Bei Dao (author), Ted Huters and Feng-ying Ming (translators), Blue House, Zephyr Press, 2000. 262 pgs.
First published in 1998, Chinese poet Bei Dao’s collection of essays Blue House focuses on the lives of varied exiled Chinese and Western poets famous and obscure, from luminaries such as Allen Ginsberg, King Hu, Susan Sontag and Octavio Paz, to lesser-known poets whose stories intersect poignantly with the author’s own experiences in life, art and travel. Written from cosmopolitan backdrops as exotic as Prague, New York City, London, Beijing, and Hong Kong into the rural fastnesses of New England, the South Africa veld, and the enduring countryside of Mao-era China, Bei Dao contrasts the ordinariness of poets’ lives with the profundity and cultural significance of their art.
Bei Dao’s essays, which occasionally become extended musings, are suffused with down-to-earth, almost self-deprecating, warmth observing the extraordinary in ordinary people and places. He does not romanticise the figures he reminisces about, preferring to blend foibles and frailties in his earnest portraits of persons and things great and small. Poets, film directors, actors, restaurateurs, wanderers, domestic and wild animals, birds and even cars star in Bei Dao’s ruminations. Each and all signify a persistence of memory, a desire for expression and survival in the face of exile, self-imposed or otherwise, and fortitude in the face of the capricious winds of time, space and experience.
Bei Dao spares himself least, as he ponders his own wandering existence. He speaks of the isolation and confusion of his first forays into exile, from West Berlin to Oslo, Stockholm, Aarhus (Denmark), Leiden (Netherlands), Paris and then the United States. He explores his relationship with his then-wife Shao Fei, adolescent daughter TianTian and even his cats Yellow Wind, Haku and Mata during the period from Beijing to Paris and finally to the quiet university town of Davis, California. He recalls his misadventures around buying a first (and predictably malfunctional) car; his gambling fever and its consequences across the globe; kinship with the crows of Davis, and their imagined scope of history; a young Chinese overstayer he communicates with and aids only through the anonymity of a public phone.
Finally, he discusses the art of recitation that he feels has been lost in China, but which he rediscovers through the performance of fellow poets such as John Ashbury, Bella Akhmadulina, Ma Desheng, Ginsberg, Robert Bly and an unnamed French poet who memorably smears himself with raw beef as he rants hysterically at a crowd. Recitation, he observes, at best, forges communities with its sublimity; at worst, it becomes an invasion into the existence of others.
It is clear to the reader that, for Bei Dao, others matter. Community and relationships are at the centre of Blue House; in fact, the titular Blue House was the home of Bei Dao’s friend and fellow poet Tomas Tranströmer, as well as the title of his 1986 poetry collection The Blue House and title poem. In Bei Dao’s Blue House, the dwelling serves as refuge, gathering place and communal hall for regional and exiled poets and writers alike. In a similar fashion, Blue House the collection of recollections serves as a gathering of vivid vignettes of friends and phenomena lost and won.
In the first two chapters, Bei Dao recalls the irascible indomitability of the great Beat poet Allen Ginsburg, the deep and abiding friendship between their two vastly contrasting personalities, and the profound sense of loss he endures upon Ginsburg’s death in 1997. Other literary personages figure heavily in Blue House, from the gentle rebelliousness of fellow Beat Gary Snyder, the sage-like sanguineness of Clayton Eshleman, the hermit’s optimism of “Michael”, the aged gravitas of the legendary Octavio Paz, the stoic endurance of the stroke-stricken Tomas Tranströmer, the unflappable casualness of Susan Sontag, and bittersweet reunions with old comrades in defiance such as Peng Gang, Gao Ertai, and poet-turned-restaurateur Liu.
The lives of poets examined blends banality and tragedy, humour and camaraderie in an entrancing mélange that peaks in a picaresque of a literary convention in South Africa with a Saharan chanter, a Dutch “mafioso”, a Norman Bethune doppelganger, numerous French, Jamaican, Canadian and English writers on safari, engaging in alcohol-fuelled debate, or reciting at posh private academies and rundown township schools alike. The bonding of poets and their ideas is intimate, yet ephemeral, as poets go their separate ways across water, land and time.
Yet, Bei Dao reminds himself, “how did our predecessors recite poetry?” As he himself replies, “raising a cup to the wind, writing verse linked with others, presenting one’s sharp feelings the departure of a friend, birth and death without end” is at the very core of poetry, and the often fragile, ordinary yet courageous and talented people who write it.
Bei Dao’s memoirs in Blue House are stunning in their modesty, candour and startling clarity. As placid and yet as intense as his poetry, his anecdotes of colleagues, countries, cats, crows and the irrepressibility of expression (artistic and otherwise) mark him as one of the world’s greatest contemporary writers, something that he himself would unassumingly deny.
Canadian poet Akin Jeje lives in Hong Kong. Jeje’s works have been published and featured in Canada, the United States, Singapore, and Hong Kong. His first full-length poetry collection Smoked Pearl: Poems of Hong Kong and Beyond was published by Proverse Hong Kong in 2010. Jeje’s most recent publication “Marsh” is in Hong Kong’s Voice & Verse Poetry Magazine (Issue #48, July 2019). He is working on another full-length poetry collection entitled write about here. Jeje is a previous MC of the English language poetry collective Peel Street Poetry and one of its three directors. He is also a regular contributor to Voice and Verse Poetry Magazine and Cha, and a member of PEN Hong Kong.