The prose poems that follow, literally titled “unbounded exercises in poetics,” (jiexianbuming de shixue lianxi 界线不明的诗学练习), are the work of Ya Shi 哑石, a poet from Sichuan Province. As the author of four books, his work has provoked both national-level circulation and unofficial, viral attention: he is a winner of the prestigious Liu Li’an prize, and has also contributed to a variety of underground publications, including serving as editor of the magazine Poetry Mirror (Shi Jing 诗镜). His works range equally widely, from the nature sonnets ofThe Qingcheng Poems (Qingcheng Shizhang 青城诗章) to the fragments and dramatic ironies of his book Carved Insects( Diao Chong 雕虫).
Born in 1966, Ya Shi began writing poetry in 1990. Today he teaches mathematics at a university outside Sichuan. The pieces translated here are not formally or thematically representative of his work—there is simply too much diversity and genius in it to be represented in a few pages—but they do shed light on the underpinnings of his craft, and give a sense of the way his monumentally unique mind encounters the task of poetry.
There’s something futile about writing a description of poetry in a poem, an ars poetica: the moment one steps outside the act of poetry to examine it, the factors that contribute to and shape the poem appear strange and arbitrary. These pieces identify one source of the problem: the assumption that one must step outside one’s subjectivity in order to describe one’s poetry. Poetry takes place at the boundary between the internal and the external, and so every description of what poetry does must also be a politics, a cosmology, a work in language, and, especially, a human story.
Ya Shi’s poems exemplify that simultaneity. The titles of the poems all offer us an and, but once we are inside the vertiginous sentences of the work, there is no boundary between the lived moment, the moment of self-conscious assessment, and the moment of poetry. The experience of lyric poetry and the experience of adultery become mutually inextricable: their geometry and rhythm, their ecstasy and repetition are revealed in the same motion. It’s magical that beauty can become itself simply by seeming to be beauty; it is horrible how temporary all these pleasures are, how quickly they turn to boredom.
The lived nature of the ars poetica opposes the two-dimensionality of some ideas of art, and so the poor cartoon cat comes in for special derision. Conceptualist or not, one never gives up one’s experience, or one’s body; the best that can be done is a kind of hysterical denial in which the cat, trying to live rationally, compresses itself into a tinny, insubstantial shape. Impoverished by working from first principles alone, the cat endlessly “deduces” the infinite variety of human experience, living in symbols and ignoring the “dark and amused pearl inside the body” that truly drives us all. Storytelling, too, is a kind of limitation of the body in “Tight Corsets and the Narrativity of Poetry”; rather than strapping ourselves into its structure, we are better off being “carried off by a wholly unrelated object.”
These lived critiques—negative examples—put a great deal of weight on “An Ear of Grass and Pure Poetry,” a poem that constantly telegraphs the difficulty of speaking, as well as the speaker’s strong drive to be heard. At its heart, pure poetry is willful, it transforms language in unpredictable and erroneous ways, it disobeys, it moves through time in a manner both predictable and shocking. It is terrible at surviving. Like a child, we resent it when it’s present and then ache for it when it’s gone; like a child, we cannot meaningfully claim that it is good, exactly—no child is good all the time—we simply know that we do not understand the source of the joy it brings us.
This, to me, is emblematic of Ya Shi’s art; humble, honest, and sometimes even shy, it reaches out for us with the sensuality of its language and vision and gathers us together inside it by keeping its mysteries open. The result is not a message sent from writer to reader but a built relationship, a family home that we’re all invited to share.
From Chinese Literature Today Vol. 5 No. 2