Days with a Swedish Friend
Light does not return on the glass,
Spring does not linger on ice and snow,
waiting for the animals to come out.
Rivers then soften.
In the southern sky,
even if shadows have a certain thickness,
with a light touch,
On the pond,
the testicles of hyacinth beans
Under the glazed roof
dark creases unfold.
One by one, people
not yet knowing why they cross.
where such a word means
the loneliness of Scandinavia
(there, every house
is a faraway lover),
it is already midsummer.
The crowd of this day
is the crowd of this century.
Like water splashed from the pond, willows devour us
and the fisheye lens
in your hand.
Embers, when dark enough, can be used as mirrors.
Butterflies are so light that they can take something on instead;
butterflies begin to flutter their wings—
and no longer ask you to hold
their parched eggs.
I put my hand
on your statue-like body, now melting.
You are not an exile
but have chosen another way of life,
and you say: “There are many kinds of exile…”
The Wild Great Wall
Label of the Earth’s surface
or a trace strangled deep in memory
vanishes at the invasion of sandstorms and droughts
into mountains whose skin tone is ever closer to ours.
We were once here. Even
a young solider conscripted from a small town
would stand tall and with the heart of a rich man
judge aliens through piles of arrows, the herd of people,
no better than beasts crawling through a wasteland.
Here, we have already built a giant bathtub
to soak ourselves in warm, languid routine.
While women play on a swing in the garden,
men’s eyes seek out reflections in the water;
bloody, barely-cooked meat too uncouth,
the eaves of our civilization
are now demanding to the last stretch of their upward tips.
Now, go through
the most thorough of all destructions:
forgetting—it is like
a reptile spine
moving toward its final decay.
Mountain ridges beam in Jurassic quietude,
as the sun sets, the engine dies slowly down.
The remnant light falls like rusty arrows.
I come to trace the life that disappeared long before our birth,
as if the philological fingers knock
the ridge of an empty shell,
whose inside has been picked clean, in anguish.
In the peach trees on the steep slope,
bees hum and buzz around.
They have set up a campsite
in a nearby beacon tower
that has been smashed like earthenware.
Their song seems to say:
everything returns to nature…
Wild grass, like fingers deep in the earth,
like a fiery troop of ghosts with halberds and lances held high,
climbs onto collapsed steps.
This moment, countless startled landscapes must be fluttering
and fleeing off the walls in museums everywhere.
Scorching summer not yet over, old locust leaves
curled in sunlight; in mother’s arms
I closed my eyes, faking sleep,
in my palms my beloved marbles rolled quietly—
I hated afternoon naps, this fatuous family ritual.
Out the door, cicadas sang on low branches,
tadpoles hatched in water, from the edge of the fields
whistles blasted as big ships passed through the canal.
Suddenly, saved! A sizzling electric current
snaked through the stillness that bided in the village bushes, adults
blinked open their sleepy eyes, dragged unseen shackles underfoot,
walked out of rooms, and gathered by the utility pole.
With a dazzling glare, a big loudspeaker hung high
like a warden’s bright helmet on the watchtower in a film
that surveyed the whole prison, as the clear blue sky offset
a delayed execution and a baritone announced the leader’s death.
This news, like a mason’s trowel,
instantly scraped off every facial expression.
Then, to the tune of a dirge, they circled like an earthen wall,
their heads sagged like bent-over sunflower stems.
I was wild with joy that mother’s hands clutched mine no more,
marbles could jump in joy along dirt roads,
around ponds, straw piles, and threshing floors of wheat,
and roll to the small forest outside the village—
here, in a nook swept by the intersecting blare of the loudspeaker,
so quiet that fluttering wings and the cracking joints of spurting shrubs
were audible, the moos of cattle could also be heard
rending the funeral-parlor hush of fields, and through
lattice-like twigs in the forest, I watched
spreading wild grass devour the lanes of past generations,
bends of the river wind toward the horizon,
like empty staves, waiting to be refilled.
I did not know that from then on, my steps
were tacitly turned toward the self-banishment of adult years,
toward this endless fated exile—to keep from being summoned
back under the loudspeaker, like a hostage, like a ghost.
A day of rush. Itineraries delayed
by getting lost. We study the map and forget
we are already in those pensively charming
alleys and structures, roaming obliviously
through its newly recovered anonymity.
Perhaps this is what Florence longs for,
otherwise it would not close its churches so often,
leaving tourists on the steps and in the square;
with magnificent marble it walls off a somber quietude
in the interior of a closed church, secreting emptiness.
Every place corresponds to the image of a person.
Florence reminds me of an old lady, standing
behind thick violet curtains looking outward,
mouth tilted in irony, in whose living room
hangs a small privately-owned Botticelli.
I worry about her restraint. Whenever people
praise our ancient art yet insist that
the Chinese today should only write political poetry—
in their imagination, aside from the bloodshed,
we do not deserve to seek beauty like artists before us,
nor do we have the right to indulge in the mundane and song;
in sharp spasms of morality, in the endless folds
of history, a life’s touch becomes
estranged from itself and is reduced
to footnotes about hardships and inhumane colonies.
Thus I would prefer that Florence be brightly open,
flat and even, like a plate at an outdoor café.
That waitress who comes to serve our desserts,
slowing her steps as she notices us staring at her skirt,
looks like a fluffy-haired, overripe Beatrice—
afternoon sunlight unloads the weight of every tree,
the leaves’ capillaries expand in the wind, and their shadows
pass over our foreheads and become another pause.
Guards talk to themselves in the arched hallways; peering
from every museum window, it is beautiful out and out.
-Zhu Zhu (朱朱)
trans. Dong Li (李栋)
‘Days with a Swedish Friend’, ‘The Wild Great Wall’, ‘Florence’, and ‘The Loudspeaker’ by Zhu Zhu with English translations by Dong Li have been republished by Rochford Street Review courtesy of Phoneme Media. The poems and accompanying translations were previously published in several international literary magazines and appear the impressive collection of Zhu Zhu’s work, The Wild Great Wall (Phoneme Media, 2018).
Zhu Zhu (朱朱) was born in Yangzhou, P.R. China. He is the author of numerous books of poetry, essays, and art criticism, including a bilingual French edition translated by Chantal Chen-Andro. He’s the recipient of Henry Luce Foundation Chinese Poetry Fellowship at the Vermont Studio Center and the Chinese Contemporary Art Award for Critics and has been a guest at the Rotterdam and Val-de-Marne International Poetry Festivals. He lives in Beijing.
Dong Li (李栋) was born and raised in P.R. China. He is an English language poet and translates from the Chinese, English, and German. He’s the recipient of a PEN/ Heim Translation Grant and fellowships from Alexander von Humboldt Foundation, Akademie Schloss Solitude, Ledig House Translation Lab, Henry Luce Foundation/ Vermont Studio Center, Yaddo, and elsewhere.
Featured Translator Dong Li: Translator’s Note, The Wild Great Wall
Featured Writer Zhu Zhu: Biographical Note
Translator Dong Li: Biographical Note
The Wild Great Wall (野长城) by Zhu Zhu with translations by Dong Li is available from Phoneme Media