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Published January 1996Become a subscriber
In my first ten years the moon showed me its placid craters while down below, in my small home town, I heard the music of exorcism, the bawl of voices in the main street in the courtyard my lame uncle swore and in a moment of inattention I learned what it was like to be kissed by a white rooster a little girl pulled her pants down in front of me I saw the soul of a suicide on the stairs I was told not to be afraid hoisted over my father’s head hailstones danced to the point of exhaustion on the road to the commune I went inside the pristine school to learn revolution In my second ten years I grew up with the crickets of the whole wide world together we scorned hardship, in love with violence and moonlight a tiger appeared at my door I smelt the scent of meat I hopped like a rabbit to neighbouring doors watching men and women preparing their holiday best I stole, as others did and set fire to sparrows, just as others had done that was how life was, but I possessed a remarkable artistic gift with which I painted the mountains and the rivers of the ideal having few crimes for which I needed to ask forgiveness Doors closed, others were yet to open my third ten years lent themselves to travel and study I began as a matter of course to torture myself and sang of the knees and the brow of love although yet to meet an angel in the street friends arrived, full of life, disappearing again without a trace leaving me shirts and spectacles I could not possibly wear the cutting edge of criticism courted disaster while the tumult of the flesh beckoned heavy rain I mounted a small hill, umbrella on my shoulder a small bird circled in the rain, braving thunder and lightning, in search of someone How could I doubt both myself and the world? you cannot command the rain to stop nor a bird to perch on your hand imagination is like a knife—a single flash and my soul is drenched in sweat I call on thirty weighty philosophers in quick succession while I say to the shadow that cares for me please forgive me salty sweat and salty tears—what else could the body taste of? each night is like a series of identical showrooms, and I make my way through them as if pacing back and forth across the same room—from morning to night a concern for the future makes plain my mind’s unease the spinning of the earth is only something I have never felt
Suddenly the lights go out and I am left without a doubt That I live in a developing nation A nation where someone reads by the light of the moon A nation which abolished its imperial examinations Suddenly the lines are down and I hear around me Wind-chimes from a small building and the stealth of cats A distant motor comes to an abrupt standstill Beside me, the battery-operated radio still sings The power only has to fail and time fast-rewinds Candles are lit in the small restaurant The fat man who gulps down crow-flesh whole Notes the crows gathering in the forks of trees While this patch of lacquer-black before my eyes Is more like a womb of surging sea-water A mother hangs herself from the roof-beam And every room has its own special smell The electricity fails. My groping hands come across a slipper But I am muttering Matches! Come out, wherever you are! In the candle-light, I catch sight of myself: Huge, wordless shadow on the wall
Xi Chuan (‘Western River’) is the poetic nom-de-plume of Li Jun. Born in 1963 in Jiangsu, he grew up mainly in Beijing. As a youth he studied traditional Chinese painting. Since the publication of his first collection of poems in 1991, he has established himself as one of the leading ‘post-obscure’ poets in China, and has been acclaimed both for his visionary qualities and his synthesis of ‘purity and darkness’.
Translated from the Chinese by Simon Patton and funded by the ALITRA Sponsor–Publish Program.