Running on Poetry: Misty Poets and other past mysteries

Bei Dao  

This column teaches me new things; a point I make again and again. For example, I learnt about the ‘Misty Poets’ when I worked on today’s piece. The term describes a progressive literary movement in China in the 1970s and 1980s. The term sounds even more evocative in Chinese: Ménglóng Shi Rén. It seems to imply something mystical, unclear; like the Mysterious Orient. To some extent that’s true. The language in the poems is more thought than thing and the meaning is often uncertain. At the forefront of the movement was Zhao Zhenkai, better known as the renowned poet Bei Dao (born on August 2, 1949).

It’s hard to be a poet under most circumstances and, in China, it must be tougher. Bei Dao was exiled from his country in 1989, after the regime connected him to Tiananmen Square. Influence, even alleged, can be a threat. In this case, his early poetry was considered to be inspiration for the Democracy Movement. Freedom and the loss of country feature prominently in his work. In fact, his nom-de-plume — Bei Dao — means ‘North Island’; a shout-out to his place of origin in China and his general predisposition towards solitude. In ‘Delivering Newspapers’ (translated by Eliot Weinberger and Iona Man-Cheong), the poet says, “ Who believes in the mask’s weeping?/who believes in the weeping nation?/the nation has lost its memory/memory goes as far as this morning.

Poet Michael Palmer says, “Anointed as an icon on the Democracy Wall and as the voice of a generation by the events of Tiananmen Square in 1989, and thereby also fated to exile, Bei Dao has followed a path of resistance that abjures overt political rhetoric while simultaneously keeping faith with his passionate belief in social reform and freedom of the creative imagination.” Bei Dao was allowed back into China in 2006.

While his work is ambiguous and multi-interpretational, some lines stand out in starkness for the image they create. In ‘Sower’ (translated by David Hinton), the poet speaks of a warning of war issued by a man who sows seeds for crops. He knows the fields and knows of a threat. “ I walk out from that great hall/all four directions a boundless harvest scene/I start planning for war/rehearsing death/and the crops I burn/send up the wolf-smoke of warning fires/but something haunts me furiously:/he’s sowing seed across marble floors.” Is the sower filled with optimism, punished by his sense of reality, or a pessimistic bystander? The last line reveals nothing and, yet, there’s the image. Of a man trying to grow something from uncaring, cold marble - futile or hopeful? It’s hard to say.

His imagery is astounding. This is a master craftsman at his best: “ wolves of music weave their way at a run/hawthorns wheeze with clandestine laughter...” (‘Pastoral’). In ‘New Year’ (translated by David Hinton and Yanbing Chen), Bei Dao writes, “ a child carrying flowers walks toward the new year/a conductor tattooing darkness/listens to the shortest pause/hurry a lion into the cage of music/hurry stone to masquerade as a recluse/moving in parallel nights/who’s the visitor? when the days all/tip from nests and fly down roads/the book of failure grows boundless and deep/each and every moment’s a shortcut/I follow it through the meaning of the East/returning home, closing death’s door.

I am struck by the image of the ‘conductor tattooing darkness.' A fan of the art form, I visualise the baton puncturing the night in short, precise movements. Both — conducting an orchestra and tattooing — require complete absorption. What you witness can be life-transforming.

In Ramallah (2006), where, “ a bird locked in a clock/jumps out to tell the time” and “ the sun climbs over the wall like an old man”. And again, “ in Ramallah, gods drink water from earthen jars/a bow asks a string for directions”; “ the tree takes on a hurricane’s violent original shape.” Till now, I always thought the arrow knew where it needed to go but now I know otherwise.

In ‘Requiem’ (translated by Eliot Weinberger and Iona Man-Cheong), Bei Dao makes a strong point: “ to be lost is a kind of leaving/and poetry rectifying life/rectifies poetry’s echo.

A refined art form is the poetry of Bei Dao.

Srividya is a poet. Read her work at

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Printable version | Jan 28, 2022 10:49:44 AM |

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