Wai-Lim Yip, Arrivals and Departures: Poems, Memoir, and Chronology, Musical Stone Publishing Limited, 2017. 378 pgs.
Arrivals and Departures presents an overview of a poetic career. Reviewing a career that began when I was five years old and hasn’t ended sixty years later is a daunting prospect. It is a career with which I was largely unfamiliar, but reading Arrivals and Departures left me convinced I had been introduced to an important poet as well as a very significant figure in Chinese-English cultural exchanges.
The second point hardly surprised me. Wai-lim Yip’s Chinese Poetry: Major Modes and Genres is one of the five books which most helped me, a non-reader of Chinese, understand Chinese poems through translation. It is why I eagerly grabbed the chance to review Arrivals and Departures. But this meant I knew Yip primarily from his English translations, both word-for-word and then slightly smoothed out, of classical Chinese poems. While I admired these very much, for me at least, they sometimes failed to make good English language poems. I did not know his own English language poems until I read this volume.
“Fugue,” the 1960 poem that opened his career, is an unwelcoming masterpiece, partly for reasons Yip explains when we reach the fragmentary memoir that appears later in this volume. We are where Ezra Pound meets Chinese literature, a poem full of literary allusion. The poem begins by referring to Chinese frontier poetry, but the frontier walls are adjacent to very un-Chinese cathedrals.
North wind, am I to bear this one more year?
Streets shiver along the walls
Romances, cold sorrows, from the frontiers
Disclose to me these:
Patience of mountains Erratic breath of outlands
Chronic neighing of Tartar horses
Bonfires in war and farming in spring
Plants that transcend all knowledge
Immaculate snowfalls Grand cathedrals and palaces
Deliberately, Yip carved out a space for a Chinese poet within anglophone modernism. He saw himself not only as a poet of China but a poet of displacements, displaced first by the Japanese invasion of China, then by the PLA’s victory which led his family to flee to British Hong Kong, where he believes as a “yellow Chinese” he was despised by the “white Chinese,” and then to Taiwan. When he wrote “Fugue,” he did not know the USA was his more nearly final destination. He saw classical poetry a “counter-discourse to power” but was drawn as well to modernism as a response to the collapse of a civilization, partly because modernism drew on China, as understood, no matter how poorly, by poets such as Pound. He later devoted his dissertation to Pound’s Cathay. Because of his displacement, he and others turned to the poetry of Baudelaire and those who came after Baudelaire; Yip says they appropriated Western culture to reclaim Chinese culture.
While I respect his earliest work, I am happy he gradually came to open up his poems more, trusting more to images and sounds and less to erudition—if we must, shifting from Pound of the Cantos to Pound of Cathay. From the start, Yip favoured landscape poems. Following the lead of Wang Wei, on occasion he attempted to combine poetry with painting, either his own or that of a collaborator. While I would not argue his later poems are better than “Fugue,” they are more accessible. Consider these lines from “Street Scene—Peking, 1981.”
Beside a four-lane highway
Barely lit by the feeble streetlights
Four shadows of squatting men
Their backs against darkness from four sides
With all concentration
Under an occupied circle of streetlight
Are enthusiastically playing poker.
This is a poem that trusts precise imagery to convey meaning. (I note also that Yip’s confidence; he uses the word “four” three times because it is the precise word.)
Yip makes no claim to have spurned influences. The modernists poets remain. He also acknowledges the influence of Allen Ginsberg. I hear it here, in one of the passages, increasingly frequent as he develops, in which Yip sets his sense of humour free—and it is not easy to joke in a second language. This passage appears in “Death of the Word.”
Have you not heard this unconditional eulogy:
Beauty O How deep!
Beauty O How extensive!
Beauty O How swinging!
Beauty O How tuneful!
Despite all the influences discussed and the photographs which feature Yip in the company of his wife and friends, only one fellow poet makes a strong appearance, exactly in the middle of the book. That is the Spanish poet Jorge Guillén. His arrival opens up the book in a way that I craved, without realising it. The two poets knew each other a short time, but as used to be common in the Chinese tradition they wrote poems back and forth. Their friendship led Yip to travel to Spain and write a series of poems set in its landscape. Yet I most value the poem about the two poets, one displaced from China, one at home in Spain, and their more practical wives.
As I wish to encourage everyone to read Yip’s Arrivals and Departures, please permit me to end here with this poem. Before I started this review, I knew I could easily persuade you that this is an important book; it is far more important to convince you these are wonderful poems. This is the moment when, on the vast canvas of a Chinese painting of a majestic mountain, you spot the traveller on the winding path or the small house, its chimney smoking—the human figure that makes a mountain a mountain, a painting a painting.
In the afternoon
the only movements
sheep inching along
in the distance
spans all the steppe
a thousand miles
into the sky
In the trembling horizon
a few brownish lines
here and there
of broken bricks
upon the void
will the deep deep time
The intermittent rumbling
of the train
beyond the pine grove
seems to be
surging cries of Arabian
their sabers toward
the Medieval city
The loudening rapids
are washing the rising dusk
The sky’s long shadow
merges the jarring sights
of several automobiles
into the landscape
a little boat
emerges from behind an isle
leaving two silhouettes
printed upon the afterglow
June and Jonas become busy
cutting and collecting
On the other end of the river
the watermill among thrown-about rocks and tiles
catches the last ray of the sundown
Who is the author of Lazarillo de Tormes?
Mr. Guillén, scholar of the picaresque novel,
my Spanish friend
is still musing
in the zero of silence
amid the loudening rapids
and I am waiting
for the moon
to float up above the horizon
for a bird
to make the landscape
when our wives
who are testing the water’s coldness with their toes
suddenly cry out
THE BULLS ARE COMING! THE BULLS ARE COMING!
the musing Spanish gentleman
who instinctively swings his jacket
and body-bending and hand upon his waist
all ready to face the bulls
to protect our women, our young
l00 years, 200 years, 300 years…
The peasant woman tightly wrapped in black
is still sitting there
Two dried brown walls, half-falling,
against a bright lane.
A gravel road
a mule-cart of village-made bread
moves slowly toward
Madrid O Madrid
more sonorous than any
syllable in the Spanish language
she has never seen.
upon the broken village plaza
when the storks
folded the transparent sunlight
and their thin, thin wings
into their nests under the Cross
when she first heard
old old villagers read
letters from the cities?
…All energy, the rustic flamenco
shakes all the streets in Madrid til midnight
…Upon Plaza Mayor
Files and files of well-dressed gentlemen in Salamanca
flow clockwise the whole night
Files and files of green-browed girls in Salamanca
flow counter-clockwise the whole night
…We strut, patting each other’s shoulders
leaning upon narrow twisting streets
dipping in and out of bars
into the fragrance of wines and tapas
horse-hooves, tap, tap
toward the empty wilderness
when after moondown
all by itself
a blue-shimmering castle.
A peasant woman all in black
against a bright lane
She sits there and
following a mule
trailing a gravel road
gazes into the
l00 years, 200 years, 300 years…..
Reid Mitchell is a lost New Orleanian. He published a book of poems Sell Your Bones in Berlin in February 2019. His brief memoir Scoundrel: A Memoir of a Medical Incident is available through Amazon. In the 20th century, he published the novel A Man Under Authority. He is the Consulting Editor of Cha.