When I was small my father’s coworker ran off
coming back with one of those briefcases full of money
close, smutty talk filled our town
about what he’d done to get it
he smiled and disappeared again
Next we heard
he’d been sentenced to death for drug trafficking
a family member claimed the ashes, but the box was stolen in the metro
—It obsesses me, this box
like a fable or something
Other people are like me
they want to know its whereabouts
like standing at the exit
searching for this story’s entrance
Searching for Cranes
Cattle hidden in the prairie shadows
Bayinbuluke I have met a rearer of cranes
his beaked neck
his broken-winged brogue
Swans dip into the water’s surface
for nine inverted suns
He makes me feel the prairie
misses something of itself
The evening indulges itself in vastness
I wait for swans to burst from his sleeves
I wish another would drop from the sky
narrow-faced, thin-ankled myself
loved by the rearer of swans, spurned
and fatuously clinging
Four cornered wildness
She has a hundred and eight ways to hide
to find her, he needs only one:
at night in Bayinbuluke
the swans he’s touched must all return to roost
-After listening to Masi Cong’s “Homesick”
That is no bow
but a tree not yet carved into bow
All my life a river, running low
with fever, has drawn itself
across my body
In Memory of my Uncle He Daoqing
Camellia growing on Xiaowanzi,
forgive a lame man his leg
his timing was poor
he hauled away for half his life
before he found the branch you grew on
The Spring Wind Blows
What drab mercy is this noontime pool
a bird flies to the other bank
felled sugar cane disrupts the mist
By the peach tree is a windswept grave
bees busy themselves long-shoring
this season what is sweet is hard to come by
no birds fly above
to open a vigil keeper’s chest
the earth hums
unknowing of the glories carved into the rocks
the sorrows passed down
I’ve memorized the order: open the breech, load powder and bullets,
close the breech.
Shut my left eye, pretend to be a hunter taking aim.
A bird falls, the trees shudder and descend into deeper quiet.
The metallic cold gives off a living stench.
Since growing up I’ve often smelled it in crowds.
I know the trigger pull and the instant of fire.
I’m glad to live in a country where guns are not for sale.
与养鹤人相爱 厌弃 痴缠
Here are five poems by Chinese poet, Feng Na. Feng writes about transit, migration, yearning, the great fight for recognition, and the pain of it being denied us. Each poem, I think, offers a window into contemporary China, yet explodes narrow notions of Chinese poets as mere dissidents, or noble savages—as though their poems were good as pamphlets, or expressions of their “authentic, ethnic selves,” but nothing else.
Feng’s poem, “Rifle,” ends with these chilling words: “I’m glad to live in a country where guns are not for sale.” They ought to strike a nerve deep in the American psyche, troubled by school shootings and upsurges in white terrorism, and terrified that America has lost its moral mandate in geopolitics—lost the right to say, in other words, See how barbaric things are in China? Yet the poem eludes this single reading: it is also about sublimation—wanting to harm someone, but transforming this hate into poetry.
“Chinese Fable,” on the other hand, could easily be about the massive economic developments sweeping China in the last several decades, bringing it from one of the poorest and most egalitarian countries, to one of the wealthiest and most unequal. As Chinese markets liberalized some folks were willing to do anything to prosper—thus the man in this fable who is put to death for “drug trafficking.” Yet the speaker of the poem herself cannot monopolize its meaning, which is why she says that it is like a fable. We might say, just as convincingly, that this is a poem about the surplus meaning that escapes even the most airtight analyses, just like the man’s ashes, “stolen at the metro.”
The richness in Feng’s poems complicates our ideas of a China “over there.” Reading her, we realize that we cannot define ourselves against her—we are imbricated with her, just as, halfway across the world, whether she means to or not, her words give us pause.
Henry Zhang is a master’s student at Beijing Normal University. His writing and translations have appeared in Drunken Boat, Los Angeles Review of Books, Music and Literature Magazine, and Leap. He is the recipient of the 2017 Henry Luce Translation Fellowship, and his translations have been nominated for the Pushcart Prize.