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 Party’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 “New China” 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 Han’s “Spring Tide” 春潮 depicted birds flying above the sea.[ii] When taken in with all the Socialist Realism-inspired artworks on the floor, it truly stood out—not only for its simplicity, but also for its form. In this context, simplicity became remarkable.
In his “Translator’s Forward” to October Dedications, Lucas Klein points us to a similar phenomenon in the poetry of Mang Ke, stating that his work “must have been read as shockingly direct and heterodox at the time” (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 今天 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, Today’s nine issues (plus three “for internal circulation only”), four books—including one by Mang Ke—and two poetry readings represented a break from the previous generation and “official” poetrydom.[iii] Inspired by poems on the Democracy Wall during the “Beijing Spring” of 1978, Today was, in the words of Michelle Yeh, “seminal 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.”[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 “all I have is nothing / what I do not have is everything” (“Time Without Time”, 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:
(“October Dedications”, 35, 49)
Mang Ke gives the poet, and thus himself, a mission and purpose; even though he tells the poet that “you are an eagle flying to the graveyard” (“Dedications: 1972-1973”, 19). Other lines throughout the book point to the task likely being without hope of achievement:
(“Yesterday and Today”, 83)
The poems move between stark outer observations and interior experience with a precision allowed by the narrator’s maintained clinical distance. Readers are confronted with unarguable facts. Lines like “all in the past / was true” are not up for debate (“October Dedications”, 43). We must accept the givens and negotiate what they mean in sum. As fellow poet Yang Lian once stated, “Poetry does not explain; it simply is.”[v] Even the passages that engage in an “I” positioned narrator are far removed from a Confessional type reading:
(“Time Without Time”, 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:
In the series the narrator recollects:
Again, we are reminded to “bring along our heart.”
Mang Ke’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 Ke’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. “Contemporary Chinese Poetry Scenes,” Chicago Review 39: 3/4 (1993).
[v] Maja Lavrač, “China’s New Poetry or Into the Mist,” Asian and African Studies 14.3 (2010): 31.
[vi] For an interesting study on the use of “I” in 20th century Chinese literature, see Jin Siyan, “Subjective Writing in Contemporary Chinese Literature: The ‘I’ Has Taken Over from the ‘We’ Omnipresent Until the Late 1970s,” China Perspectives 54 (Jul-Aug 2004).
How to cite: Horton, David Harrison. “Shockingly Direct and Heterodox: Mang Ke’s October Dedications.” Cha: An Asian Literary Journal, 17 Dec. 2021, https://chajournal.blog/2021/12/17/dedications/.
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.