier than her male friends—target of superficial criticism based on stereotypical, biased readings. A double label stuck to her poetry. On the one hand, like the entire output of the Lower Body group, her work was inscribed into what we may term as an after-polemic; that is, a still distinct dichotomy inherited from the older generation, gradually evolving toward a dialectic phase. In this configuration, Lower Body was located on the opposite pole to Academic(ized) Writing (学院派), represented by young university-employed poets who continued the Intellectual line, such as Jiang Tao 姜涛 (b. 1970), Jiang Hao 蒋浩 (b. 1971), and Hu Xudong 胡续冬 (1974–2021). On the other hand, Yin became a subject of another dispute, namely the discussion around the phenomenon known as meinü wenxue 美女文学, literally “beautiful women’s literature,” usually rendered as “glamlit.” Although the term refers mostly to fiction writers, it was nevertheless mobilized by Yin’s critics against her. In 2005, she was attacked in Ta Ai’s 他爱 book of essays Criticizing Ten Glamlit Authors (十美女作家批判书), which follows a formula reminiscent of Yi Sha’s Criticizing Ten Poets (十诗人批判书). Along with Yin, Ta Ai discusses Sheng Keyi 盛可以, Chun Shu 椿树, Wei Hui 卫慧, Anni Baobei 安妮宝贝, Jiu Dan 九丹, Hong Ying 虹影, Mian Mian 棉棉, Zhao Ning 赵凝, and Mu Zimei (also rendered as Muzi Mei) 木子美. In the chapter devoted to Yin, the author justifies her decision to count the poet among glamlit writers as follows:

Yin Lichuan’s poetry collection Even Better is not very poetic; her novel Fuckers also appears rather mediocre. Were it not for her identity as an ideologist of the great Lower Body poetry, based on her writing alone she wouldn’t have gained the recognition she enjoys now. As far as the superficial glamlit authors are concerned, their performance is more important and more attractive than their writing. Yin Lichuan didn’t avoid this trap either.55

In the following part of the essay, Ta Ai substantiates her statement, arguing, among other things, that during poetry readings Yin performed her poetry in a way that provoked sexual reactions in male audiences and that her writing boils down to “selling sex” (卖性). On that occasion, she cites Duo Yu 朵渔, a member of the Lower Body “circus” (Ta Ai’s term) who withdrew from the group in 2003, claiming that their poetry’s selling point (买点) is sex:

In his essay “The End of the ‘Lower Body,’” Duo Yu finally admitted their mistake, and said the movement shouldn’t be continued. He explained: “This is a double-edged sword. Emphasizing the importance of the body will always be crucial and ingenious. The problem is that in our focus on the body we should emphasize ‘body writing’ and not ‘writing body.’ We should allow body to write itself, and not try to achieve a provocative effect by writing about body.”56

Van Crevel showed that Lower Body has little to do with glamlit, if only because, unlike the fiction of Mian Mian or Wei Hui, their poetry could hardly generate any financial benefits,57 and I entirely subscribe to his argument. But if it was not a market-oriented enterprise, perhaps indeed, as Duo Yu suggests, it was a provocation for provocation’s sake? And if that was the case, then what does it mean?

I submit that if Yin really did aim purely to provoke, this would mean, first and foremost, that she was not a very good and determined provocateur. She either did not want, or perhaps was not able to, fully control the confessional undercurrent that at times surfaces in her verse; especially in poems written roughly since 2003, this happens increasingly often, and in the newest works included in The Doors there is virtually only confession. Yin-mother, Yin-director who produces movies like The Park, where she tries to rethink her relationship with her father, and Yin-essayist who produces long pieces about her childhood included in 37.8º—these are still the same as Yin the author of Even Better, even if the distribution of emotional and rhetorical accents is different. Shen Haobo put it very clearly introducing her debut book, alluding to the famous “Song of Everlasting Sorrow” (长恨歌) by Bai Juyi 白居易 (772–846):

The lucky Yin Lichuan on whom alone the emperor’s love of three thousand beauties was placed, without that pain and the force that pulls her down, wouldn’t her “Fly” [the word is provided in English in the original] change into a balloon’s “Fly” [ibidem]? And wouldn’t the hollow balloon fly too high and bang?58

As the old polemics gradually faded away, Chinese critics and scholars since the 2010s have started to interpret Yin’s early work differently. She has been read more carefully and not only as part of a general phenomenon that played a specific role in negotiating the definition of national poetry. Many readers have attempted interpretations that show Yin’s contribution to the reflection on more universal social, ethical, and philosophical problems, mostly through the prism of feminist thought; for example, “Mom,” as Bao Yuqi 鲍宇琪 notes, has been read as a challenge to the traditional model of motherhood based on lifelong self-denial, or, in Jiang Lili’s 姜藜藜 essay, as an accusation thrown in the face of the patriarchal system and traditional family ethics.59 Other examples include a deconstructionist reading of “Why Not Make It Feel Even Better” by Zhao Bin 赵彬 and a reading of “Roses and Itching” (玫瑰与痒) within the framework of New Criticism by Zhou Xiaoxiang 周小香.60 The slight shift in the dominant paradigm of reading Yin’s poetry might be taken as a signal that the evolution of poetry discourse in China has entered a new stage. After some two decades of a general focus on defining central notions, drawing boundaries, and fencing off territories, the questions of poetry and poethood, although they still sometimes raise emotions, more and more frequently give way to considerations of actual poems and poets, whose propositions are revisited with the use of various theories and methodologies designed to tap into the artistic and conceptual potential of the texts.

In any event, it is interesting that Yin Lichuan’s and Krzysztof Siwczyk’s early poetics seem to interact with one another more dynamically and productively than with their respective local contexts. I believe in the power and importance of such cross-cultural readings because they help look at poems in a way that is free from bias and essentially disinterested. They allow one to distance oneself from the specific hierarchical structures of the source discourse and focus on a given text’s multiple affordances more than on its concordance with locally dominant trends, hierarchies, or expectations. This is one reason why I chose Li Hao for a protagonist of the next section, a young poet whose collection Homecoming (还乡) I translated into Polish shortly after its publication in China. At roughly the same time, some of his poems were also translated into English by Eleanor Goodman, and soon after that Homecoming was banned in the PRC. On December 17, 2020, Li was awarded the second prize of the 2020 Yage Prize for Literature, established by the Duke Initiatives in Theology and the Arts to promote the production of excellent Chinese Christian literature, music, and visual arts. With major adjustments, Homecoming was published in Taiwan in 2021 as Pangolin, Republic (穿山甲,共和国), and his selected poems will appear in English, Spanish, and Japanese in the coming years.

Thus Li’s poetry started to circulate in foreign literary discourse before it was actually absorbed and “managed” (i.e., pigeonholed or compartmentalized) by broader audiences and literary-critical discourse in China. One can therefore attempt a reading that is virtually free of poetry-political baggage and its affordances have not yet been reduced to concordances. I will undertake such an attempt by compairing Li Hao’s long poem “Homecoming” with Tomasz Różycki’s book-length poemat Twelve Stations. This is certainly not to say that the context from which the texts emerge should be ignored. Rather, the operation consists in suspending the immediate context into which they fall after being created in order to see how they behave in a different force field, con-versing on the compairative stage.

2 Solastalgia: Tomasz Różycki and Li Hao Saving Singularity of Names

Whereas Krzysztof Siwczyk and Yin Lichuan finally managed to nest in their native places, Tomasz Różycki and Li Hao never experience the comfort of self-identification with/through a place. On the one hand, they cannot fully accept their here and now in modern, rootless cities; on the other, they are aware that the roots that some older authors have persistently searched for no longer exist other than in narratives passed on by former generations, in vicarious, increasingly mythicized (post)memories. Even the places they recall from their childhood, have during their years-long absence been transformed to the point of being nearly unrecognizable. This arouses the feeling of what ecopsychologists call solastalgia, a term coined by Glenn Albrecht drawing on the Latin word solacium (“comfort”) and the Greek root algia (“pain, suffering, sickness”). The notion, as Kimberly Skye Richards explains,

convey[s] the anxiety caused by the inability to derive solace from one’s home in the face of distressing events. It is part and parcel of a new abnormal of the Anthropocene, characterized by uncertainty, unpredictability, chaos, relentless change, and deep distress caused by a changing climate, erratic weather, and species extinction. Solastalgia might be precipitated by the dwindling numbers of salmon in a river; the eradication of buffalo on the plains; the hyperextraction of natural resources through logging, mining, and tar sands development; or urbanization, through the construction of condos, ski hills, and golf courses.61

The two poets share the experience of estrangement from a place caused by its irrevocable transformation, a disturbing awareness of being homeless at home. But they do not turn their back on their homelands. Instead, their attitude might be described with a metaphor proposed by Naomi Klein:

When I think of the land as my mother or if I think of it as a familial relation, I don’t hate my mother because she’s sick, or because she’s been abused. I don’t stop visiting her because she’s been in an abusive relationship and she has scars and bruises. If anything, you need to intensify that relationship because it’s a relationship of nurturing and caring.62

Różycki and Li, too, try to save and rebuild as much of their homes and their personal histories as possible through literature, even if they do realize that the obtained image will always be pitifully defective.

2.1 Homeless at Home

Różycki’s hometown Opole has a similar history to Siwczyk and Zagajewski’s Gliwice. Its industrial landscape is a legacy of two centuries of Prussian and German rule over the city. The multiethnic population, in its turn, reflects the complexities of postwar European territorial policies. Like the Zagajewski family, Różycki’s grandparents had experienced a belle époque era in Lvov’s history, that is, the interwar period, and its dramatic fate during World War II. After the war, when Lvov was incorporated into the territories of what is today Ukraine, they were forced to leave. The city functions in the family memory as a traumatic but sentimental narrative, which Różycki has regularly taken up in his works since his debut collection under the self-suggestive German-language title Vaterland (1997). The modern epic, or mock-epic (poemat heroikomiczny), as critics frequently call Twelve Stations,63 is his most extensive attempt to deal with this mythical infernal paradise and utopian hell.

In Twelve Stations, Różycki describes a family pilgrimage to a little town called Gliniany near Lvov. The narrator, Grandson, is assigned a mission to gather the family, from its oldest generation to its youngest, divided by conflicts and animosities and scattered throughout Poland, in order to travel together to their native place and rebuild a local church. The oldest family members claim that they can remember where golden ritual utensils were buried before the war and volunteer to help excavate them. Once the squad is ready, they board the train at Opole, heading to Lvov, but the expedition never reaches its destination and the train itself turns out to be a ghost train, driven by the narrator’s late Grandfather. Meanwhile, as they set out to fulfill their mission, their Silesian homes and gardens face destruction.

The structure of Różycki’s work is reminiscent of the twelve books of Adam Mickiewicz’s national epic Pan Tadeusz, while the invocation of Opole that precedes the narrative proper is a pastiche of the most famous lines of Mickiewicz’s masterpiece, that is, the invocation of Lithuania. The family saga, sketched against the historical background of the country, is an immediately obvious play on the saga of the aristocratic Soplica family in Pan Tadeusz. On the train, however, where the living family members are accompanied by those who had died long ago, the story arguably resembles more Mickiewicz’s Romantic-patriotic drama Forefathers’ Eve (Dziady), whose title refers to an ancient Slavic feast commemorating the dead, a context that might be an interesting interpretive perspective also for Li Hao’s “Homecoming.”

“Homecoming” develops around a similar concept of traveling to a nonexistent place. In the opening lines of the text, when the I-speaker crosses the river approaching his native village, a soul of a suicide whom he used to know in childhood emerges from the water. The wanderer offers to lead the man’s soul to his old family home, knowing that he would not be able to find his own way because since his death everything had changed in the neighborhood; housing developments had reached the countryside, a railroad had been built, old houses had been relocated. Like Twelve Stations, “Homecoming” crowns the years-long process of the author’s self-identification both as a person and as a poet.

In the eponymous poem and in the entire collection alike, besides Miłosz and Gu Zhun 顾准, whom I mentioned in the introduction, one may hear the echoes of several Western modernists, including T. S. Eliot’s criticism of civilization, or Rainer Maria Rilke’s metaphysical connections with nature and attempts to find an antidote to the spiritual void of the wasteland, or Robinson Jeffers’s fascination with indigenous culture and pagan rites. One might also trace Li’s affinities further back to Romanticism, whose legacy shaped the development of modernism in Chinese poetry. Hölderlin’s fusion of Greek antiquity, Christianity, and paganism, Novalis’s magical idealism, and Schiller’s Christianized idea of enchanted nature may all come to mind when reading Homecoming and “Homecoming.” However, in Li’s oeuvre one can see how this Romantic-to-modernist trajectory crumples when confronted with the contemporary world. In hypermodern reality, signs and symbols, abundantly present in Romantic and modernist works, have largely lost their signifieds as the transcendental dimension which they once indicated has now shrunk to the size of a frog “endowed with a heart of a crane liberated in the weeds in the waving pope” (在起伏的教皇中,得到苇间获释的鹤心), to borrow a hallmark image from “Going to Hengshui” (去衡水途中).64 On the one hand, Li’s vivid descriptions may evoke associations with, for example, neoexpressionist catastrophism, as Li Jianchun 李建春 notes, listing painters such as Anselm Kiefer, Georg Baselitz, and Jörg Immendorff.65 On the other hand, like in Różycki, there is also a lot of intimacy, timidly wrapped in occasionally playful but bitter irony.

2.2 In Search of Lost Spacetime

In her essay on Zagajewski and Różycki, Ewa Stańczyk, following Mary Louise Pratt, refers to Upper Silesia as a “contact zone.”66 This contact zone, however, is a place not only of intercultural but also interepochal encounter. Those who moved there come from not just a different space but also from a different time—and they continue living this foreign time in their new homeland. One of Grandson’s tasks before the expedition is to save, and fix, an old pendulum clock from Babcia’s (Grandma’s)67 house before one of his uncles comes up with the idea of selling it and spending the money on alcohol. There is a telling scene in which the oldest members of the family try to carry the big and heavy clock down the stairs, only for it to be permanently wedged in the door, blocking the staircase. It is as if time itself has got stuck in this narrow, unfamiliar space, an unsightly industrial landscape.

History left an indelible imprint on the Różycki family. They could not agree on their attitude to Ukraine—a country which centuries ago had been brutally colonized by Poland but yet waged a massacre of Poles in Volhynia and Eastern Galicia in 1943 known as the Volhynian slaughter, officially recognized by the Polish parliament in 2016 as a genocide.68 These family conflicts are a microcosm of Poland’s public discourse today, particularly the messy official politics of memory that continues to hamper the development of a modern, democratic, and tolerant society. One of the many manifestations of this collective disease of memory is the emergence of the All-Polish Youth (Młodzież Wszechpolska). This ultranationalist organization of young people, which carry out mass “patriotic” demonstrations and marches, for instance against homosexuals, refugees, Jews, people of color, and many others, and which shout slogans such as “Poland for Poles,” is parodied in the below scene of a family fight:

As he [Grandson] did so, he listened to gruesome tales from the last war:
of monstrous murders by a neighbor’s hand, often even brother’s;
of people killed in the most savage ways because they spoke Polish,
or simply had a Polish given name; of the killing of women and children
and elderly folks, and of the deep sorrow they felt
when they had to leave those lands; of hatred between relatives, of tears shed
and of the conviction that the sea of blood spilled between the two nations
could never be parted. Some of those speaking immediately formed
a local branch of the Union of All-Polish Youth,
which two of the seventy-year-olds signed up for right away,
and which presented demands for land to be taken away from the Ukrainians,
for the defense of Polishness and of the Mother Country against barbarity,
for the restitution of property to estate owners in the East
and the return to servitude of the local population. But then Antoni Major,
suddenly recovering clarity of diction, roared in their ears in Ukrainian:
“Goddamn you, go take a shit in the corn!” then whacked someone in the head
with his saber, though he unintentionally used the hilt end,
such that no loss of life ensued. There were also other acts
of social intercourse and interpersonal communication,
to the sounds of choral singing and toasts
Translated by BILL JOHNSTON
Wysłuchał przy tym [Wnuk] strasznych opowieści o czasach wojny ostatniej,
o potwornych mordach z ręki sąsiedzkiej, często nawet bratniej,
kiedy zabijano w najdziksze sposoby za to, że ktoś mówił po polsku,
albo że polskie nosił imię, o mordach na kobietach, dzieciach,
starcach i o ogromnym żalu, kiedy trzeba było te ziemie zostawiać,
o nienawiści pomiędzy bliskimi, o łzach wylanych
i o przeświadczeniu, że morze krwi przelanej między narodami
nigdy się już nie może rozstąpić. Zaraz się zawiązał pośród
mówiących Związek Wszechpolskiej Młodzieży,
w który wstąpiło dwóch siedemdziesięciolatków
i wysunęło żądania zabrania ziem Ukraińcom,
obrony polskości oraz Macierzy przed barbarzyństwem,
przywrócenia majątków dziedzicom na Wschodzie
i powrocie do ucisku ludu tamtejszego, lecz Tośku Major,
nagle odzyskawszy przytomność mowy, huknął im do ucha
“A idy ty w kukurudzu sraty!” i grzmotnął jednego w łeb
swoją szablicą, lecz nieszczęśliwie stroną rękojeści,
więc się obyło bez ofiar śmiertelnych. Doszło też do innych aktów
społecznej komunikacji i interpersonalnych angażmętów,
przy wspólnych śpiewach i toastach69

Eventually, the family arrives at a consensus, mostly thanks to the irreplaceable mediation of vodka. No one expects that the worst is yet to come. Returning to their roots, they discover that the peaceful landscape they had left behind has since been annihilated. The narrator paints an apocalyptic vision of allotment gardens deserted not just by humans but by all living things. His detailed description spans two pages, from which I shall quote but a brief excerpt.

Meanwhile, on the same night destruction came to all the creatures
that inhabited the allotment garden by the tracks, to all the mementos there,
and the ideal world was given over to the mercy of the allotment world. The new owners
had sold the place, taking advantage of a decent price
offered by the municipality […]
At this commotion the alarm was instantly raised
in all the various provinces, in the vegetable patches, in trees, in the brush,
and under bushes hordes of residents began to gather
in consternation: ants, beetles, peelie bugs,
honeybees, bumblebees, and also snails of a kind hitherto unknown
among the local fauna, raised in the darkness of currant bushes,
beneath wilting leaves, in labyrinths of underground passageways
never seen by human eye, hatched from mimesis
and solitude, dreamed up out of squalor, filth—out of freedom.
The day of judgment was come, a day of trembling and despair. The first machines
rumbled over the rusty old fence that put up little resistance.
Translated by Bill Johnston
Tymczasem tej nocy przyszła zagłada na wszelkie stworzenie
zamieszkujące działkę tuż przy torach, na wszelkie pamiątki
i wydany temu światu na pastwę świat idealny. Nowi właściciele
sprzedali ten teren po dość dobrej cenie, korzystając z okazji,
jaką dało miasto […]
Na ten dźwięk natychmiast ogłoszono alarm we wszystkich
prowincjach, na grządkach, drzewach, w chaszczach,
pod krzakami zaczęły gromadzić się strwożone tłumy
mieszkańców wioski: mrówek, skórkojadów, chrabąszczy,
trzmieli, pszczół oraz ślimaków, stworzeń nieznanych
do tej pory faunie, wyhodowanych w ciemnicach porzeczek,
pod zwietrzałymi liśćmi, w labiryntach podziemnych korytarzy,
nigdy nie widzianych ludzkim okiem, wyklutych z mimikry
i samotności, wyrojonych z nędzy, z brudu, z wolności […]
Nadszedł dzień sądu, trwogi i rozpaczy. Pierwsze maszyny
rozjechały starą, zardzewiałą i niewiele wartą dla obrony siatkę.70

This is followed by the plunder of the family home:

Soon the local winos started coming into the apartments
and removing chairs and drinking glasses, armchairs, apparel,
lamps and tables, mattresses and shoes. All that was left were books
strewn about the room, but soon they too were read through by fire.
[…]
Nothingness was taking possession of that place,
entropy was entering a site of order and concentration,
distraction reigned over existence in that moment,
and the world was entering a zone of nonbeing, into bacterias of the atom,
resolving into oxygen and carbon, beginning to create
other entirely new phantasms in the dense air, to lead a life after life,
uncanny, quantumesque, and to penetrate everywhere, to gather anew
in respiratory passages, in digestive systems, on tongues,
on shelves, in pots and on trash heaps, by fences
and along curbsides. Molecules expanding in the sun and the heat
created spectral images over the road and the town
that dazzled even when you watched through dark glasses.
The dust irritated the eyes, making them red; the air changed
and roared, celebrating without cease. In it you could see joy,
dance, freedom from any kind of form, you could see possibility.
Translated by Bill Johnston
Niebawem też zaczęli wchodzić do środka miejscowi żule
i wynosić po kolei krzesła i szklanki, fotele i ubrania,
lampy i stoły, materace i buty. Zostały tylko książki,
rozrzucone na środku pokoju, ale i je wnet przeczytał ogień.
[…]
Nicość ogarniała to miejsce,
entropia wchodziła w miejsce porządku i skupienia,
rozproszenie królowało w tej chwili nad bytem,
świat powoli przechodził w sferę nieistnienia, w sferę snu,
całość zamieniała się w drobniutkie cząstki, w bakterie atomu,
rozkładała się w tlen i węgiel, zaczynała tworzyć w gęstym
już powietrzu inne, zupełnie nowe urojenia, prowadzić życie
po życiu, upiorne, kwantowe, i wnikać wszędzie, gromadzić się znowu
w drogach oddechowych, w układach trawiennych, na językach,
na półkach, w garnkach i na wysypiskach, pod płotami
i wzdłuż krawężników. Rozszerzone w słońcu i cieple drobiny
tworzyły widmowe obrazy ponad drogą i miastem,
migotały i unosiły się pomimo ciemnych okularów.
Kurz drażnił spojówki, zaczerwieniał białka, powietrze brzęczało,
huczało, świętowało bez przerwy. Było w nim widać radość,
taniec, wolność od wszelkiej formy, było widać możliwość.71

Decomposition of spacetime in Różycki’s poetry results in the decomposition of the subject. The “I” in Twelve Stations, argues Justyna Tabaszewska,

on the one hand, is immersed in what constitutes construction material of cultural memory; on the other hand, he fights in vain to disentangle from the clichés of memory, to recreate memory that is free from patterns imposed from outside. The disintegration of the subject is directly linked to the loss of trust in cultural and collective memory. The subject, losing the possibility of self-definition through identification (or just simple negation), is doomed to tracking the traces of the past that may allow him to confront both individual and cultural memory.72

Różycki helplessly tries to distinguish some consistent patterns in the “entropic,” “uncanny,” “quantumesque” tangle of these traces of the past. But the longer he seeks, the more complex the map becomes. He wants to escape, discover new lands on which human feet have never left an imprint, but there is no way out. The poet’s next collection Colonies (Kolonie) from 2006 opens two perspectives signaled in the title. In Polish, the word kolonie may mean a summer camp for kids; so one perspective may be the poet’s return to childhood, to the very beginning of the process of self-identification and replaying this process in an alternative way, blocking the historical element. The second meaning of kolonie brings to mind expeditions to unknown, exotic places, and filling in gaps on the map with a narrative of one’s own, as in colonization. Neither of these two solutions, however, proves effective.

In 2013, Różycki published Tomi: Notes from the Stopping Place (Tomi. Notatki z miejsca postoju), in which he rereads his personal history, the history of poetry, and the history of modern Europe through the history of Ovid’s exile, as an “archetypical and universal image of the condition of the artist in a society which does not understand him,”73 and also of the condition of every human being thrown into history. In his sojourns across Europe, the author meditates on the impossibility of refuge from the hell of memory. The following fragment may be taken as the final break with the illusions and hopes he entertained in Twelve Stations:

The history of the fall does not end with the hell of the camps, because later comes the entire eternity of existence after and in spite of it. How long shall the memory last? How capacious is it? Century by century, we add new stories of slaughters and crimes. Hell is a place where all damned souls atone forever. Isn’t memory a hell, then? I’m drinking Zweigelt in Café Westend and I’m thinking about it. If the human fall is a result of the contravention of the laws [Różycki doesn’t specify what laws] and reaching for God’s “qualifications” to gain knowledge of good and evil, then consciousness is a manifestation of it. We are banished from paradise, consigned instead to this other place, one that is densely covered with the traces of memory. We are alive, but we’ve lost our illusions forever.

How was the blood mixed? Or perhaps a more essential question is, where does the need of separating it come from, the necessity of checking, the necessity of asking such questions? Blood separated from blood—this must hurt a hell of a lot.74

Li Hao’s village, too, is a cross-generational and cross-cultural contact zone, and a very specific one, where the blood of grassroots Chineseness and Catholicism has been mixed for two centuries and now is being brutally separated by the government. It is quite common for elements of Judeo-Christian culture to permeate the poems of poet-academics who like to manifest their familiarity with world literature and the Western tradition. In their work, religion functions as part of intellectual rather than spiritual heritage of humanity, a text of culture that enters into dynamic interplay with other texts growing out from the local Chinese soil. Yet one hardly ever comes across images of Chinese communities for which Christianity is an integral part of everyday spiritual life or indeed any individual Chinese poet whose identity has been (co)shaped since early childhood by the Christian ethos and doctrine. Li comments on this when discussing his poem “Lord’s Siren” (主人的塞壬), which lays out three levels of “chaos” that emerge from the interaction between Christianity and Chinese society and culture:

I believe this poem emerged directly from a triple axiological chaos: first, Chinese people’s experience of the Christian God and faith; second, the impact of Christian culture on the Chinese, the way it molds their personalities; third, the process of mutual blending, rejection, and fission of the traditional Chinese countryside (influenced by Confucianism, Buddhism, and Daoism) with Christianity.75

The author sees these three levels of chaos from three perspectives: that of a villager, that of a wanderer in the city, and that of a university student. The three perspectives most clearly intersect in the poem “A Village Cemetery” (乡村坟场) from 2006, not included in Homecoming, which Li considers the beginning of his mature poetry writing. Discussing this poem, he speaks of the tortuous process of self-identification and painful search for his poetic idiom:

They [the countryside and the city] produced an irreducible tension in my mind; these two forces accompanied me along the way to self-identification, toward my own self which begged to be completed but was constantly torn asunder by the hand of the epoch. Increasingly powerful and complex, they would often throw me alone onto a bridge or lock me behind some door. In this stage of my writing, as a young poet who was looking for language, trying to internalize various experiences, and pondering existence, I felt these forces traversing my body and soul, trying to contribute to the formation of my (or, the entire generation’s) intellect; but at the same time, they also brought a strange blend of pain, despair, struggle, ideals, and violence.76

The poet knows that for a person with such a diverse and ambiguous life experience, whose identity, consciousness, and language are marked by a profound split, the village will never be home again; “pure countryside poetry is not possible,” his “throat will never be a virgin throat and [his] voice will never be a natural voice.”77 So, why does he want to return? Or, rather, why does he have to return?

2.3 Saving Names

I think at least part of the answer can be found in the final scene of Li Hao’s “Homecoming.” The poem closes with an image of an angel with a catheter projected onto the landscape of a cemetery where the souls of the narrator and of a girl dance a frantic danse macabre on a grave.

Your hand in mine on top of a grave we sing and dance all around wheat fields wave like a vast sea in our waists like your long dress flying in the wind grabbed by its stream

We tightly embrace each other’s body we kiss each other among broken gravestones and burial mounds we roll about in the dance of a white bowl and red bowl

We take off each other’s clothes we make love like crazy we tenderly touch each other’s genitals like we used to touch the sky in our lifetime like when we stood out of God’s sight watching after the angel with a catheter closing the gate in the fence

我牵着你的手我们站在坟顶上喜乐地唱歌跳舞四周随之而起的麦芒浩如烟海一阵又一阵滚动的麦浪在我们的腰间如同你那飞入风中被风卷起的长裙

我们紧紧地拥抱着彼此的身体我们亲吻我们在到处都是断碑到处都是土坟的墓地上打滚我们在一只白碗和一只黑碗的舞蹈中

解开彼此的内衣我们疯狂地做爱我们温柔地抚摸着彼此的性器就像我们在生命里抚摩过的天空就像我们站在天父之外目送着戴尿管的天使关上篱笆之78

This final image was inspired by a real person: a girl Li Hao met in Beijing, who attempted suicide by throwing herself off the eighth floor of a building. She lived but her urinary system has since remained dysfunctional. Li took care of her for three years until she was able to continue living on her own.79 At the same time, however, it also brings to mind Paul Klee’s Angelus Novus and Walter Benjamin’s signature essay “On the Concept of History” inspired by the painting, with the famous passage:

There is a picture by Klee called Angelus Novus. It shows an angel who seems about to move away from something he stares at. His eyes are wide, his mouth is open, his wings are spread. This is how the angel of history must look. His face is turned toward the past. Where a chain of events appears before us, he sees one single catastrophe, which keeps piling wreckage upon wreckage and hurls it at his feet. The angel would like to stay, awake the dead, and make whole what has been smashed. But a storm is blowing from Paradise and has got caught in his wings; it is so strong that the angel can no longer close them. This storm drives him irresistibly into the future to which his back is turned, while the pile of debris before him grows toward the sky. What we call progress is this storm.

Translated by Edmund Jephcott and Howard Eiland80

Benjamin’s essay offers a messianic historiosophy, crowned with the image of Angelus Novus, a postspiritual angel. This messianism, however, is not to be confused with the messianism as part of the Romantic paradigm in the work of Mickiewicz and other nineteenth-century Polish poets, whose echoes are found in World War II poetry as well as in New Wave authors and the Classicists of the Brulion Generation. It is a historical-materialist messianism which proceeds from the assumption of the impossibility of salvation in the religious sense of the word and takes this very impossibility as an ethical imperative to set a new, human-made metaphysics in motion. Parts II and III of the essay explicate the philosophical premises and their practical implications:

II

[…] The past carries with it a secret index by which it is referred to redemption. Doesn’t a breath of the air that pervaded earlier days caress us as well? In the voices we hear, isn’t there echo of now silent ones? Don’t the women we court have sisters they no longer recognize? If so, then there is a secret agreement between past generations and the present one. Then our coming was expected on earth. Then like every generation that preceded us, we have been endowed with a weak messianic power, a power on which the past has a claim. Such a claim cannot be settled cheaply. The historical materialist is aware of this.

III

The chronicler who narrates events without distinguishing between major and minor ones acts in accord with the following truth: nothing that has ever happened should be regarded as lost to history. Of course only a redeemed mankind is granted the fullness of its past—which is to say, only for a redeemed mankind has its past become citable in all its moments. Each moment it has lived becomes a citation a l’ordre du jour. And that day is Judgment Day.

Translated by Edmund Jephcott and Howard Eiland81

Li Hao might be considered an epitome of a chronicler in the Benjaminian understanding of the word. He does not disguise himself as a priest, as some poets do. Instead, he just solemnly observes the secret protocol which binds the dead and the living and gives a detailed report of the perpetual ceremony of the guard change between generations, with all its serious, cruel, surreal, embarrassing, frivolous, and grotesque moments. The power that rests in the chronicler’s hands is a manifestation of the same weak messianic power as the one that rests, for instance, in the hands of the translator in Benjamin “Translator’s Task”; the relationship between the dead and the living is analogous to that between the original and its translation, metaphorized by Benjamin in the image of “a tangent [which] touches a circle fleetingly and at only a single point, and just as this contact, not the point, prescribes the law in accord with which the tangent pursues its path into the infinite.”82

This is the law of “fidelity in the freedom of linguistic development,” as Benjamin calls it.83 But it can also be extended to personal and artistic development as a continuation of the work of others, which yet does not limit one’s imagination and creativity. Moreover, as Adam Lipszyc shows in his study Justice on the Tip of the Tongue (Sprawiedliwość na końcu języka, 2012), this is also the same mechanism that Benjamin detects in his analyses of Bertolt Brecht’s theater and of Karl Kraus’s criticism, where the idea of citation, mentioned in passing in “On the Concept of History,” is explicated. Citation creates ruptures in the structure of what Benjamin calls the “myth,” and helps save the singularity of the “name,” another important notion in his philosophy. The name is, says Lipszyc, “a connector between the world of language and the ethical order.”84 It constitutes an epitome of a messianic act, characterized by Lipszyc as follows:

The messianic act is perfectly actual, perfectly ephemeral, perfectly contemporary, but exactly for this reason it is also the most substantial, meaningful, eternal. This actuality is a form of existence of eternity, because it is performed through repetition—not so much a mythical repetition as a destructive repetition: the logic of the “source-at-the-destination” [źródło-u-celu] broken by the act of destruction, the logic of citation as retributive and redemptive repetition of the word entangled in the myth; this destructive repetition brings out the name.85

The issue of “names” blurred in the all-encompassing mythical element is crucial in “Homecoming.” Consider, for instance, the opening episode, where the narrator encounters the spirit of a suicide. He calls the specter by his name, Yuan Baomin 袁保民, and encourages him to get onto the shore, which might be read symbolically, as saving his singularity from the anonymous apeiron. The poet extracts the man’s individual history from the mythical (in Benjamin’s sense), faceless narration of History. The scene from the year 1959 mentioned in the poem is a citation (again, in Benjamin’s sense, as citation of a gesture taken out from its primary context) from Gu Zhun’s diary. This citation mobilizes a chain of messianic actions, including a sort of lay confession and a “last judgment” in which the living absolves the dead from his past crimes (“you are a good spirit”) and vice versa. The I-narrator also reflects on the importance of the toponyms. The change of the place names disturbs the relationship between this and the other world. The opening scene reads:

A friend I know, his face surfaced and then disappeared again at the bottom.
Waves and whirlpools arouse on the lake, and churn like radish chicken cooked in an earthenware jar in 1959
I betrayed myself, sold out my parents, and Third Uncle who hanged himself from a beam.
Come out, there’s no point in hiding. I recognize you,
you are the one who, when I was nine, in the summer, drowned himself in the rising waters of the Huai River in Nandabao.
And then in the afternoon, obediently, without offending anyone,
no longer wrestling with yourself, you frankly and squarely drifted carried by Jinhe
only you and the vastness of the landscape
until you reached the stone bridge near southern rice paddies, there you stopped,
you are Yuan Baomin. Your son said
you left at dawn without breakfast with a spade, trampling on dewdrops
and went to Nandabao to work on opening up wasteland. Your wife called you with her golden voice her scream penetrating paulownias
but you didn’t answer. Your son ran around like crazy and didn’t find you either.
You don’t need to thank me that I called people to dredge you up,
yes, I did steal tomatoes and sweet potatoes from your garden,
I don’t remember whether you threatened to scalp me.
So many years, and you’re still living in the water, seems that
you are a good spirit.
Is it because Ting bridge turned into Jin bridge Xing village turned into Xin village
Liweizi and Jianweizi were moved and the old houses that remained were knocked down and only a muddy pond left and even mud was sold to Xining Railway Are you afraid you won’t find your way home You heard the sound of whetting a knife and the roar of pigs you must be hungry climb up sit by my side I will light a cigarette for you and promise to show you the way
一个我熟悉的故人,刚刚将头露出水面就藏入了水底。
湖面上溅起的水花和旋涡,像瓦罐里
炖在五九年的萝卜土鸡,直溜溜地勾住
我背叛自己、出卖父母、悬梁自尽的三爷。
你还是出来吧,藏也没用,我认得你,
你 不就是我九岁那年的夏天,溺死在淮水涨潮
的南大包,
然后到了晌午,你是那样地听话不再咒人,
也不跟自己执拗,老老实实地顺着现在的金河,
孤独地漂在水上亲历渺茫,
从 南河头一直渺茫到南稻场下的石桥,你就不走了,
你是袁保民。你的儿子说,
天刚浑亮你没吃饭就扛着铁锹踏着露珠,
跑到南大包去开荒。你的媳妇以穿透泡桐的金嗓子喊你,
你也没回应。你的儿子跑断了腿也找你不着。
你不用感谢我叫人把你从冰凉的河水里捞上来,
我的确偷过你家菜园里的茄子和红薯吃,
我已经不记得你说过要剥我的皮抽我的筋。
这么多年了,你依然生活在水里,可以看得出
你是个有良心的好鬼。

你 是不是因为汀桥变成了金桥辛庄变成了新庄李围孜和犍围孜都搬走了而剩下的老宅子被挖成了水塘连泥土也卖给了西宁铁路你很担心再也找不到回家的路还是你听到磨刀和猪吼就会无比饥饿你上来吧坐在我身边我给你点支烟暖和暖和我保证给你指路86

Thus the narrator and Yuan Baomin’s spirit travel together through the forest until they approach a pond where Yuan Changhui 袁常慧, “a student from our village” (我们村的大学生), is fishing. They part in front of the bridge where in the past a woman and a child lost their lives. In the woman’s story we can observe the most dramatic intersection of the religious narrative of Christianity, the historical-political narrative dictated by the communist government (in particular the one-child policy), and the trajectory of modern technological development. Their contamination induces a catastrophe. Distorted religion, corrupted political power, and inhuman technology lead her to a certain death, described in bloodcurdling detail:

Between parallel rails a woman and a baby cry aloud.
I recognize this woman, she is my aunt.
When she married my father’s brother, she and her mother-in-law believed in God.
She had a son and a daughter. Together with my cousin
they worked day and night, letting blood of newly bought pigs,
irrigating paddies. My uncle was a cleric,
he and the secretary always wore shorts. For thirty years, rain or shine
late at night he would visit the households of turtle-hearted officials
with best cigarettes and meat to register his grandchildren,
to save them from under the butcher’s knife of family planning. Jehovah whom
they worshiped didn’t accept anything. Instead, the newly repaired railroad
all day long stretched its iron arms like a womb filled with magnet.
Divine speed oh divine speed sucked my aunt’s heart and skin,
a train rolled over her sleep and her dreams, her blood and brain,
and fragmented limbs like broken bread
were scattered by the wind on the rails built together by bulldozers, excavators, and trucks.
我听得出两条平行的钢轨里,有女人和婴儿在嚎啕大哭。
我 听得出那哭泣的女人,是我二爹的媳妇,我大嫂。
她,嫁到我二爹家时,就跟她婆婆信主。
她生了一个儿子,一个女儿。和我堂哥一起,
从来没有放过任何一个夏夜,给买回来的家猪放血,
为稻田抢水。我二爹在村里干了一辈子文书,
和支书穿了一辈子短裤。他三十多年来风雨不倒,
三更半夜村里的那些老鳖户,为了给自己的孙男孙女
求一张户口,为了在计划生育的屠刀下留后,
使劲地向他家送烟送酒送肉的送肉。他们赞美的耶和华,
什么也没有收。倒是刚刚修好的铁路,
夜以继日地伸展着钢臂,如同装满了磁铁的怀抱。
神速嗬神速吸住我大嫂的心脑和皮毛,货车从她的
沉睡与酣梦之中碾过,她的鲜血和脑浆,
以及成块成块的肢体,如同掰开的面饼,
被风撒在推土机、挖掘机、卡车共同筑起的铁轨上。87

By dint of traditional folk beliefs, the woman’s story is linked with the story of a girl, someone else’s daughter, who fell from the bridge some time earlier:

And thus a family tie was bound between her and a baby girl who
fell from the bridge. Villagers said she was lucky
to have company on her way, not going alone.
因此她和那个从铁路的高架桥上掉下来摔死的女婴
成了一家人。村里人都说她命好,
在路上有人陪,不孤独。88

Then, we learn about a heartless official who took land from peasants to build estates which “grew like bellies of pregnant women” (如约上涨,雷同孕妇). But as he was celebrating his success, he got a phone call in which he was informed that his daughter-in-law “had a miscarriage again” (又是死胎).89 This reflects a simple folk concept of justice as a direct connection between crime and punishment.

In a ruined cottage nearby, the narrator sees the shadow of a boy who died from rat poison. A few steps away there is a pond into which the traveler jumps naked to catch fish as in his childhood, but the fish he catches proves aggressive and hits him in the nose. Thus, “through blood [he] returns to [his] previous incarnation” (我从血中跑回自己的前生).90 He meets Ma Dagun 麻大棍, who was famous for his two not-so-shining hobbies: throwing broken glass around the village so that kids running barefoot hurt their feet, and beating his wife. The I-speaker recalls how as a child he once saw a scene of violence in their house after which, as his mother said, his soul left his body out of shock:

My mom said my soul left the body, while I was lying in fever, she would
go to Xihekan to call my soul back every evening. I remember how you and I swayed on tree branches
like two monks. Villagers would say: “Ma Dagun won’t die a good death,
he hanged his wife on a tree. He won’t die a good death.”
I was happy when I heard it. You too were. You and I whirled to our hearts’ content
in the echo of my mother’s scream. And then the sudden wind hit,
black clouds covered the sky, and we were blown down the tree on a vast graveyard.
我妈说我的魂掉了,在我高烧期间,她每个晚上都到
西河坎,给我喊魂。我记得我和你在树梢上飘飘荡荡的,
好像一对仙侣。村里人都说,“麻大棍,将不得好死,
他在树上,活活地吊死了,自己的女人。他不得好死”。
我听了很高兴,你也很高兴。你和我,在我母亲喊出的
回音里,转啊转啊转。忽然,一阵狂风押运着一团乌云,
呼啸而来,把我们从树梢吹送到一块一望无际的墓地里。91

We do not know the identity of “you” with whom the narrator sways on a tree branch and later dances on a grave in the following, final scene in the poem in which Eros and Thanatos unite in a sexual act “beyond Father’s sight.” In this ecstatic sexual intercourse between bodiless spirits, again, the Christian notion of an omnipotent and omnipresent God is “adjusted” to the framework of human imagination shaped by the vitalism of indigenous beliefs and natural cosmogony. The closing image of the sick angel with a catheter who approaches the gate may be read as a negative of the biblical scene of Adam and Eve’s exile from Eden. The angel, a spiritual being, banished and humiliated in the experience of carnality, approaches the gate, perhaps—as Benjamin wants—carried by the storm of History, to leave the garden, while the humans remain inside it, under the tree, which is reminiscent of the Tree of Knowledge, and celebrate the conquering of Eden. But this victory is just an illusion. What is left of the paradise is in fact a vast, ruined graveyard, a domain of death.

Messianism so understood, whose spirit permeates Li Hao’s poetry, may also prove an effective interpretational perspective for Tomasz Różycki’s Twelve Stations. Różycki, too, sketches detailed portraits of people and places, although he does so in a much more humorous way, and his descriptions are fictionalized to a larger extent than Li’s. Below I cite one example of such a portrayal of Babcia’s neighbor, Mr. Antonów, whom Grandson and his friend visit to ask him to fix the broken clock which got stuck in the door:

At this point a neighbor, Mr. Antonów,
said that if they only wanted, in two shakes he could turn a new leg
on his lathe at home. […]
They walked upstairs
to the apartment above, where Mr. Antonów lived and had his workshop—
alone, since his wife had passed away the previous year.
They followed him into the kitchen, which was furnished in the old style,
which is to say, with a white dresser, a table and chairs,
and everything was exactly as it had been just after the war.
Mr. Antonów at once had them try some of his wine
from last year, and it was indeed quite excellent.
In the living room, though, they beheld an array of ever so strange devices
that filled the space, making it hard to find a way through. Now Grandson
understood the sound that could sometimes be heard all night long
coming from upstairs, and the barely perceptible trembling felt throughout the building.
Most of the machines were old-fashioned and pedal-driven.
A number of them, though, joined together in some unfathomable way, could function
virtually without a pause thanks to certain cunning secret tricks
known to their operator. Here, then, were created all sorts of products
for domestic use: small bags, house slippers, wallets,
sun hats, stools and other objects of as yet unknown nature
or function. The machines rumbled and whirred every night
like perpetuum mobiles, eventually becoming an inseparable color and base of life.
The residents of the building, for their part, became so used to it
that when the noises fell silent one night, everyone woke up
gripped by a sudden anxiety, as if the world had all at once ceased to turn
in its regular pathways and the motor that drove everything
had stopped working forever. The ensuing stillness was so terrifying
that Babcia ran to Uncle for help, asking him to go upstairs
to see what have happened there; for there was universal consensus
that Antonów must have died, the more so since the silence that had fallen
rang in the ears like the loudest bells in the entire province.
So they climbed the stairs at once and unheedful of the dignity
proper to old age, they stood all night listening at his door
for the slightest rustle, which in these dreadful circumstances
would have been the best sign of all, since it would have indicated life.
It was only in the morning, having almost lost hope, that they finally heard
the pitter of the breadcrumbs on the windowsill that Antonów
threw daily from his window into Babcia’s garden to feed the sleepy pigeons.
This action, which hitherto had elicited nothing but ill feelings and complaints,
was now greeted with a cry of joy, for it meant
that the occupant was alive and well, and that the break in work
had been occasioned by a short snooze, to which he was perfectly entitled
having attained the age of eighty-eight or ninety years since his birth
(this figure had always been subject to dispute).
Translated by Bill Johnston
Wtedy się zgłosił sąsiad,
pan Antonów, że przecież, jeśli tylko zechcą, to on taką nóżkę
w trymiga wytoczy u siebie w domu. […]
Poszli więc na górę
schodami do mieszkania wyżej, w którym mieszkał i tworzył sąsiad
pan Antonów, sam, odkąd w zeszłym roku umarła mu żona.
Weszli więc za nim do kuchni, urządzonej w zgodzie z dawnym zwyczajem,
znaczy z kredensem białym, stołem i krzesłami,
wszystko zaś było tak jak już po wojnie.
Pan Antonów zaraz dał kosztować swojego wina
z tamtego roku i owszem, było bardzo dobre.
W pokoju zobaczyli jednak cały zestaw najdziwniejszych maszyn,
stojących wszędzie, tak, że było trudno przejście odnaleźć.
Teraz Wnuk rozumiał, co nieraz grało na górze całymi
nocami i skąd się brało ledwie wyczuwalne drżenie w tej kamienicy.
Większość tych maszyn była starej mody i poruszana na pedały.
Część zaś sposobem jakimś połączona mogła pracować
nieomal bez przerwy, za sprawą sprytnych i tajemnych sztuczek
ich operatora. Tutaj więc tworzono wszelkie wyroby
domowej potrzeby, najpierw torebki, papcie, polaresy,
słoneczne kapelusze, stołki oraz inne, nieznanej dotąd próby
i użycia. Maszyna, niby perpetuum mobile, warczała i szumiała
każdej nocy, w końcu się stając życia nieodłącznym kolorem i zasadą.
Mieszkańcy zaś do tego stopnia już przywykli,
że gdy którejś tam nocy hałasy zamilkły, wszyscy się obudzili
zdjęci nagłą trwogą, jakby świat przestał się nagle toczyć
po wyznaczonych ścieżkach i jakby zgasł na zawsze motor
poruszający wszelkim urządzeniem. Cisza nastała tak przerażająca,
że Babcia biegła wołać na ratunek Wujka, by zobaczył, co też tam
na górze mogło się wydarzyć. Powszechne bowiem było przekonanie,
że Antonów umarł, tym bardziej, że cisza, która nastała,
tak dzwoniła w uszach, jak najgłośniejsze dzwony w całym województwie.
Wspięli się zaraz też po schodach w górę i mimo powagi
wiekowi należnej podsłuchiwali cały czas pod drzwiami,
czy aby nie usłyszą jakiegoś szelestu, który by był
w tej strasznej sytuacji przecież najlepszą, bo żywą nowiną.
Dopiero rano dość zrezygnowani, usłyszeli jak bębnią
o parapet okruchy chleba codziennie rzucane przez Antonowa
z okna na babcin ogródek, aby je zjadły zaspane gołębie.
Czynność ta do tej pory same prowokująca żale oraz narzekania,
teraz przyjęta była okrzykiem radości, znaczyła bowiem,
że gospodarz żyje i ma się dobrze, a przerwa w pracy
była wywołana przez krótką drzemkę, do której miał prawo
w wieku osiemdziesięciu ośmiu czy dziewięciu
(co do tej liczby zawsze były spory) lat od narodzin.92

Other heroes and locales are treated in a likewise vivid, extensive, digressive, playful but tender way. Every single life counts in this simple and profoundly noble world and when someone’s time runs out, it is like the entire universe has collapsed. Thus the simple story stretches across one hundred pages, on which Różycki one by one saves the singularity of names from the catastrophe. The last one to be rescued is his late Grandfather, together with his beloved locomotive Basia, in the closing scene:

For where on earth he [Grandson] was going, and why had he found himself all alone
amid these apparitions, which seemed so real? He kept moving forward
till he reached the locomotive; he climbed a rickety ladder
and there, in the atrocious rattle and roar, he recognized the inside of the engine
just as he remembered it from the times when Grandfather
would take him to the station and show him his own locomotive,
Basia, which he had driven since the war.
There were many gauges there, dials, knobs, as one would expect.
At knee-height was the familiar door of the firebox, where the fire lived, buzzing
and roaring. He saw the fireman leaning against the side, shovel in hand,
black from head to foot; and he saw his grandfather in uniform, in his cap with the eagle.
He it was who had been driving the train these last moments; now he gave a smile
and, pulling a lever, began gently braking. When the train had slowed down,
he pointed to a house in the distance that stood alone in a small yard, just a house,
nothing special; it was very familiar but quite different,
and he said loud enough that Grandson heard despite the screech of the brakes:
“This is the place, this is where we’re going to live now, we’re not going any further”.
The air at that moment was calm and bitter,
and the chasing particles it contained gradually formed
into specters and images, a respite for the eyes in every possible color
and in changing shapes. If you stooped down,
amid blades of green grass you could see a long procession
of ants that were bearing large white bundles
on their backs. Sauternes, Bingen, Bingen and Sauternes.
Translated by Bill Johnston
Gdzież bowiem [Wnuk] jechał, i dlaczego znalazł się sam pośród
wszystkich tych zjaw, tak prawdziwych? Przeszedł do przodu,
aż do lokomotywy, po chybotliwym trapie
i tam w straszliwym huku i łomocie rozpoznał wnętrze parowozu,
takiego, jaki zapamiętał z czasów, kiedy dziadek
zabierał go na stację, aby mu pokazać swoją lokomotywę,
nazywaną “Baśką”, którą prowadził jeszcze w czasach wojny.
I było tam mnóstwo wskaźników, zegarów, pokręteł, tak jak zwykle.
W dole znane drzwiczki paleniska, w którym mieszkał ogień
i szumiał, i huczał, i zobaczył palacza z łopatą, opartego o burtę,
całego czarnego, i dziadka w mundurze, w swojej czapce z orłem.
On to prowadził pociąg przez ostatnie chwile, teraz zaś się uśmiechnął
i z pomocą dźwigni zaczął hamować powoli. Kiedy zaś pociąg zwolnił,
powiedział, wskazując dom w oddali, osobny, z ogródkiem, niczego sobie,
nic nadzwyczajnego, bardzo znajomy, ale całkiem inny,
powiedział tak głośno, że wnuk usłyszał mimo pisku hamulców:
“To tutaj, dalej nie jedziemy”. Powietrze wtedy było ciche i gorzkie,
a rozpędzone w nim cząsteczki układały się z wolna
w widma i obrazy, odpoczynek dla wzroku w dowolnej barwie
i zmiennej postaci. Między zielonymi źdźbłami trawy
widać było, gdyby się pochylić, przeciągający sznurem
pochód mrówek, niosących z sobą na plecach wielkie,
białe tobołki. Sauternes, Bingen, Bingen i Sauternes.93

The imagery in these final lines of Twelve Stations resonates with the imagery in the final lines of “Homecoming”: here, too, a strange atmospheric phenomenon works like a portal between physical and metaphysical worlds, throwing the narrator back into reality, in which only some scattered pieces of transcendence remain. Sauternes and Bingen are nonexistent cities, or perhaps not even cities but other unidentified locales or objects, whose names Grandson read in Mr. Antonów’s notebook during the aforementioned visit to his apartment and repeated every now and then like a magical password to another dimension. In “Homecoming,” the devastated Eden is abandoned by an angel; in Twelve Stations also other living creatures evacuate themselves, and humans are left alone suspended between life and death. At roughly the same time, Różycki wrote a poem titled “Scorched Maps” (Spalone mapy) in which he recalls his trip to Lvov in 2004, reconfirming the apocalyptic intuition:

Scorched Maps
I took a trip to Ukraine. It was June.
I waded in the fields, all full of dust
and pollen in the air. I searched, but those
I loved had disappeared below the ground,
deeper than decades of ants. I asked
about them everywhere, but grass and leaves
have been growing, bees swarming. So I lay down,
face to the ground, and said this incantation—
you can come out, it’s over. And the ground,
and moles and earthworms in it, shifted, shook,
kingdoms of ants came crawling, bees began
to fly from everywhere. I said come out,
I spoke directly to the ground and felt
the field grow vast and wild around my head.
Translated by Mira Rosenthal
Spalone mapy
Pojechałem na Ukrainę, to był czerwiec
i szedłem po kolana w trawach, zioła i pyłki
wirowały w powietrzu. Szukałem, lecz bliscy
schowali się pod ziemią, zamieszkali głębiej
niż pokolenia mrówek. Pytałem się wszędzie
o ślady po nich, ale rosły trawy, liście,
i pszczoły wirowały. Kładłem się więc blisko,
twarzą na ziemi i mówiłem to zaklęcie—
możecie wyjść, już jest po wszystkim. I ruszała
się ziemia, a w niej krety i dżdżownice, i drżała
ziemia i państwa mrówek roiły się, pszczoły
latały ponad wszystkim, mówiłem wychodźcie,
mówiłem tak do ziemi i czułem, jak rośnie
trawa ogromna, dzika, wokół mojej głowy.94

In yet another poem, “Entropy” (Entropia), from the debut collection Vaterland, he sighs that Lvov has become such a burden for people that it would have been better for everybody if it had been burned down.95

Finally, for all their doubts and fears, both Różycki and Li Hao muster up their courage and creative energies to attempt a messianic gesture, in the Benjaminian sense, that is, to save the dead from oblivion and eternal homelessness, but they feel that what they can offer is but a pitiful, grotesque ersatz of a true salvation in religious understanding of the word: a derailed ghost train, an angel with a catheter—a contingency plan in case God does not exist or has no better option in reserve. At the same time, in this “secret generational agreement,” saving the singularity of others’ names is necessary to define one’s own singularity, “on which the past has a claim,” to use Benjamin’s phrase, and which is likewise always doomed to incompleteness and perhaps will only be consolidated by the generations to come.

Różycki tries to counter the transitiveness of existence with the aesthetic form which in his short lyric poems is always highly refined and disciplined, drawing on traditional canons of poetic beauty. On the one hand, as Irena Grudzińska-Gross suggests, this is “one of the ways in which Różycki expresses loyalty to the past.”96 On the other hand, this is also a way to keep his singular self in one piece, and a symbolic investment in his literary afterlife. The trajectory of Li Hao’s poetry since 2017, when the Homecoming collection was released, is difficult to trace, for he was not permitted to publish anything else after the ban on the book in question, but from my own personal communication with the poet and the several manuscripts I had the privilege to read, I can tell that he tends to go further into metaphysics, and his messianism takes on an increasingly religious—though certainly not naively religious—dimension. To my knowledge, the contemporary Chinese poetry scene has not yet birthed any metaphysical poet, or minimally one who would gain some broader recognition, so Li Hao’s artistic path is certainly worth further attention.

3 Singularity vs. Generation

Each of the four authors discussed in this chapter has her/his specific poetic diction, interests, and ambitions. One thing that connects all of them, and at the same time distinguishes them from most of the authors born in the 1950s and 1960s—that is, the Third Generation in China and the Brulion Generation in Poland—is what might be provisionally described as a (literary-)historically neutral starting point for their writing. From the beginning, they took to poetry with the aim to find their own voice rather than to reform poetry as such. Their artistic singularity was not defined against one poetic tradition or another, be it in a diachronic or synchronic dimension, nor was it defined in relation to mainstream poetry discourse through self-positioning on stage or backstage.

Yin Lichuan, although she started from a position that could be perceived as neutral, with little knowledge of the local poetry scene, ready to host Popular and Intellectual authors alike in her poetry gigs, was quickly drawn into the dialectics of the local Chinese poetry field force, which at the turn of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries was so active that it was really difficult not to be sucked in by it; Yin, with her rebellious character, was particularly prone to the influences of the vagabonds of Poetry Rivers and Lakes. While this certainly does not imply that she betrayed or sold out her singular talent, as a result of her choice it appeared almost impossible for Chinese critics to read her poetry otherwise than in connection to the Lower Body group and against the background of the earlier Intellectual-Popular polemic. Interestingly, comembers of the troupe, including Shen Haobo, who wrote the introduction to Even Better, from the beginning saw much richer and more ambiguous meanings in her poetry than external observers and were not so quick to identify her work as obscene provocation. In any event, it is only when she actually stopped writing and withdrew from the poetry scene altogether that alternative interpretations of her work begun to pop up in literary-critical discourse. Starting his career some ten years later than Yin, Li Hao found himself already in an entirely different situation—one that would probably be considered normal to poets in most Western countries—experiencing all the advantages and disadvantages of being left alone by society, albeit, unfortunately, not by censorship.

Różycki and Siwczyk, debuting in the mid-1990s, soon after the most intense phase of the polemic between the Classicists and the Barbarians had passed, were spared the doubtful privilege of being counted as members or allies of one camp or the other, although, theoretically, based on a superficial identification of the themes and style of their debut collections, Siwczyk might have ended up among the Barbarians and Różycki the Classicists. Polish literary-critical discourse indeed very quickly reoriented itself and started inventing, and importing, new “reading tools” that would better fit the multitude of individual singularities. This shift to pluralism manifested itself in, and was facilitated by, a great abundance of literary-critical scholarship devoted to the work of single living authors. Literary-critical discourse in Poland moved, in a surprisingly short period of time, from principally studying literary cohorts, movements, and great debates, to principally studying individual authors and their works.

In China, one can come across dozens of mutually competing poetry series and anthologies, including the monumental two-volume Selected Poems by the Post-70 Authors (70后诗选编, 2016) edited by Lü Ye 吕叶, and panoramic studies on new phenomena on the literary scene, including Luo Qi’s 罗麒 Research on New Phenomena in Twenty-First-Century Chinese Poetry (21世纪中国诗歌现象研究, 2019). But, unlike in Poland, it is difficult to find a solid book on one active poet. Since the mid-2010s, this trend seems to be changing to some extent, as evidenced, for example, by Zhang Taozhou’s 张桃洲 (b. 1971) edited volume Collected Studies on Wang Jiaxin’s Poetry (王家新诗歌研究评论文集, 2017) featuring essays by Chinese and foreign critics, Yang Zhao’s 杨昭 Mapping a Poet’s Soul Road: On Lei Pingyang (诗人的魂路图——雷平阳论, 2014), Huo Junming’s 霍俊明 (b. 1975) On Yu Jian (于坚论, 2019), and—perhaps most surprisingly—Huang Hai’s 黄海 collection of literary-critical essays on the Post-90 author Gao Can 高璨 (b. 1995) titled in English Can Gao: A Young Girl in the Literary Realm (文学的高璨, lit. “The Literary Gao Can,” 2010). In Poland, some authors have been the subject of several books, not only the Old Masters and Young Martyrs, but also the New Wave and Brulion poets, and those who do not fit in any of these categories. The many examples include Stanisław Barańczak, Adam Zagajewski, Marcin Świetlicki, Jacek Podsiadło, Eugeniusz Tkaczyszyn-Dycki, Bohdan Zadura, Piotr Sommer, and Andrzej Sosnowski. One may expect that books on the Post-70 authors will soon mushroom as well. The first, and for now only, such publication is the edited volume The Revolutions of Letters: On the Work of Tomasz Różycki (Obroty liter. O twórczości Tomasza Różyckiego) released in 2019, but one may safely bet that, for example, Roman Honet or Julia Fiedorczuk will soon become “research objects” in a similar fashion. Since roughly the early 2000s, such studies have already become a regular, and arguably very positive, practice in Polish literary-critical discourse. Especially edited volumes that collect a plethora of diverse interpretations constitute a unique opportunity to trace the reception of an author’s poetics in the evolving literary-historical and social-political context, and of course allow us to see that author as a singular phenomenon and not just part of one group or another, or a representative of one poetics or another. Thus, I posit, poets who published their first books in the late 1990s and early 2000s found themselves in a relatively comfortable situation in terms of critical attention to their individual artistic propositions.

In China, the “generational” thinking remained quite distinct not only among critics but also to some extent among poets who tried to define their specific role in the development of national poetry. As Zhang Qinghua 张清华 and Meng Fanhua 孟繁华 put it in their discussion of the relationship between the Third Generation and the Post-70 authors: “Apparently, peacefully and cautiously making one’s way into poetry world is to a certain degree dramatic too.”97 In a similar spirit, Chen Zhongyi 陈仲义 describes the aesthetics of the Post-70 poets as an “aesthetics of hesitation” (犹豫的美学) marked with an irresolvable conflict between constraint and liberation and between the anxiety of influence and the desire for succession.98 The most vivid and precise account of their situation can be found in an essay by a representative of the generation, Huo Junming, who metaphorizes this hesitant aesthetic as the “poetics of the square” (广场诗学). Comparing the representations of the square in the poetry of the Post-70 authors with the older generation, especially in the works of Bei Dao 北岛 and Ouyang Jianghe 欧阳江河, Huo notes:

The square of the Post-70 poets is more interested in postindustrialism and in the urban context; it enquires into the awkward existence and spiritual experience of one generation. […] Since the asceticism of the epoch of collectivism started to inevitably disintegrate, social trends have been increasingly shaped by commerce, money, material desire, and utilitarianism. The “red” revolutionary education and traditional rural life instilled the spirit of sacrifice and pure ideals in them, yet growing up in the ever more complicated social environment, they became a conscious but confused, idealistic but utilitarian, conservative but rebellious, silent but ostentatious generation.99

He Guangshun 何光顺, another Post-70 poet and critic, makes similar observations:

Obviously, they still share the desire of classical poets or those representing the generations of the post-50 and post-60 to enter the history of literature, the anxiety of waiting, the unsettled consciousness of time, as well as the sense of mission and of their own prophetic role inherited from the ancient classics and traditional literati. At the same time, they also share the anxiety of competition and the anxiety of immersion in new media that is characteristic of the generations of the post-80 and post-90. Between the inherited historical mission and the anxieties of modernity, they have developed their own specific understanding of history. Their work extends as a bridge of communication or as a chasm of fracture between the ancient times and the modern and future time.100

In this light, an interesting proposition is that of the poet-cum-scholar Chen Chao 陈超 (1958–2014) in whose studies on poetic imagination the constant tensions in the poetry of the Post-70 generation and their “in-betweenness” is treated as a way toward a sort of dialectical synthesis, a step forward after the years of dominance of the two mutually antithetical visions of poetry: Intellectual and Popular.

4 Toward Poetic Imaginations

Different modes of the evolution of poetry discourse in Poland and China at the turn of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries are very clearly reflected in the different trajectories of the evolution of poetic imagination. In 2009, Chen Chao published an essay titled “Twenty Years of Avant-Garde Poetry: A Transformation of the Forms of Imagination” (先锋诗歌20年: 想象力方式的转换) in which he summarizes the two decades of Chinese poetry between 1989 and 2009 as a dialectical process of gradual merging of two opposite types of imagination—“everyday-life imagination” (日常生活想象力) represented mostly by Popular poets and “spiritual-transcendence imagination” (灵魂超越想象力) prevailing among Intellectuals—into one dialectical category he terms “individualized historical imagination” (个人化历史想象力).101 To illustrate this transformation, in the essay in question and later in his monograph The Birth of Individualized Historical Imagination (个人化历史想象力的生成, 2014),102 Chen discusses transformations of dominant modes of imagination among such Third Generation authors as Yu Jian, Wang Jiaxin, Xi Chuan 西川, and Zhai Yongming, but also among younger poets representing different groups and poetics. His list includes: Jiang Tao 姜涛 (b. 1970), Hu Xudong 胡续冬 (1974–2021), Shen Wei 沈苇 (b. 1965), Yang Jian 杨键 (b. 1967), Yin Lichuan, Jing Wendong 敬文东 (b. 1968), Zhou Zan 周瓒 (b. 1968), Leng Shuang 冷霜 (b. 1973), Liu Jiemin 刘洁岷 (b. 1964), Zhang Taozhou 张桃洲 (b. 1971), Hou Ma 侯马 (b. 1967), Xu Jiang 徐江 (b. 1967), Ye Kuangzheng 叶匡政 (b. 1969), Ma Yongbo 马永波 (b. 1964), Song Xiaoxian 宋晓贤 (b. 1966), Sang Ke 桑克 (b. 1967), Tang Xin 唐欣 (b. 1962), Zhuzhu 朱朱 (b. 1969), Tan Kexiu 谭克修 (b. 1971), Shen Haobo 沈浩波 (b. 1976), and Huo Junming. The register of authors is accompanied by the below comment, followed by an analysis of Yin Lichuan’s poem “Family Relationships on the Weekend” (周末天伦):

All of them, although from different angles, observe complex relationships between history and reality, history and culture, history and language, history and power. In their eyes, poetry is not just an obsessive pursuit of beauty or emotion (嗜美遣兴) but an exploration of concrete modes of life, existence, and historical context. They use a simpler and more direct style to express their critical attitude toward contemporary culture and language, in a discursive, circuitous, dialogical, or ironic way. In terms of literary taste, there are poets among them whom I not necessarily acclaim, and some to whose writing I feel I am not yet used to, but I can recognize their serious approach to writing and trust their talents. Each of them has the awareness of “bearing responsibility,” be it with regard to historical existence or to the art of poetry itself, although the way in which this awareness is manifested differs from the older generations; they write in a more natural, unrestrained, and concretized manner, grinning mischievously, heedless of waves and storms.103

Chen Chao’s much-needed efforts to bridge the gaps and reunite the poetry scene, reconciling various standpoints without detracting from the singularity of individual poets, are worth appreciation; the author’s suicide two weeks before the publication of the abovementioned monograph was an irreparable loss to Chinese verse. But his initiative was continued by other scholars. For example, in 2016, Zhang Weidong 张伟栋 published the incisive essay “Correction and Repositioning of ‘Individualized Historical Imagination’” (对“个人化历史想象力”的校对与重置) revisiting and nuancing Chen’s concept, and Jiang Tao wrote “Individualized Historical Imagination: In the Structures of Contemporary History of the Spirit” (个人化历史想象力: 在当代精神史的构造中) in which he pushes the “individualized historical imagination” further to a metaphysical level. In 2018, Yang Shangchen 杨汤琛 and Li Luyan 李璐延 reread contemporary women’s poetry through the concept of historical imagination in their essay “Historical Imagination, Female Experience, Aesthetics of the Everyday: Several Directions of the Evolution of Women’s Writing in China” (历史想象力、女性经验、日常美学—新世纪中国女性诗歌嬗变的几种向度). The same year, a master’s thesis was defended at Jilin University titled Individualized Historical Imagination: The Live Scenes and the Possibility of Breakthrough in the Poetry of the 1990s (个人化历史想象力: 九十年代诗歌现场与突围的可能性) by He Xuefeng 何雪峰, which testifies to the interest in Chen’s idea also among young researchers.104

If we look at the Polish poetry scene from the angle proposed by Chen Chao, we may note that for some time its evolution took an exactly opposite direction. “Individualized historical imagination”—albeit to my knowledge the term itself has never been used in Poland—was the dominant mode of reading and writing poetry until the second half of the 1980s and the emergence of Brulion authors; in the late 1980s, it was polarized and evolved into two distinct strands: the “everyday-life imagination” and “spiritual-transcendence imagination,” to use Chen’s notions, of the Barbarians and the Classicists, respectively. In the mid-1990s, instead of a dialectical (re)synthesis, which happened in China according to Chen, the two modes of imagination further split into a pluralist mosaic, which Marian Stala described using the notion of “emboldened imagination” (ośmielona wyobraźnia) coined in 1999.105

Unlike Chen Chao’s relatively precise term, which determines a concrete mode of imagination, namely, one that processes historical reality, Stala’s proposition emphasizes imagination’s intensity without referring to any specific function or form in which it is presented. His coinage gained great popularity in poetry discourse in Poland. First used to characterize the work of Roman Honet (b. 1974), since the 2010s it has returned regularly in critical studies and appeared in the titles of doctoral theses also in reference to other authors, especially Radosław Kobierski (b. 1971) and Bartłomiej Majzel (b. 1974). Poets as different as Tomasz Różycki (b. 1974), Justyna Bargielska (b. 1977), Konrad Ciok (b. 1987), Juliusz Gabryel (1979–2018), Łukasz Jarosz (b. 1978), Iwona Kacperska (b. 1976), Piotr Kuśmirek (b. 1978), Joanna Lech (b. 1984), Maciej Melecki (b. 1969), Joanna Mueller (b. 1979), Przemysław Owczarek (b. 1975), Tomasz Pułka (1988–2012), Robert Rybicki (b. 1976), Robert Miniak (b. 1969) and Małgorzata Lebda (b. 1985) have from time to time been mentioned in this discussion as well.106 On top of that, many older or late poets have been reread through the concept of imagination, for example Stanisław Barańczak (1946–2014) by Jacek Łukasiewicz107 or Bolesław Leśmian (1877–1937), Krzysztof Kamil Baczyński (1921–1944), Tadeusz Nowak (1930–1991), and Józef Czechowicz (1903–1939) by Anita Jarzyna.108 This illustrates a significant, overall, and almost immediate shift from the focus on defining (national) poetry toward the focus on individual singularity, not just in Polish poetry as such but also in Polish poetry criticism.

If I were to distinguish a dominant trend in the variety of “emboldened imaginations” in Polish poetry, I would say that most of them have been oscillating around what might be called cognitive imagination, oriented toward the epistemological discovery of a certain truth, be it intellectual or spiritual. Two texts that may suggest this type of cognitive imagination are Charles Baudelaire’s ecstatic praise of imagination as “the Queen of Faculties” from the Salon of 1859 and Gaston Bachelard’s “Copernican Revolution of Imagination.” Baudelaire writes:

How mysterious is Imagination, that Queen of the Faculties! It touches all the others; it rouses them and sends them into combat. […]

It is both analysis and synthesis […]. It decomposes all creation, and with the raw materials accumulated and disposed in accordance with rules whose origins one cannot find save in the furthest depths of the soul, it creates a new world, it produces the sensation of newness. As it has created the world (so much can be said, I think, even in a religious sense), it is proper that it should govern it. What would be said of a warrior without imagination? […] The case could be compared to that of a poet or a novelist who took away the command of his faculties from the imagination to give it, for example, to his knowledge of language or to his observation of facts. What would be said of a diplomat without imagination? […] Of a scholar without imagination? […] Imagination is the queen of truth, and the possible is one of the provinces of truth. It has a positive relationship with the infinite.109

Bachelard seconds him:

[a] man is a man insofar as he is a superman. A man must be defined by the tendencies that impel him to go beyond the human condition. […] The imagination invents more than things and actions, it invents new life, new spirit; it opens eyes to new types of vision.110

It is to the author’s imagination that poetry owes its “bipolar” quality, to which Colette Gaudin refers, in the introduction to her edition of Bachelard’s On Poetic Imagination and Reverie, saying that “every work of art has two poles: the presence of a singular being and the ideality of communicable meanings. Poetry is that zone of language in which originality is impregnated with potential universality.”111

The interest in cognitive imagination might be taken as another example—along with the continuations of female androgyny—of the long life of modernism in Poland, in line with the simple, but in my view most convincing, distinction made by Brian McHale between modernist writing as writing characterized by the epistemological dominant and postmodernist writing as leaning toward the ontological dominant.112 Joanna Mueller, endowed with perhaps the most original and self-conscious language imagination among Polish living poets, in her essay “Stratigraphies” (Stratygrafie) strengthens the connection between the author’s epistemological activity and the development of individual singularity invoking George Steiner’s Grammars of Creation. Steiner makes a case that Western literature conforms to a set of what we might generally call epiphanic grammars, taken as secular reinterpretations of religious structures of Christian thought and ritual:

At every significant point, western philosophies of art and western poetics draw their secular idiom from the substratum of Christological debate. Like no other event in our mental history, the postulate of God’s kenosis through Jesus and of the never-ending availability of the Saviour in the wafer and wine of the eucharist conditions not only the development of western art and rhetoric itself, but also, at a much deeper level, that of our understanding and reception of the truth of art—a truth antithetical to the condemnation of the fictive in Plato.113

Mueller accepts Steiner’s perspective, bringing one particular element of inexhaustible epiphany-through-art into focus. She draws attention to the fact that while the creation process abounds in various epiphanies, for each word transmits numerous meanings that stem from its participation in various discourses, it is the author who ultimately sieves these meanings, deciding which of them to foreground and which to efface.

The term stratygrafie, in Mueller’s paramorphological rendition of the word, carries a double meaning. One is based on the interpretation of strata as a Latin word for “layers”; in this sense, a text understood as a product of stratigraphy is a palimpsest in which different levels of content can be distinguished. The other is based on the interpretation of strata as a Slavic word that is homophonous and homographic with the Latin strata, meaning “loss”; thus “stratigraphy” can alternatively be explicated as “writing loss(es).” Mueller explains:

Each poem, painting, or sculpture is a sort of stratigraphic system, in which from under the layers on the surface (to which the author says “yes”) emerge “strata/losses” marked with negation, doomed to nonexistence.

Steiner doesn’t position himself among the advocates of genetic, psychoanalytical, or deconstructionist methods of exploration of artistic works. He is not particularly interested in the author’s unconsciousness and its role in the process of precipitation of semantic sediment negated by consciousness. Grammars of Creation are located on the side of the author’s consciousness, which in the final shape of their work embraces its rejected versions not by a Freudian mistake, but with full awareness and premeditation.114

The “precipitation of semantic sediment” requires some explanation. It is part of a bigger signature metaphor coined by Mueller, which reemerges in many of her critical writings. The author visualizes poetic works as chemical solutions characterized by various degrees of saturation of meaning. A language poem is a supersaturated solution whose creator aims at dissolving “maximum in minimum.” Oversaturation with ambiguity leads to incomprehensibility of a text, or—as some say—hermeticness. But,

fortunately, as the history of the linguistic laboratory shows, the notion of supersaturation is relative and changes with the broadening of readerly expectations. The surplus that yesterday couldn’t be dissolved and was precipitated […], tomorrow may prove to be a precious crystal. What yesterday’s readers rejected as cocky mumbling, grammatic eccentricity, or impossible utopia, today turns out to be an underappreciated experiment: Khlebnikov’s zaumny [trans-sense] language, Białoszewski’s speech-centric grammaturgy, or the “impossible poetry” achieved by Karpowicz.115

Mueller’s striving for what she terms the maximal saturation of poetry with meaning illustrates Steiner’s argument that both science and art have always sought—and should always seek—the understanding of the greatest mysteries of the world, and that, in this joint search, the languages developed by science and art are getting ever closer to each other:

In our age of transition to new mappings, to new ways of telling the story, the natural and the “human” sciences (sciences humaines) present a spiralling motion. […] Knowledge proceeds forward technically, in its methods, in the ground it covers. But it seeks out origins. It would identify and grasp the source. In this movement towards “primacy”, different sciences, different bodies of systematic inquiry draw strikingly close to each other. […]

Though the conditions of “strangeness” and “singularity”—terms that reach as probingly into metaphysics or poetics as they do into the physics of cosmology—during the initial particle of time may still escape our computations, late twentieth-century science is now “within three seconds” of the start of this universe. The creation-story can be told as never before.116

Steiner’s reflection brings us to the threshold of the issues that will be discussed in chapters 6 and 7, which are focused on poetry’s search for what I referred to as capital-S Singularity; that is, to the limits of language, and, in practice, to the limits of the modernist paradigm.

That said, it is of course not true that phenomena that might be considered products of “emboldened imagination” in China did not exist at all. In fact, they had appeared there some twenty years earlier than in Poland, and in the mid-1980s there was a moment in which it might seem that Chinese poetry discourse would develop exactly in this direction. But it was brutally reoriented by history. A symptomatic case is that of Zhou Lunyou 周伦佑 (b. 1952), the leader of the Sichuan-based Not-Not (非非) group, known as an intellectualist among Popular poets and as a populist poet among Intellectual poets, or, optionally, as the Chinese Derrida. In his literary and metaliterary work one can trace the process of historicization of imagination. As early as in the mid-1980s Zhou proposed a theory of imagination as the compensation for the various limitations of the human senses, language, and logic.117 From his laconic notes prepared before a series of “mobile lectures” promoting New Poetry at different universities in China, we can learn, among other things, that he referred to Immanuel Kant’s and Albert Einstein’s take on imagination, which suggests that his focus was very much on the cognitive dimension of the Queen of Faculties. In his later philosophical-theoretical writings, he went further. Imagination was to become the first step to freeing oneself from what he called “internal models” by a triple escape: escaping knowledge (逃避知识), escaping meaning (逃避意义), and escaping grammar (逃避语法). Zhou’s poetry, including works such as “A Man with an Owl” (带着猫头鹰的男人) and “Wolves’ Valley” (狼谷), was treated largely as a field for experimental testing of his theoretical hypotheses. The notion of escaping was constructed on the same intuitions that were crucial for the development of postmodernism in the West, and Zhou was on his way to transcending the imaginative epistemology associated with modernism and moving toward the ontological transformation of poetic matter and approaching Singularity that is beyond language. But the trajectory of his writing was unexpectedly curved.

In 1989, after June Fourth, Zhou was imprisoned and transferred to a reeducation-through-labor camp where he spent two years. His prison poems, for example “Imagining a Big Bird” (想象大鸟) or “From a Concrete Bird to an Abstract Bird” (从具体到抽象的鸟), propose a fundamentally different understanding of imagination, one much closer to the existentialism of Jean-Paul Sartre and Sartre’s famous claim that imagination is the foundation of freedom:

[I]magination is not an empirical power added to consciousness, but is the whole of consciousness as it realizes its freedom; every concrete and real situation of consciousness in the world is pregnant with the imaginary in so far as it is always presented as a surpassing of the real. It does not follow that all perception of the real must be reversed in imagination, but as consciousness is always “in situation” because it is always free, there is always and at every moment the concrete possibility for it to produce the irreal. There are various motivations that decide at each instant if consciousness will be only realizing or if it will imagine. The irreal is produced outside the world by a consciousness that remains in the world and it is because we are transcendentally free that we can imagine.118

Subsequently, in the early 1990s, Zhou developed the concept of “red writing” (红色写作), acknowledging poets’ social responsibility and the necessity of poetry’s involvement (介入) in external reality instead of “escaping” its structures. Unlike his early poetry, which might be read in the framework of Stala’s “emboldened imagination,” his works from the early 2000s such as “Protean Egg” (变形蛋) and “Pictorial Tiger” (象形虎), which contain sharp criticism of totalitarianism, are most effectively read in line with Chen Chao’s postulates of “individualized historical imagination.” The evolution of Zhou’s oeuvre shows how difficult it is to uphold certain visions of poetics, even if underlain with a solid theoretical foundation, in unfavorable social-political circumstances that pull the “abstract bird” down to earth. This also at least partly explains why the “emboldened imagination” has never dominated in Chinese poetry as it did in Poland in the most stable and relaxed period since 1989, that is, at the turn of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, when the Post-70 authors marked their presence on the poetry stage. Ten years later, in the repoliticized reality of the 2010s, it would be unlikely to explode so spectacularly. The situation in recent years has prompted the emergence of what we might tentatively describe as a social-ethical imagination related to the rise of leftist sensibilities in the new poetry, to which I will briefly return in the final chapter.

1

Winiarski 1996.

2

Translated as White and Red in the UK and Snow White and Russian Red in the US.

3

Majerski 2000: 14, trans. J K.

4

Majeran 1996: 7, trans. J K.

5

Maliszewski 1996: 193, trans. J K.

6

Śliwiński 2007: 291–292, trans. J K.

7

Siwczyk and Lichecka 2017, trans. J K. On that note, Julian Kornhauser is also the father of Agata Kornhauser-Duda, Poland’s current first lady, but it is well known that there is a wide gulf between Agata on the one hand and her father and younger brother on the other in terms of political views. In 2016, Jakub famously said that he would not be surprised if President Andrzej Duda would one day be brought before the State Tribunal.

8

Siwczyk 2016, trans. J K.

9

Siwczyk and Lichecka 2017, trans. J K.

10

Siwczyk and Lichecka 2020, trans. J K.

11

Niemczyńska 2014.

12

Skurtys 2019.

13

This section draws extensively on my biographical essay on Yin Lichuan included in the Dictionary of Literary Biography (Krenz 2021b). I retain here the original references to primary sources.

14

Yin, Liu, and Qiao 2002: 276, trans. J K.

15

Shao 2012, trans. J K.

16

Yan Jun 2002: 235, trans. J K.

17

Yin and Zhao 2010: 182.

18

Nanfang Dushibao 2012: 145.

19

See discussion of the term’s translation in van Crevel 2017c, esp. pp. 47–48.

20

van Crevel 2008: 309.

21

Ibidem: 307.

22

Yin 2006a: 26.

23

Shen Haobo 2001: 2.

24

Ibidem: 4.

25

Yan Jun 2002: 284–285.

26

Hu Chuanji 2008.

27

Li Shijiang (undated), Wu Ang (undated), Shen Haobo (undated).

28

Yin 2006b.

29

Siwczyk 2006: 12, trans. J K.

30

Yin 2001: 200–201, trans. J K.

31

Siwczyk 2006: 10, trans. J K.

32

Yin 2001: 181, trans. J K.

33

Yin 2003: 48–49.

34

Siwczyk 2006: 22, trans. J K.

35

Yin 2001: 192, trans. J K.

36

van Crevel 2008: 328.

37

Yin 2001: 182, trans. J K.

38

Ibidem: 205–206, trans. J K.

39

Siwczyk 2006: 5, trans. J K.

40

Yin Lichuan 2001: 190, trans. J K.

41

Siwczyk 2006: 13.

42

Ibidem: 33.

43

Yin 2003: 4–5.

44

Ibidem: 20.

45

Cf. Krenz 2018: 61–62; 2020b.

46

Yin 2001: 197–198, trans. J K.

47

Siwczyk 2006: 39, trans. J K.

48

Stańczyk 2009: 53–54.

49

Ibidem.

50

Siwczyk 2006: 39, trans. J K.

51

Siwczyk 2006: 20.

52

Ibidem: 23, trans. J K.

53

Yin 2006: 81–82, trans. J K.

54

See, e.g., Yin et al. 2002.

55

Ta Ai 2005: 95, trans. J K.

56

Ibidem: 98, trans. J K.

57

van Crevel 2008: 320–321.

58

Shen 2001: 4, trans. J K.

59

Bao Yuqi 2011: 143; Jiang Lili 2009: 60.

60

Zhao Bin 2008; Zhou Xiaoxiang 2017.

61

Richards 2019: KL 5212.

62

Quoted in Richards 2019: KL 5279.

63

See, e.g., Kudyba 2010; Maryjka 2016; Dobrzyńska 2019; Johnston 2019.

64

Li Hao 2017: 106–107, trans. J K.

65

Quoted in Li Hao 2017: 192–193.

66

Stańczyk 2009.

67

Babcia means “grandma” and is normally used by kids to refer to the mother of one of their parents. Bill Johnston decided to leave the word untranslated in its original form perhaps in order to emphasize the Polishness of the woman. Traditional Polish babcias are very specific personas: unconditionally, though perhaps embarrassingly, loving of their grandchildren, for example overfeeding them with bigos and other simple dishes from Polish cuisine or secretly smuggling food into their belongings (in Twelve Stations, Grandson, in a most inopportune moment, discovers a piece of stinking rotten fish in his backpack!).

68

On the interactions between poetry and the Różycki family history, see Grudzińska-Gross 2012.

69

Różycki 2015: 182–185.

70

Różycki 2015: 216–217.

71

Ibidem: 224–227.

72

Tabaszewska 2013: 114, trans. J K.

73

Różycki 2014b: 15, trans. J K.

74

Ibidem: 154, trans. J K.

75

Li Hao 2017: 208, trans. J K.

76

Ibidem: 187–188, trans. J K.

77

Ibidem: 191.

78

Li Hao 2017: 171–172, trans. J K.

79

Li Hao, personal communication with the author, May 26, 2020.

80

Benjamin 2006: 392.

81

Ibidem: 390.

82

Benjamin 1997: 163, translated by Steven Rendall.

83

Ibidem.

84

Lipszyc Adam 2012: 343, trans. J K.

85

Ibidem: 348, trans. J K.

86

Li Hao 2017: 155–157, trans. J K.

87

Ibidem: 160–162, trans. J K.

88

Ibidem: 162, trans. J K.

89

Ibidem: 163–164, trans. J K.

90

Ibidem: 167, trans. J K.

91

Ibidem: 171–172, trans. J K.

92

Różycki 2015: 102–105.

93

Ibidem: 244–247.

94

Różycki 2013: 106–107.

95

Cf. Grudzińska-Gross 2012: 5.

96

Grudzińska-Gross 2012: 98.

97

Zhang and Meng 2016: 22.

98

Chen Zhongyi 2008.

99

Huo Junming 2011: 2, trans. J K.

100

He Guangshun 2017: 42, trans. J K.

101

Chen Chao 2009.

102

Chen Chao 2014.

103

Chen Chao 2009: 36, trans. J K.

104

Zhang Weidong 2016; Jiang Tao 2016; Yang Shangchen and Li Luyan 2018; He Xuefeng 2018.

105

Stala and Marecki 2000.

106

Orliński 2012.

107

See, e.g., Łukasiewicz’s speech on the occasion of Barańczak winning the 2009 Silesius Poetry Award; quoted in Nurek 2009.

108

Jarzyna 2017.

109

Baudelaire 2014: 91–92.

110

Bachelard 2014: KL 1258.

111

Ibidem: KL 651–652.

112

McHale 2004: xii.

113

Steiner 2001: 55.

114

Mueller 2010: 96, trans. J K.

115

Ibidem: 94, trans. J K.

116

Steiner 2001: 9–11.

117

Zhou Lunyou 1999: 109–110.

118

Sartre 2004: 186–187.

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