Magazine article Chinese Literature Today

A Phone Call from Dalian

Magazine article Chinese Literature Today

A Phone Call from Dalian

Article excerpt

Han Dong. A Phone Call from Dalian. Nicky Harmon et al. trans. Poetry. Hong Kong. Zephyr Press and The Chinese University Press of Hong Kong. 2012. 105 pages. $15.00. ISBN 9780983297017

The ideal poetry collection is not satisfying. It doesn't sit idly on the coffee table, but grows dog-eared and haggard on the nightstand until another of the author's works comes to relieve it. A Phone Call from Dalian, a collection of poetry by Han Dong, is certainly ideal. Artfully edited (and largely translated) by Nicky Harman, the collection surveys nearly thirty years' worth of output from one of China's eminent modern authors. Harman's selection, like the poems themselves, is measured and deft, making light work and great reading of three decades from this iconoclastic author.

Not that Han Dong is merely an iconoclast-the good iconoclast eventually becomes an icon. Labeling his work today is not useful; it certainly speaks for itself. As he said in an interview with Nicky Harman: "Analyzing poetry is of limited use . . . we shouldn't try to explain it. I dream of being able to write poems which need little or no explaining, and can be understood intuitively." His earliest work showed the influence of the Misty Poets, but he was soon recognized as an avant-garde poet who rejected the influence of the Misty Poets and the Western modernism then pouring into China. "Of the Wild Goose Pagoda" is the most literally and violently iconoclastic of these early works, depicting the banality of a historical landmark as a tourist destination or, more ominously, as a place to commit suicide. Yet this sort of social critique, evident also in "Mountain People" or "So You've Seen the Sea," only comes close to being heavyhanded through the insistent rhythm of its incantatory style, which is often offset by the poet's wry humor or ingenious imagery.

It is those characteristics- humor and imagery-along with, if it may be said, a keen eye for the quotidian, that form the winning core of this collection. The very title of the collection hints at these qualities: the eponymous poem begins with a phone call from a random woman, "not even a former lover. It was pointless." This poem, along with many others throughout the collection, share with the reader the poignancy of daily absurdities, of the passage of time and aging always implicit in these small events. …

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