[REVIEW] “Shockingly Direct and Heterodox: Mang Ke’s ๐‘‚๐‘๐‘ก๐‘œ๐‘๐‘’๐‘Ÿ ๐ท๐‘’๐‘‘๐‘–๐‘๐‘Ž๐‘ก๐‘–๐‘œ๐‘›๐‘ ” by David Harrison Horton

{Return to Cha Review of Books and Films.}

Mang Ke (author), Lucas Klein, Huang Yibing and Jonathan Stalling (translators), October Dedications: Selected Poetry of Mang Ke, Zephyr Press, 2018. 152 pgs.

This summer, all five floors of the National Art Museum of China in Beijing were showing works dedicated to commemorating the Communist Partyโ€™s 100th anniversary.[i] The fifth floor was dedicated to the Reform and Opening Up Period. Most of the works on display felt as if they could have easily fit on the third floor which covered the foundation of โ€œNew Chinaโ€ to roughly the end of the Cultural Revolution. The subject matter, the style, the tropes mostly seemed a continuation of the previous era. There was one startling exception, however. Yan Hanโ€™s โ€œSpring Tideโ€ ๆ˜ฅๆฝฎ depicted birds flying above the sea.[ii] When taken in with all the Socialist Realism-inspired artworks on the floor, it truly stood outโ€”not only for its simplicity, but also for its form. In this context, simplicity became remarkable.

In his โ€œTranslatorโ€™s Forwardโ€ to October Dedications, Lucas Klein points us to a similar phenomenon in the poetry of Mang Ke, stating that his work โ€œmust have been read as shockingly direct and heterodox at the timeโ€ (x). That a poem describing sunlight could be, in fact, about sunlight and not Mao Zedong was a courageous act of defiance that helped lay the foundation for schools of poetry to come afterwards. In this way, the seemingly simple contrasts with a backdrop of works that still emulated the writings from the previous era.

By now, the backstory of Today ไปŠๅคฉ magazine and the group of poets who made up that circle borders on mythology, with good reason. Created in 1978 by Mang Ke and Bei Dao, Todayโ€™s nine issues (plus three โ€œfor internal circulation onlyโ€), four booksโ€”including one by Mang Keโ€”and two poetry readings represented a break from the previous generation and โ€œofficialโ€ poetrydom.[iii] Inspired by poems on the Democracy Wall during the โ€œBeijing Springโ€ of 1978, Today was, in the words of Michelle Yeh, โ€œseminal in ushering in a poetry founded on a firm belief in the independence of art and an uncompromising insistence on artistic freedom, despite the loud and frequent disparagement by the establishment.โ€[iv]

While this context adds to the appreciation of what Mang Ke has accomplished, the poems are deft enough to be read without it. Lines like โ€œall I have is nothing / what I do not have is everythingโ€ (โ€œTime Without Timeโ€, 105) rise above this context and engage on a universal level. The simplicity and directness of language allow readers to transpose these poems to fit within their vantages, a hallmark of good art.

One of the recurring themes throughout the poems selected here is the work of the poet:

                                                  

                                                     

                                                                                                (โ€œOctober Dedicationsโ€, 35, 49)

Mang Ke gives the poet, and thus himself, a mission and purpose; even though he tells the poet that  โ€œyou are an eagle flying to the graveyardโ€ (โ€œDedications: 1972-1973โ€, 19). Other lines throughout the book point to the task likely being without hope of achievement:

                                                                                                (โ€œYesterday and Todayโ€, 83)

The poems move between stark outer observations and interior experience with a precision allowed by the narratorโ€™s maintained clinical distance. Readers are confronted with unarguable facts. Lines like โ€œall in the past / was trueโ€ are not up for debate (โ€œOctober Dedicationsโ€, 43). We must accept the givens and negotiate what they mean in sum. As fellow poet Yang Lian once stated, โ€œPoetry does not explain; it simply is.โ€[v] Even the passages that engage in an โ€œIโ€ positioned narrator are far removed from a Confessional type reading:

                                                                                                (โ€œTime Without Timeโ€, 93)[vi]

The concept of time features heavily. The poems in the series Time Without Time excerpted here start by putting the time notion directly into question:

                                                                                                (93)

In the series the narrator recollects:

                                                                                                (119)

Again, we are reminded to โ€œbring along our heart.โ€

Mang Keโ€™s work stands up on its own and stands out against many of the poems produced in the early Opening Up period and later. October Dedications makes it possible, finally, for English language readers to appreciate Mang Keโ€™s work and correctly place him among other notable poets coming out of his era and afterwards. 


[i] Journeys to Greatness and Pictures of Times: Art Exhibition Celebrating the 100th Anniversary of the Founding of the Communist Party in China. 16 Jun.-25 Jul. 2021, The National Museum of China, Beijing.

[ii] Yan Han. Spring Tide. 1978. Print. National Art Museum of China, Beijing.

[iii] Michelle Yeh. โ€œContemporary Chinese Poetry Scenes,โ€ Chicago Review 39: 3/4 (1993).

[iv] Ibid.

[v] Maja Lavraฤ, โ€œChinaโ€™s New Poetry or Into the Mist,โ€ Asian and African Studies 14.3 (2010): 31.

[vi] For an interesting study on the use of โ€œIโ€ in 20th century Chinese literature, see Jin Siyan, โ€œSubjective Writing in Contemporary Chinese Literature: The โ€˜Iโ€™ Has Taken Over from the โ€˜Weโ€™ Omnipresent Until the Late 1970s,โ€ China Perspectives 54 (Jul-Aug 2004).

How to cite:ย Horton, David Harrison. โ€œShockingly Direct and Heterodox: Mang Ke’s October Dedications.โ€ย Cha: An Asian Literary Journal, 17 Dec. 2021, https://chajournal.blog/2021/12/17/dedications/.

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David Harrison Horton is a Beijing-based writer, artist, editor and curator. He is author of the chapbooks Pete Hoffman Days (Pinball) and BeiHai (Nanjing Poetry). He edits the poetry zine SAGINAW.

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