Wu Sheng (author), John Balcom (translator). My Village: Selected Poems 1972-2014, Zephyr Press, 2020. 188 pgs.
Poets ancient and modern, from Tao Yuanming 陶淵明 to Horace to Robert Frost, have lauded the rural life. Contemporary Taiwanese poet Wu Sheng 吳晟 stands in this tradition, but his poetry is quite different from his predecessors. His newly released volume in English translation, My Village: Selected Poems 1972–2014 吾鄉: 吳晟詩選, is filled with poetry that extols the agrarian lifestyle but does not ignore the misery, monotony, and hardship such a life entails. It recognises the suffering of those who farm for a living but does so in the compassionate and sympathetic manner of one who grew up and still lives in such a community, continuing to participate in its life. In its realistic and visionary portrayals, the portrait Wu Sheng draws of this life is profoundly moving.
Wu Sheng was born in 1944 into a farming family in Chenliao, a village in west-central Taiwan. Like all children in the village, he worked in the fields. After he lost his father to an automobile accident in 1965, his mother and siblings continued to work the fields. The area of Taiwan in which he lived was largely rural and agricultural; the people of the region grew rice, sugarcane, and peanuts. After attending college, Wu returned to his village, worked as a teacher, farmed, and began to write, witnessing the modernisation of his country and the erosion of community and lifestyle that accompanies industrialisation. He rejected the expressionist and surrealist styles of poetry that were predominant during that era, adhering to more traditional poetic forms. After some early work, he released Impressions of My Village, a book that catalogued the human and cultural aspects of his home, contrasting their values and lifestyle with the burgeoning modernism sweeping Taiwan at the time.
John Balcom’s translation of Wu’s poetry is beautiful. His introduction to the poet’s work is informative and supplies explanations that enables the reader encountering Wu’s poetry for the first time (like me) with a framework to full understanding of his thematic concerns and his development as a poet. Wu’s poems focus on people and their relationship to the land. While many poets may romanticise the agrarian life, Wu had no romantic illusions about the nature of working the soil. He knew the hardship, misery, and frequent disappointments of husbandry, but he also knew its dignity. The introduction to the My Village states, “For Wu Sheng… the villagers are the land; to respect the land is to respect oneself; to reject the land and its traditions is to reject one’s own self” (xv). The villagers, the land, the crops they grow, and the environment that contains this complex of factors both human and nonhuman are recognised in the poem “Rice”:
For a thousand years, the people of my village
Have wiped away their sweat in silence
Watering you with the sweat of exhaustion
With so much loving anxiety
Too busy to think or discuss
Generation after generation for a thousand years
Your roots have bitterly penetrated the soil
You stems and leaves
Have quietly absorbed sunlight
The realism of the poem breaks with the far-fetched descriptions of many agrarian poets. Tao Yuanming crafted poems about neat gardens and freshly ploughed fields, but said little about work. Roman poets emphasised farming as a sort of return to Elysium—an endeavour in which happiness, joy, and mirth abound; modern poets focus more on moral and philosophical lessons learned from working the land, saying little about the work itself. Wu, however, writes about the sweat, fatigue, disappointment, and anxiety of farming. The characters in his poems are not detached artists and philosophers who use working land as a springboard for their musings. They are people who work for their survival, for their sustenance. Wu writes of the activity of eking a living from the soil through hard work year after year.
“Rice” enunciates the major poetic themes that resonate through the book: the story of the villagers who work at agriculture, the toil and uncertainty of farming, the relationship of people to the land, and the community that is formed by generations of shared work. Wu’s poems often touch on the basic, foundational element of village farming life. Titles include “Soul,” “The Land,” “The Process” (about the stages of producing a crop), “Gold Night,” “Black Soil,” “Loofa Arbor,” and “Burgeoning Spring.” The reader is constantly reminded that agricultural endeavour is not a philosophical concept or a romantic drama but labour that involves land, plants, weather—and people.
The people—the community—are central to the book. Poems with titles such as “The Country Store,” “Ah-bo the Farmhand,” “The Temple,” and “Dirge” describe individuals, families, and the citizens of the village as a community. The bonding of time, tradition, and constant interaction shape the individuals who live and work together. Their relationship transcends sociological limits and becomes mythic. A community that has existed for a thousand years has a life that transcends those of the individuals who live them and the analyses of those who would study them.
To Wu, this is the value, the sacredness of the community he describes. It has a life in and of itself, a life constructed through the succession of people who have lived there, toiled there, cared for the land, depended upon it for life and food, and cared for it. As he writes in “The Land”
Hoeing and plowing
For one day you’ll be forced to stop
And lie down
A part of the broad earth.
But a village does not exist apart from the wider world. Nationalistic, sociological, and political forces inevitably affect the inhabitants and come to bear on the life of the community—even to the point of threatening it. The earlier poems in the volume (those written from 1972 to 1977) are primarily about village life. Eventually, however, the subject matter of the poetry shifts to issues that bear upon and threaten village life.
One of these matters is emigration. Poems like “You Too Have Left” and “American Citizenship” focus on the people who leave for a better lie elsewhere. Of course, Wu would quibble with the description of that life as “better.” He sees leaving tradition, community, one’s nation and heritage as a betrayal. The lure of the a more opulent life in North America, Europe, or Australia elsewhere cuts a soul off from the ancient, primal way of life the village incarnates. To Wu, one alienates one’s soul by switching cultures. It is not merely immigration that chagrins him; it is turning one’s back on family and community, as we see in a section of the poem, “American Citizenship”:
And I ought to tell you
Everytime there’s a wedding in the village
I write your name
In the register
Because you are the eldest son
Our older brother.
Wu understands emigration as betrayal of family, tradition, and community. He is censorious of those who glibly and readily follow such as path.
Other factors harm village life. One Wu writes a great deal on in the later poems is the effect of the rapid economic expansion Taiwan experienced beginning in the mid-1980s. The economic boom drew people away from the traditional life of farming to work in factories. Also, growth brought about the expansion of cities. Wu, the introduction notes, “martialed his considerable skills as a poet to protest omnivorous commercial culture” (xviii). Factories, new cities, high-rise apartment dwellings, and (worst of all to Wu Sheng) the destruction of farmland and the disruption of natural resources in order to build power plants and similar projects rouse his poetic talents in opposition of such projects. He protested the unbridled tidal wave of “progress” that was sweeping the island nation.
Wu became an activist poet. Many such writers end up producing unremarkable verse when they turn to political themes and public issues. Not Wu. His “protest” poetry is lyrical and powerful, as we see in his poem “Earth God”:
Dumps another load of gravel
Another large patch of green farmland disappears
The small shrine to the Earth God at the field’s edge
Wu laments the loss of open land by a resort to the mythic: Now the Earth God, he says, “will be forced to wander, homeless / Faintly hearing the politicians and tycoons / Join hands and cheer.” But there is another result: “The criss-crossed fields and ditches / Will be lost forever / The children of my village / Will become homesick spirits, drifting / Wandering helplessly.” Myth is an expression of reality. Disregard for land, for natural spaces, will desiccate and wither the human soul.
The economic expansion of Taiwan catapulted Wu into this poetic phrase, a phase that reflected his new-found activism. He wrote about “the cultural ramifications of industrialisation: the destruction of local communities, the weakening of traditional values and sacred bonds, and the denigration of the rural” (“Introduction,” xviii-xix). He also wrote a series of poems on the splendour of the Zhushui River. His activist poetry achieved a degree of success. Projects that would have interdicted or destroyed natural systems were abandoned when his poems and his personal activism called attention to them.
As said earlier, activist poets who immerse themselves in political projects often damage the lyricism of their work. Some critics say that this was true of Wu Sheng, as well. But poems such as “Black Soil,” “Fields of Rapeseed Flowers,” “One Kilometer of Coastline,” and “Tree Cemetery” demonstrate that verse written to support a cause need not be shallow, strident, or lacking in poetic richness. This is, I think, because Wu does not abandon his understanding of the basic, primal human flow of life—the dignity of the soil and of the people who work and depend on it—when he moves to broader horizons and larger scenarios in his writing. All human beings relate to the earth. Some relate more fully than others, but everyone needs this relationship. And this is the thing Wu Sheng writes about whether he is describing a field of rice or protesting a proposed dam on the Zhuoshui river. The mythic element is never lost.
David W. Landrum teaches Literature at Grand Valley State University in Michigan, USA. His poetry, fiction, and literary criticism have appeared in numerous journals and magazines, including Twentieth-Century Literature, Mosaic, Studies in Philology, and Italian Quarterly.