PAINS is a collection of poems pulsating with the aches of a generation. The voice speaking throughout is as one rehabilitated from amnesia or intentional forgetfulness after the loss of innocence. These are a cycle of poems where a soul is reintroduced to his body, part by part, until a man is formed again by metaphor.
Zhao Lihong’s career in Chinese literature spans thirty prolific years. He is one of the most successful prose writers in Chinese Mainland, with over seventy collections in circulation and pieces taught at every level of education nationwide. His work is decorated with many of the top literary honors in China and his work frequently travels abroad. “Pains” is his second collection of poetry translated into English and the first to debut in North America.
Born in a crowded Shanghainese longtang residence in 1951, Zhao Lihong’s mother was a doctor and his father a semi-literate, hardworking man. Zhao taught himself to read by the age of five and could recite a host of traditional Chinese literature by heart in his childhood. He fell in love with Rabindranath Tagore’s Stray Birds in high school, but only started writing during the Down to the Countryside Movement, when he was sent to a rural island. By 1977, when colleges and universities were reinstated in China, Zhao attended East China Normal University and majored in Chinese Literature. His leadership in the Shanghai literary scene and his national influence since then cannot be understated.
The English cover and Chinese cover of Zhao Lihong’s new poetry collection “Pains”.
The most arresting moments of his poetic work come at the least expected moments. The closest analogy I have to describe this phenomena is that the best Zhao Lihong poems feel like a chance encounter between poet and reader, never-consummated lovers, at a gas station at midnight: every mundane event is a trapdoor for fantasy. In the cold, dead chest of reality beats the all-consuming romantic heart.
Touching the silk scarf before my chest
I think of the silk worm spitting silk on the mulberry tree
Those self-mummifying creatures
Once had dreams of bursting their cocoons and soaring
But were boiled for their silk
Listening to this tender lament
I think of the singer who played and sang
The sad and lonely one
Who tasted the bitter cup of years
Yet wove a soured history into a rope of kindness
This moment in his poem “Association” is one such example. After a lengthy, hammering list of associated thoughts that would have lulled any mind to sleep, Zhao brings in a jab from nowhere at the end that turns a whole nursery rhyme on its head. Or take an examination of fingerprints in the lattice of a nature poem, for instance. After examining the disappearances of his ever-evasive fingerprints, Zhao turns towards the flowers and the bugs for the answer to the question of human effervescence:
Left too on the glassy dew
Buds in first bloom
Timid petals and gossamer grass
The butterfly that was caught but released
Carrying my seal upon its brilliant wings
Flying the whole sky over
Zhao proves that litany is not always reserved to lifeless objects. In his categories, life teems and affected image, having been strained to the maximum by skepticism and irony, may just become the most unaffected choice.
Zhao Lihong’s meditations on an aging body, his “songs of experience,” are not hamstrung by nostalgia, though the terms of missing are simply expressed, with childlike poetics. It is that wonder and total lack of self-consciousness that sets him apart from many of his peers. Translating this slender body of work was like going to birthday party, during which a respected, elderly gentlemen is decked in vibrant color to celebrate his second childhood — the gentle birth of an innocence after all the labors of the world have ceased and the debt of youth has been fully and finally paid.
About the author
Shanghai-born Zhao Lihong is the director of the China Writers Association, vice-president of the Shanghai Writers Association, the publisher of the monthly Shanghai Literature, and editor-in-chief of Shanghai Poets, a bi-monthly journal.
He is currently a guest professor in modern literature and creative writing. He also teaches at the prestigious Shanghai Jiao Tong University.
Zhao has published more than 70 works in poetry, prose and journalism. His works have been translated into English, French, Russian, Japanese, Korean, Ukrainian, Bulgarian, Macedonian, and Serbian. A number of his works are part of the Chinese primary and secondary schools and college syllabus. “Pains” is a collection of his recent poetry. The English edition of the book will be released in April 2017.
By Karmia Chan
Source: Shanghai Daily