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Two Poems

At Thirty

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
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

Power Failure

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.

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