[REVIEW] “A Parable of the Eccentric Sower: Duo Duo’s 𝑊𝑜𝑟𝑑𝑠 𝑎𝑠 𝐺𝑟𝑎𝑖𝑛” by Joanna Krenz

Duo Duo (author), Lucas Klein (translator and editor), Words as Grain (Yale University Press, 2021. 280 pgs. 

WORDS AS GRAIN_DUO DUO_LUCAS KLEIN

A farmer went out to sow his seed. As he was scattering the seed, some fell along the path, and the birds came and ate it up. Some fell on rocky places, where it did not have much soil. It sprang up quickly, because the soil was shallow. But when the sun came up, the plants were scorched, and they withered because they had no root. Other seed fell among thorns, which grew up and choked the plants. Still other seed fell on good soil, where it produced a crop—a hundred, sixty or thirty times what was sown. Whoever has ears, let them hear. (Matthew 13:3–9)[1]

One could hardly imagine a more appropriate name for a selection of Duo Duo’s works than Words as Grain. Extracted from the title of one of his most intriguing poems, “Words as Grain, Asleep in the Gospel”, it perfectly captures the dormant vitality of these verses, as well as the unique literary—agrarian technique of their ecstatic (lunatic? divine?) sower.

Sowing on the Field

.

There is no doubt that Duo Duo 多多 (b. 1951) knows where and how to sow the word-grains to produce rich and nutritious crops so as to feed the multitude. At the same time, one can’t resist the impression that he is doing everything he can to work against this knowledge and purpose. The landscape of his poetry is dominated by golden fields cultivated by generations of Chinese poets for whom wheat, fertilised with tears and “ploughed into comprehensibility” (p. 180), to use a phrase from Duo Duo’s poem “Peeping Through a Keyhole at a Koninginnedag Horse,” has long been a conventional symbol of homeland. Think of Haizi 海子 (1964–1989), the tragic hero of the late 20th-century avant-garde, who was deemed a “wheat poet” for his Romantic nostalgia-laced agrarian imagery, or think, on the other hand, of Yi Sha 伊沙 (b. 1966), the famous desecrater, who in 1992 launched a quixotic war against wheat and its self-appointed priests in his whimsically bellicose “Starve the Poets” 饿死诗人: “You, poets, have eaten your fill / Vast fields of wheat / Filled your bellies with their savour / … / starve the fucking poets / You can start with me first / a sidekick polluting this earth with ink / bastard of the art-world” (trans. Simon Patton & Tao Naikan). Duo Duo does not blindly worship wheat and the axiological and spiritual reality it stands for (as Haizi does), nor does he try to capitalise on effective and provocative satire (in Yi Sha’s manner) targeted at those who are immersed in that reality. Instead, he tries to play out the creative and philosophical potential of the old, seemingly exhausted symbol.

In “The Light of Little Wheat”, written halfway through his 15-year exile in Europe, the poet speaks straightforwardly about his poetic genealogy, declaring, in an ambiguous “moment of shame / that is the moment of fortune,” that “the first half of my life has / come out of a wheat field” (p. 156). And yet he never obsesses about the purity of his harvest, despite his religious devotion to his poetic plough, which “pains [him]” (p. 194), as he confesses in the title of another poem. Instead of eliminating ambiguity and transforming poems into political manifestos or moral treatises by treating the field with herbicides of clichéd rhetoric, he lets the “suburban weeds” (p. 20) and animals of his organic imagination inhabit the plots of his poems. Like the wise evangelical farmer, he who grows wheat and wild plants together (Matt. 13:25). Aware that they may suppress or trample what Roland Barthes famously called “the grain of the voice”, or render it inedible for the reader, he nevertheless decides to maintain a diversified ecosystem on his poetic land. The audience must confront quirky images like those in “The Whip Brandished on the Wheel”, which was aptly chosen to open the collection, as it beautifully encapsulates crucial features and motifs of this unpredictable oeuvre.

The opening poem also gives us explicit hints on how to read Duo Duo, or rather how not to read him. Let me invoke it here in full:

ah, the magnetic fields bursting out in fourteen lines
days in the soprano section, advancing grammar
wheat that stands up, acre on acre of clouds
dying together toward the west, soliciting life’s representation
batch on batch, continuing investment

ah, the horse’s lyrical journal—soliloquies
recoil advancing with the boat tracker’s stiff accumulation
fathers layer upon layer, soliciting singers and daggers
chopping beauty taller than an axe
from atop epigraphs with the aura of wheat fields

ah rain, a cross-shaped desert in vertical
ah tears and heavy water, openly displaying the rank of the Virgin
a petroleum disposable pain, leaving back
the ditch of the military, the ditch of praise, leaving back the why
the primordial interrogation in the screams of open grasslands

ah, the whip brandished on the wheel

(p. 5)

Abandon all hope ye who enter this poetry seeking “life’s representation”! Instead, you will be thrown onto boundless farmlands crossed by literate horses busy, while in a poetic mood, writing their lyrical journals. But don’t get too close. If provoked, they will turn into blurrily contoured and sharp-tongued apparitions like those in Picasso’s paintings, or into daemons, as of Salvador Dalí’s Temptation of St. Anthony, transforming the wheat field into a “cross-shaped desert” on which you are left alone (like Dalí’s ancient Egyptian monk, tending his hallucinogenic herbs). They don’t even have to move: “being stared at by a horse” in “a moment of silence” is itself a threat; its eyes see through you pitilessly, confronting you with “what is beyond the human” (p. 142). “One half-buried horse,” sighs the I-speaker in “From Behind the Horse Radiating the Eyelashes of Lightning”, which sticks its head out of the wheat, “makes the wilderness look even broader” and emptier; and as “butterflies are overflowing the horse brain”, the whole golden wheatfield starts obstinately staring at you (p. 171). Sometimes horses take the shapes of one’s greatest desires and longings. In a tantalising vision, for example, the late father—a central figure in Duo Duo’s early verse—comes to the poet as a horse in “I Read”, from 1991:

in November’s wheat field I read my father
I read his hair
the colour of his tie, the thread of his pants
and his hooves, tripping over shoelaces
ice-skating while playing the violin
scrotum clenching, neck stretching to the sky from too much understanding
I read that my father is a horse with huge eyes

I read that my father once briefly left his herd
[…]
I read the odour of my father’s hair oil
his stench of tobacco
and his tuberculosis, illuminating a horse’s left lung
I read a boy’s doubts
rising from a golden cornfield
I read the age when I figure things out
the roof of the red room where grains are sun-dried is starting to rain
under the plough of wheat-planting season are dragged four dead horse legs
the horse’s pelt like an open umbrella, its teeth splayed out in all directions
I read faces taken away by time

(p. 136)

Do you want to know how the boy and the father found themselves in the wheat field, and what actually happened there? “Leave back the why” and prepare for “the primordial interrogation in the screams of open grasslands”. And be ready to endure occasional lashes of the whip of irony, brandished on the wheel of fortune, as you are kept guessing the letters of the password to Duo Duo’s world. 

Sowing on the Roadside

.

That said, absorbing as it is, the exegesis of the surreal wheat field is only a small part of the challenge Duo Duo’s poetry poses. To get a more complete image, we shall read the evangelical parable against the grain, like those “spiritual criminals” from Duo Duo’s generation who indulge in “abus[ing] the allegory” yet still piously “pray in the classroom of thought” (pp. 245–246) when no one is looking, as we read in one of the earliest poems, “Instruction”, dated 1976, which closes the book. Duo Duo, like the biblical farmer, sows his grains not just on the farmland but all around: on the rocks where their roots have to grow into stone and work to explode it; among the thorns, where readers have to pick them for replanting in a sunnier spot; and, in particular, by the wayside, along the meandering roads of his decades-long wandering.

A sensible sower would certainly perceive such an act as a waste of resources, but poetry has its own optics. What “is rationale’s wasteland” is exactly “the ethics of poetry”, as we are reminded in “The Force of Forging Words” (p. 93). While the thick soil of the wheatfields feeds the privileged, who can afford to eat homemade bread on a daily basis, the seeds thrown into the dust of the wayside save the lives of the homeless migratory birds, those numerous uprooted readers who share the poet’s exilic condition, whether physically or spiritually; they gratefully swallow every raw grain to fuel their crossing another sea.

In Duo Duo’s early poems, roads, although usually long and hard, remain relatively straight, leading him back to his roots—as in “The Road to Father” (1988) on which road “kneels a sombre planet / wearing iron shoes looking for signs of birth / before going back to digging” (p. 221). But in 1989 his existential geography gets suddenly complicated. Having left China on June 4 to attend a poetry festival in Rotterdam, and having been forced to stay abroad, as certain directions become “locked” (to allude to the 1994 poem “Locked Direction”, pp. 146–147), he embraces his emigrant status and searches instead for “Unlockable Direction[s]” (as in the complementary poem from the same year, pp. 148–149) in the spiritual spacetime where he can carry out his unrestrained explorations. Hence, along with nostalgic poems such as the oft-quoted “Amsterdam’s River” (p. 125) upon which his country “slowly floats,” in this period we also find works where the biographical context takes a back seat to metaphysical investigations. The tangled net of paths taken and not taken is so extensive that the “larger map” of all its details could only be drawn by a transcendental “overseer”. (Duo Duo acknowledges, or at least seriously suspects, the presence of this overseer in the 2011 poem “The Cemetery Is Still Accepting Members”, which tells of a place in which “travellers have long been stationed” for eternity [p. 56].)

As metaphysical perspective starts to prevail over biographical perspective, one more dimension of the road as a metaphor for a certain existential condition emerges out of “the fog that’s left only to us” (p. 178), to allude to the title of a 2001 poem. Its meaning gravitates toward the philosophical Way, the cosmic Dao of Eastern philosophy on which Duo Duo truculently throws seeds of Logos and crumbs of Christian Gospel. “There’s no road, it’s all road,” he says in a 2014 work, whose title undermines our anthropocentric cognitive habits: “The Road Is Not Set for the Seeker” (p. 96). This is both good and bad news. The Universe is not friendly and caring, but neither is it hostile. Its Way is not to lead or mislead you but has its own deep rationale which we relentlessly pursue, shedding excessive kilograms of our overfed egos to get closer and closer to the Source. “Until meeting what you believe / there is no arrival,” says the poet, echoing St. Augustine’s adage “Our heart is restless until it rests in Thee”, but without Augustine’s faith in the personalist God and the divine Great Design pronounced earlier in the adage: “Thou hast made us for Thyself”, meant originally as the explanation of our insatiate need for transcendence. Consistently mistrustful of ready-made explanations, Duo Duo keeps searching on his own.

On his journey, Duo Duo encounters souls of other famous seekers. In “Where Are You” and “Cupping Moonlight Through a Crack in the Door” from 2006, for example, we hear clear echoes of François Villon’s “Ballade of Ladies of Time Gone By” with its mantric, “Where are the snows of yesteryear?” In “Where Are You”, reflecting on “a more abundant death”, “above where your woman received her shock”, Duo Duo observes how

from the side where you have no complaints
in the place only a little higher than our heads
death continues its investment
all generations are so invested
to respond to the anxiety of the nighttime wilderness

                        where are you

(p. 18)

In “Cupping,” he examines his hands on which the mysterious Unseen encrypted its illegible message:

the seen not known, the seen not seen
no thing the soul, centred the centre soars

held in these hands
the palms are written over with words unknown

the snow-covered ancestors have been received indoors

(p. 19)

Two years later, in “Toward the Borges Bookshop”, the author loses his way / Way searching for a bookshop in labyrinthine Borgesian spacetime, where “every going in is a going astray / and other than going astray, there will be no going in” (p. 26). Elsewhere, we overhear conversations with Paul Celan and with Sylvia Plath, to whom he dedicates two touching, deeply lyrical poems. Others speak freely in his polyphonous poems, but only after he has prepared the ground for their voices. There is “No Dialogue Before Writing”, as a 2013 poem informs us, only meditative, lonely silence, pregnant with all tones and timbres:

you must possess, but must say no
that’s how metaphor’s water lever rises so high

from the broad genre of vindication
all surplus originates in lack
in human nature, there is no mileage
in health, no life
endlessness is not enough illusion
taking shape only when you’re absent

but emptiness does not fear the myriad things

go circulate all that has never been dormant

(p. 76)

Grain as Grave

.

The word born out of silence must ripen in silence. This is a philosophy of language that I have read out but also lived out from Duo Duo’s poetry, in the demanding yet enormously fruitful and edifying experience of reading Words as Grain—an experience which was apparently also not strange to the book’s editor and translator Lucas Klein, who begins his introduction with a frank confession to which most if not all of those who have ever tried to immerse themselves in Duo Duo’s work may relate:

How to make sense of Duo Duo’s poetry is the overarching question it poses, at the root of its political significance as well as its literary interest. In the words of his 1987 poem “Remade”, he has worked to “remake language with remade tools” and “with remade language / keep remaking”. How should his continued remaking be read? What does the reader need in order to understand his remade language?

(p. xi)

The author himself appears to be fully aware of the difficulty his poetry creates and the risks this implies, including the possible erasure of his misunderstood work from literary discourse. Yet he is willing to expose the poems to the test of death, putting their afterlife at stake by further increasing idiosyncrasies. “Bury your words and take your death,” he urges himself in “In Its Within” (p. 39), in the spirit of another agrarian metaphor from the Gospel, referring originally to Jesus as God’s Logos: “Very truly I tell you, unless a kernel of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains only a single seed. But if it dies, it produces many seeds” (John 12:24). Thus, Duo Duo’s word-as-grains are indeed little graves in which the author’s “silent cutting edge[s]” (p. 77) lie stored “in this other zone between intuition and exegesis,” “in this wild zone between blood and book” (p. 35), awaiting resurrection in the hands of a conscientious reader. “Wordless, speechless, boundless / words being what’s said, words’ / remnants, saying everything,” the author assures us, quietly “Drinking Blood in the Wordless Zone” (p. 40). Accordingly, his wheatfields, for most of the time, constitute nothing else than cemeteries that “swell like the tide” (p. 43), wrapped in a thick layer of silence in which meanings gradually take shape to surface when the external conditions permit. Although he knows that “humanity’s boundaryless expectations / are like permutated gravestones” (“In Its Within,” p. 39) and that his audience craves fast food, he does not try to accelerate this process of the grain’s maturing by helping the shoots grow by pulling them upward (拔苗助长), as the Chinese idiom has it, but rather allows things to follow their own rhythm. He calmly observes the “Passing of the Big Snake” of time, as in the title of one of several long poems in the collection, sending every now and then

a glance at the coarse braid dragging though the wheat field

a certain pain, which will proliferate from bronze in the hermit’s silence
focused toward the infinite: a crevice in concentration

(p.  34)

This is probably the best advice one may also offer to the reader of Duo Duo’s work. If you feel overwhelmed with bizarre phrases and dazzling images that seem to discourage active intellectual or emotional investment on your part and make you doubt your reading competence, you may in fact be on your best way toward properly ingesting this poetry. In the “hermit’s silence”, keep sowing the words on your modest plot, letting them fall into those “crevices in concentration” that most disturb your reading; when the mind surrenders, the seeds reach deeper. Then shelve the book and wait, checking from time to time whether anything might have sprouted between the lines. A day will come when the grain has ripened and is ready to be collected, processed, and consumed. Then share it with others as I am trying to do here, a good several months after throwing the seeds, enthusiastically putting on the table the first fruits of what I have picked out from the sheaves of Duo Duo’s poetic wheat, still keeping “leftovers” in my granary, as this review, like all “criticism”, really should “have no further scrolls” (p. 36), even as it could easily fill seven other essays like the seven biblical baskets after the miracle of bread multiplication (Mark 8:1–10).

Needless to say, any literary feast in international company would not be possible were it not for Klein’s masterly translations, whose approach to Duo Duo’s work is a paragon of humility and responsibility, and a testimony to his outstanding literary skills. The task he has set for himself, to “both make sense of [Duo Duo’s] poetry and yield to its transcendence of sense” (p. xxiii), alone bears valid evidence to his profound understanding of the irreducible aporias that underlie this verse and stand at once for both its ultimate obscurity and its ultimate lucidity. The former begs for authoritative clarification, the latter for a tactful withdrawal, and the translator is doomed to the role of continuous equilibrist, treading the line between the two. Like in “Walking Toward Winter”, one has to silently wait out “followers in a funeral procession [that] waver east and west” (p. 126) through Duo Duo’s grain yards, and having properly mourned the inevitable losses in translation,  nevertheless try to resurrect the words in bodies made from letters of a foreign alphabet that will be both sufficiently solid and sufficiently flexible to travel long distances and reach readers across the world. And to give the bodies voices such that “translation’s sounds in May’s grain waves” (ibid.) remain synchronised with the deep subcutaneous rhythm of the poetry’s conceptual landscape. The elegant, seemingly effortless, way in which Klein delivers this daunting task deserves the highest compliments.

*

“Walking Out from a Book”, to invoke one more poem from Words as Grain, especially such a good book, is never pleasant. I am doing so only with great reluctance, seduced by words that “shine outward” (p. 41) and, like sirens, “Sing an Unsingable Song” (p. 83) to turn back and stay in Duo Duo’s world for good to keep unveiling its mysteries and deciphering “vast patterns behind the clouds” (ibid.). Nevertheless, I am sure that as his poetry has been opening its gates to international audiences through translation into different languages, there will be no dearth of readers willing to continue this initial investigation and take it further. For those who would feel more confident with professional guidance, Klein provides a helpful state of the field in his introduction, listing crucial academic and critical publications on Duo Duo in English, the first and most extensive being Maghiel van Crevel’s Language Shattered Contemporary Chinese Poetry and Duoduo from 1996, which offers important insights into cultural background and early work of the poet. However hard the expedition may appear, I encourage everybody to accept the challenge and cherish every second “At a Point We Call En Route” (2014), where

dream and sigh have melted into one
clamour and silence cannot return to legend
where there is great terminology, there will be a great repose
ore’s ancient stupor still groaning

guard what must be, and what cannot
sleep and wakefulness are always together
never ending, as never begun
turning your face to me, you

                        turn millennia

(p. 92)

[1] All quotes from the Bible come from The New International Version. All quotes from Duo Duo’s poetry are in Lucas Klein’s translation and come from the reviewed book. Cited pages are provided in parentheses.

How to cite: Krenz, Joanna. “A Parable of the Eccentric Sower: Duo Duo’s Words as Grain.” Cha: An Asian Literary Journal, 20 Apr. 2022, chajournal.blog/2022/04/20/parable/.

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Joanna Krenz

Joanna Krenz is an Assistant Professor at the Institute of Oriental Studies of Adam Mickiewicz University in Poznań, Poland. Her research focuses on contemporary literature in a comparative perspective, in particular literature’s connections with science, technology, and philosophy. She is also an active translator of Chinese poetry and prose into Polish, her recent translations include Yan Lianke’s novels Dream of Ding Village (Sen wioski Ding, 2019) and Explosion Chronicles (Kroniki Eksplozji, 2019). Currently, she is working on two projects: In Search of Singularity: Polish and Chinese Poetry Since 1989 and The World Re-versed: New Phenomena in Chinese Poetry as a Challenge and Inspiration to Literary Studies.

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