k a m a t e k a o r aa new zealand journal of poetry and poetics
Wintering in Auckland
On July 25 th 1989 Yang Lian wrote the following in a letter to the editor of the Taiwanese newspaper United News:
In the light of the international acclaim which Yang Lian has subsequently received, these comments do not lack irony, but they also underscore the trauma of the political and cultural displacement which sudden exile in Auckland brought upon him. Such circumstances meant death for the poet. Yang rationalised his condition of exile as a kind of living death or ‘ghost life’. A poet in exile dies multiple times: he is wrenched from his cultural milieu, with its fame and acclaim, and thrown into sympathetic indifference in New Zealand. Removed also from his linguistic milieu, he confronts mutual incomprehension, and the familiar spaces and landscapes of the dry, dusty north China plains are replaced by a season-less land of volcanoes with the strange presence of the sea everywhere. There is death too in the unreliability of memory, both the failure to remember the old places clearly and the fear that others will fail to remember him; and there is death in the numbness which follows in the wake of the cataclysm
Thus the exiled poet has died multiple times and yet must live a twilight existence out of language, space and time. He is located in the Auckland landscape which is the starting point of his exile but it is also the point at which the everyday world becomes radically estranged and estranging. In this alien linguistic environment, language itself becomes alien. Yet the living ghost must forge new bonds between language and this land. One of the features of Auckland’s unreal reality was that it seemed to have no seasons. In the prose piece ‘City of One Person’ Yang wrote: ‘You say “four seasons” only from habit. This city is green all year round. The green is like paint on an old wooden plank that won’t wash off’. (Yang 2006, 89) Surreal transformation is part of the everyday in Auckland. Encountering a Winter Garden in the most expansive park of this season-less city is all the more disjunctive once it becomes obvious that it is a hothouse garden, full of lush, tropical plants. The poem ‘Winter Garden’ takes the challenging reality of an Auckland landmark as its starting point and effects a series of defamiliarising transformations which ‘always ends in a mirage’.
Here the lush hothouse garden is disfigured as death and decay in a wintry landscape. Tropical colour is frozen in the snow; tropical leaves are limp like worn-out windbreakers, which would be useless against an icy blast. The crunch of gravel becomes the crunch of snow. The leisurely pace of a walk in the park becomes hurried and further problematised by new soles. Soles which remain brand-new have no contact with the ground and suggest the precarious presence of the living ghost. Day becomes night. The bleating of goats continues the auditory pattern of transformation and disfigurement. An everyday animal cry is heard as an expression of pain and suffering. Goats also develop the exilic preoccupation with dislocation and displacement, for there are no goats in the Auckland Winter Garden. They are heard in Berlin, where this poem was written. In ‘Why there has to be prose’ Yang writes:
Written back in Auckland after an extended period of time spent in both Germany and New York, the prose piece meditates on exile as posthumous existence – ‘this is how the world is: with a strange cunning it treats each person’s innermost being as posthumous’. Exile embodies an interior winter of existence which paralyses, transforming any attempt to articulate this state into incomprehensible bleating.
This is a total transformation of a park which for Aucklanders is a place of lovers’ trysts, family picnics and free concerts where the community comes together. The normality of a garden path is abruptly linked to visceral horror. For the lyric subject the path of poetic creativity itself has become nightmarish. The distorted and disfigured image of creation and birth is one of many in Yang Lian’s work which evoke the aborted creativity of the poet, living yet dead. ‘The Dead in Exile’ provides another example
The exilic condition of a living death is evoked through the multiple associations between winter and death in the garden. This is a place of death where night encroaches unexpectedly, making identity and human relations as inanimate ‘as stones’ and denying either party a clear delineation. Activity centres on the funereal bier, which is not blurred. The vole as nurse is exhausted by her inability to prevent the advent of death; instead she withdraws into the very wounds she is unable to heal. The trees in winter are as if dead and are envisaged throughout this poem in terms of the body. The vole retreats into the body of the living dead. The association of death with winter enables the ambiguities of this state of death to be explored. In winter the semblance of death is belied by the possibility of spring but flowers seem possible only in dreams. Death of the body should imply the corruption of the flesh underground, but here the pink flesh of the living is preserved underground. The fortuitous alliterative association of flesh and flowers in the translation strengthens the death/winter coupling via colour. The incipient buds of spring are trapped underground, and yet through their colour they live on in ghostly vulnerability. The final two lines of Part I return to the central preoccupation with the failure of the creative process. Even the night sky, classic source of inspiration to poets, only renders underdeveloped stars where creativity and potential are confined. The iron railings, an inheritance from the Victorian colonial past in Auckland, are not the ‘railings that guide you home’ across nearby Grafton Bridge (Yang 2006, 39) but the imprisoning motif that appears in the prose piece ‘Eclipse’, affirming an association with the grave:
‘Winter Garden’ continues its investigation of poetic white-out
Part II of the poem continues the intense preoccupation with the abortive creativity of the exile poet. Whereas Part I echoes with bitter weeping and incomprehensible bleating, in Part II the inhospitable winter landscape moves to the realm of writing. Exile has ruptured the special relationship of the poet to the written word. Writing is no longer a trustworthy means of expression. The blank snow suggests the blank page that confronts the poet. Roses recall the ‘pink flesh’ underground, but now the creative process is entirely reversed to one of perpetual decay, as is appropriate in winter. Flames could offer the comfort of colour and warmth but these are far away as the bloody reds and fleshly pinks of Part I have faded into colourlessness. Nevertheless, the corporeal exploration continues even as the body is dismembered into just ‘a pair of cold hands’ which are distanced from the lyric subject by the lack of possessive indicators. Winter as the evocation of exilic ‘ghost life’ is further transformed into the personification of the severe acts of self editing which are carried out by the poet. A winter sun edits the poet out of the writing process – a poet who cannot write is as good as dead. Indeed, the decay of the body mirrors the decay of the garden. There is industrious activity such as one might expect to encounter in a garden in spring time, but this activity only serves to efface or distract from the writing process. It also might suggest the kind of everyday displacement activities to which a writer might resort when writing fails. The warmth of a southern hemisphere north wind is transformed into the chill of a northern hemisphere north wind, whose ‘loneliness’ literally translates as the ‘wind of one person’; the garden has undergone such a complete transformation that it has not only died but has become nothing more than a mirage. We note the insistence of ‘always’, marking the perpetual nature of the transformation. Yang gave the title ‘City in a mirage’ to his cycle of Auckland poems written at this time, expressing both the strangeness of the place to the point of unreality and the abstracted and tenuous existence of the exile poet. ‘Blue music’ offers the only possibility of colour in this section, but such synaesthetic possibilities are quieted by silence. There is only the absence of colour and the denial of sound and verbal expression in this exilic winter, but however insistently the advent of winter in the hothouse garden is distanced from the lyric subject, his centrality in it cannot be denied. It is he who makes this ‘wintering’ happen – “the same heavy snow falls twice from my shoulders/when it covers the garden” – to perception, to writing, to existence.
The statements “I am forgotten” and “I am mistaken” have particular force in the Chinese original where the passive is only used to express strongly adverse situations. They also reiterate with emphatic repetition the significance of memory in the life of the exile whose memories are of a past suspended in time, and whose existence is only given affirmation if those he remembers remember him. This is given extensive treatment in the prose piece ‘Ghost Talk’:
“Stomping on an intersection” recalls the crunch of snow in the first section, both the sound of footsteps which are disembodied, and the play on the notion of the tenuous reality of the exile, who as ‘living dead’ may hear his own footfall but has no further affirmation of his own existence. In contrast to the initial crunch of snow the stomping is directionless and possibly more desperate. A similar confrontation with this lack of affirmation of the real in the mirage using the sound of footsteps opens the poem ‘The Dead in Exile’:
The lamps in ‘Winter Garden’ perpetuate the transformation from day to night effected in Part I, but whereas previously there was the possibility of human relationships (however indistinct) now there is total loneliness because the street is empty. The image of the peopleless street recurs throughout Yang Lian’s Auckland work where the city is consistently envisioned as a city of just one person. ‘City of One Person’ presents Auckland as the ultimate unreal city:
Loneliness perceived as an empty street reflects the perceptions of one who has spent his life in the teeming cities of north China, to whom in comparison Auckland is a ghost town. In the prose piece this emptiness is both internal and external such that the poet and the city embody each other. In the poem the empty street becomes a hoarse throat, the distancing effect of the disembodied throat calling into question who is reciting. The poet’s words are distorted by his own recitation in another act of deformation, and the winter extends ‘for many years’ with no hope of new growth. There are only withered words like leaves in the winter garden, so disfigured by the hoarse recitation they are rendered irrelevant (there is no one to listen or read them) and can only ‘look on’. The association of withered words with withered leaves brings the focus back to the body and its disfigurement as a tree in the winter garden. Then attention turns to what kind of grim socius is offered by such a world:
After the intense loneliness of Part II, the plural noun ‘people’ might imply a sense of community. However as the plural is not marked in the original Chinese the possibility is more tenuous and could relate to the singular subject of the previous section. Only the one(s) who has/have a fascination for the body as a living corpse love to stroll in gardens in a winter they themselves bring to surroundings configured in corporeal terms. From this perspective creativity and wholeness become ruins and destruction, in particular the destruction of innocent life. The image of a drowning kitten recalls other images of unrealised potential which figure the failure of the creative process. Particularly striking is the callousness of the act – the delicate skull is crushed as casually as a walnut. But this is potential destruction, a plot the appreciation of which links the lyric subject to the destructive force of children running into the garden – an explosion of implied noise which shatters the subdued brooding of Part II. Children do not ‘appreciate corpses’ but they would know about plots to drown kittens, just as their ‘innocence’ brings only wanton destruction. The crunch of snow transformed into the desperate and potentially violent stomping on an intersection has now undergone further transmogrification into the trampling of the subject of dreams from Part I. The same Chinese word for flowers huaduo ( 花朵 ) is used and the significance of the line is underscored by its separation from the rest of the stanza. By using the image of children associated elsewhere with anxiety and despair at the failure of the creative process the poet becomes the source of the destruction of his own creativity.
The notion of doomsday is recurrent in Yang Lian’s Auckland work. From ‘Death Trap’:
The Chinese word mori ( 末日 ) used here has taken on Christian connotations to mean Judgement Day but it can also mean simply ‘end’ or ‘doom’. A real doomsday suggests a point when the interminable winter of exile will end, and its Christian overlay implies resurrection of the dead to eternal life or damnation. But the winter garden denies possibility, so its doomsday is fake and winter itself must undergo transformation. Winter trees become dead burnt wood, no longer tall and straight but leaning at a dangerous angle offering only entrapment and destruction. When winter is transformed in this context day is no longer night illuminated by lamps but an ambiguous gloom, neither day nor night.
The plural of the first person pronoun (‘stab us’) also offers the possibility of community but it is immediately compromised because the others in the garden (‘definitely children’) are intruders, the tramplers of flower dreams. So the focus switches to the most surreal aspect of the Auckland landscape, the alien and all-encompassing presence of the sea. In ‘City of One Person’ it looks like this:
The sea encapsulates Yang’s sense of dislocation, being the ultimate defamiliarised environment for someone from arid inland north China. Yang contrasts a mythical notion of the sea in northern China with his present encounters:
Thus the sea stands for unreality, for something that always slips through your fingers. In many poems the smell of the sea is linked to death, and its continuous movement is threatening and perplexing. In the Winter Garden, fish are consumed by the very environment that sustains them and by stabbing ‘us’ the sea associates ‘our’ fate with theirs. Fish scraped clean for cooking are still alive, maintaining existence somehow under the knife. Being stabbed with their own bones in their dreams echoes the poet’s predicament where dreams of a restitution of the creative process as a flowering are trampled by his own abortive attempts at creativity. The unbearable impasse is contained within the body, thus it is the body itself which is reduced, lacking the strength to engage with the past, only able to address the interminable winter of the present. Again the line stands alone from the stanza emphasising its significance.
The following stanza continues the intensely corporeal response through touch, which should provide a reliable affirmation of reality but does not. Instead, the overriding truth of the corruption of the creative process is impalpable – the original Chinese reads ‘cannot be touched’, repeating the verb from the preceding line a third time. The incipient new life, the longed-for springtime, is a malignant tumour. A dark winter tree looks like a woman pregnant with new life that is the consequence of rape: the black trunk of her body has been sliced open. This further degrades the relationship between lovers that was already fragile in Part I. However the tree is sliced open by sight, implicating the lyric subject once again. It is the destructive force of poetic perception which brings this wintering upon the garden; simple images of natural beauty in the park, such as swans feeding in the pond, take on the sinister connotations of entrapment. The poet’s compound eyes dismember everything in the world and are ultimately self-destructive: ‘we go blind’, the plural pronoun here uncannily inclusive. ‘We’ are blinded by the snow which is a product of our own ‘wintering’ perceptions, starkly outlined against its whiteness, enduring through the body the ravages of the season we have inflicted on ourselves until corporeal bones bud like trees. Creative life emerges out of intense anguish, here expressed through the physical pain of the body. In the final couplet colour returns to the garden but is not a return to the old reality of the hothouse garden. Rather, it is a new reality produced by enduring the ‘unrecognisable season’, the winter in a place that has no winter, which is inherent in the poet’s perception of everything in the unreal city. ‘The garden is a reflection of your innermost heart’ (‘Death Trap’, Yang 2006, 45) and it grows in the extraordinary circumstances of living death, defying the environment of the unreal city which is so flagrantly alive.
Yang Lian’s contemplation of the impasse of exile makes strange such commonplaces as Auckland’s subtropical luxuriance and the ever-present sea. In ‘Winter Garden’ winter is a powerful trope of exile and in ‘Sea of Dead Lambs’ an aspect of New Zealand’s high country farming year allows the allusions of the trope even greater play. A normative reality of the new place is warped by the gaze of one who can see only its phantasmagoria:
The sea encroached on the Winter Garden and in the poem ‘ Grafton Bridge’ its impenetrable surface is as hard as iron: ‘the surface of the sea of the dead like iron smells of fish’. (Yang 2006, 39) As part of the cycle ‘The Sky Moves’, written when Yang returned to Auckland in 1992 after time spent in Germany and the United States, ‘Sea of Dead Lambs’ presents a contemplation of the sea which allows the possibility of some kind of engagement. While it often stands for the decentred dislocation and constant movement of life in exile, in this poem the sea itself undergoes a transformation of corporeal dimensions as the poet observes the late-winter spectacle of stock losses at lambing time in a part of the country far removed from metropolitan Auckland. Winter is no longer an internal phenomenon but part of the new country’s surreal reality. In this new perception of reality centred in the mass death and burial of farm animals the poet is quick to draw analogies between animal and human carcases. Both the poet and the sea undergo their own winterings which bring commonalities of corporeal experience. The sea becomes tangible through flesh just as death (in exile) has long since been embodied by the poet.
As coffins are the lodging places of the dead, so the living dead are imprisoned by the fleshly lodgings of the body. The act of imprisonment is an external, violent assault upon the body but also, via enjambment, it occurs ‘under soaking fleece’, under a sea of flesh. Throughout the cycle ‘City in a Mirage’ the sea not only contains the stench of death (the smell of fish), it also threatens and imprisons, and becomes a place of corporeal putrefaction:
We recall ‘the stench of my own corpse’ in Part II of ‘Winter Garden’. Imagined as an expanse of dead sheep, the sea is implicitly motionless but also suffocating: drenched fleece is heavy. In its transformation as flesh the sea retains its alien repugnance by being associated not with lamb but with mutton. At one stroke the iconic New Zealand commonplace of the sheep and its meat is rendered grotesque in the eyes of pork-eating Han Chinese who are repulsed by the smell and taste of mutton. This repugnant smell of death permeates the world of books and reading but at the same time an alternative transformation is evoked for the length of one line. Fleeces can offer warmth and comfort; winter could offer the possibility of love-making by the fire. The gentle, erotic image is a far cry from ‘lovers dim as stones’ or the ‘raped springtime’ and offers a rare moment of consolation.
Heavy snow engulfs exile death, stifling creativity and existence. In the New Zealand agricultural winter when snow falls on fleece it produces a white-out reminiscent of the blank snow-page that confronts the poet. As snow is impervious to the final cries of the sheep it smothers, the world is deaf to the incomprehensible bleatings of the exile in his unintelligible mother tongue. Wailing is choked even inside the lung, the source of bitter weeping and hoarse incantations. Even articulation itself is nothing more than flesh, its fresh scarlet contours resonating with the bloody tableau in Part I of ‘Winter Garden’. The crucial elements of winter and the sea are finally brought together but it is only through the empty eyes of dead sheep, which have undergone their own excruciating wintering, that this uncompromising dyad can be recognised. In this winter sea there is total whiteness – nothing can survive, not even fish for whom the sea has become an alien environment. The ‘shattered glass’ hints at a poetic confrontation with the zero-state sea. In ‘Broken Feet that Walk the Wall’, another poem in ‘The Sky Moves’ cycle, ‘a pale expanse of toenail finally penetrates the glassy expanse of the sea’. (Yang 2006, 50) One cannot penetrate a sea whose surface is as hard as iron; but transformed into glass (itself a liquid) the surface will shatter and reform around a toe dipped tentatively in the water. To shatter the surface of the sea is to take the first step in a confrontation with its unyielding obscurity; the confrontation is violent and all that is gained is recognition of suffocating whiteness. The destruction that winter wreaks upon the body is unremitting and can only be fully recognised by undergoing this corporeal violence, by becoming the frozen sheep whose white corpse is indistinguishable against the snow.
There is an intensification of the exilic winter which assails the body with frostbite and is the source of all pain. The hypothetical image of a dead kitten in ‘Winter Garden’ is realised here. Understood in the light of ‘Winter Garden’ the image is powerfully associative, combining the anxiety of abortive creativity with the destructive cruelty of wintering which spring both from within the body and assault it from without. The scene of agricultural carnage becomes more graphic as the total whiteness is fouled and muddied. The perpetuation of existence after death becomes firmly located in the corpses of the sheep, which are not dumped as inanimate conglomerations of flesh and drenched fleece by the truck, but instead abandon the truck, propelled by fear or perhaps an embodiment of fear. A pile of dead sheep (a sea of dead lambs) appear to huddle together for warmth even as they are being buried. Their soaking fleeces offer no warmth or comfort, and once committed to the ground they enter a twilight world like that of the living dead, with its inevitable encounter with the sea offering a travesty of succour. The notion of milk sucked after death recalls the succession of distorted and disfigured images of creation and birth which appear in ‘Winter Garden’ and also suggest the death of unborn lambs, whose mothers’ bodies become their fleshly tombs.
Spring, potentially the harbinger of new life and creativity, remains an unreliable aspiration, the disfigured and degraded manifestation of the Winter Garden is transformed in the final stanza into treachery. The insemination of the lamb-as-creative-work is not brought to parturition but to endless sweating stagnation. Worse, the unborn defy the protection of the womb and are subject to winter’s assault, towards which their mother’s four hooves propel them. Once again via conceptualisations of fleshly entombment this becomes an evocation of the process whereby the poet becomes the source of the destruction of his own creativity, rushing headlong into the white blankness of the snow-page, nurturing the posthumous growth of foetal organs until sensitivity is lost among the vast (corporeal) shadows of the ghost life. This is emphasised by the reversion to the singular second person pronoun identifying the singular impasse confronted by the poet. Throughout this poem a series of dislocations is achieved through the manipulation of the singular and plural second person pronoun ‘you’. This is impossible to render into modern English but the variations are marked above. The manipulation enables simultaneously both monologue and dialogue, interiority and exteriority, disassociation with the frozen flock and complete association – being simultaneously suffocated by the heavy sea and part of the sea’s flesh. The dislocation is maintained as the poem comes to a close. The location shifts to an enclosed space with windows, a room where the singular ‘you’ is now, still assailed by the agriculturally determined winter outside. Sheep-dogs, usually a benign New Zealand commonplace, also undergo grotesque transformation. They are viewed by ‘you’ from the terrified perspective of the flock, all the more awesome because they are the means by which the sea enacts its revenge. Temporarily stilled as soaking fleece, the sea reasserts its movement and unpredictability via embodiment by the thousands of sheep-dogs. At the same time ‘you’ are continually watched by the vengeful sea whose associations with the exilic winter remain as strong as ever.
New Zealand was both the place of multiple dislocations in Yang Lian’s life and the central point of orientation within that dislocation. His New Zealand poetry is at once specifically located in Auckland or other New Zealand landscapes and abstractly dislocated from them. In his exploration of the complexities of location and identity, he reformulates and updates the paradise/slaughterhouse dichotomy which Patrick Evans (1980) traces in New Zealand fiction, whereby the colonial vision of New Zealand as a garden paradise (rearticulated today as ‘100% Pure’ or Middle Earth) is variously transformed and disfigured. For Evans, the slaughterhouse (or meat works in its modern manifestation) which is the other side of the pastoral idyll symbolises the repressed violence in New Zealand society in the work of writers from George Chamier to Ronald Hugh Morrieson or David Ballantyne. Yang’s evocation of agricultural carnage and his transmogrified gardens extend these explorations of cultural dislocation, which are figured by class and the effects of colonisation, to the defamiliarising impasse of exile. In each case the subversion of the impossible idyll arises from observations of the normative realities of New Zealand life which contradict a specific set of cultural expectations, be they Chinese or post/colonial. As such, Yang Lian’s poems offer a complex of mutually informing resonances and perhaps ironically find for themselves a place within an enduring New Zealand tradition of displacement.
Many of the ideas developed in this essay grew out of discussion with my colleague Jacob Edmond during our collaboration in the translation and editing of Yang Lian’s Auckland work, published as Unreal City: A Chinese Poet in Auckland. Auckland UP, 2006
Hilary Chung teaches Comparative and Chinese literature in the School of Asian Studies at the University of Auckland. She co-edited and co-translated Yang Lian: A Chinese poet in Auckland(Auckland UP, 2006) with Jacob Edmond.
Evans, Patrick (1980) “Paradise or Slaughterhouse: Some aspects of New Zealand proletarian fiction”, Islands, 8.1, 71-85.
Yang Lian (1990) Masks and crocodile: a contemporary Chinese poet and his poetry. Translated by Mabel Lee; illustrations by Li Liang . Glebe, N.S.W.: Wild Peony.
------------ (1994) Non-person Singular: Selected poems of Yang Lian. Translated by Brian Holton. London: Wellsweep.
------------ (2006) Unreal City: A Chinese poet in Auckland. Edited and introduced by Jacob Edmond and Hilary Chung. Auckland: Auckland University Press.