MEDITATIONS IN AN EMERGENCY
By David Perry
The Cosmopolitan, the Quotidian, and the Anthropocene Turn
in Sun Dong’s 2020 Pandemic Poetry
“春天在人类纪 欲呼无气，欲加口罩” — 孙冬《注视》
“Spring in the Anthropocene You who’d scream to breathe, add a mask”
— Sun Dong, “Fixed Gaze”
Empty mountains: no one to be seen. Yet — hear — human sounds and echoes.
— Gary Snyder’s translation of Wang Wei’s “Lù Zhái”
“I’ll be back, I’ll re-emerge, defeated, from the valley; you don’t want me to go where you go, so I go where you don’t want me to. It’s only afternoon, there’s a lot ahead.”
— Frank O’Hara, “Meditations in an Emergency”
None of this is to say that Sun Dong’s poetry is about “the Anthropocene,” per se. Not at all. Sun Dong writes, more so, in her recent poems, of love and family (including beautiful poems addressed to elderly, ailing or departed parents). She is playful and inventive, and her range of cultural references run from the Book of Genesis to Qu Yuan to Thoreau to bodiless lacquerware (脱胎漆器). The point is, rather, that this deep-time consciousness simultaneously grounds her poems in the physical world and lends a fluid, dissolving quality to them — a double consciousness that reckons with the profound ecological loss relentlessly accumulating around us, registering within us, and constituting us as we constitute it in the process of going about our quotidian business. Like the best poetry, her work is about being alive in the poet’s time — about embodied desires and loss, about the life of the mind, and life lived among and with others. This poet’s time, however, is “Spring in the Anthropocene.” Just as modernists worked to acclimate readers and publishers to work that left classical and pastoralist tropes behind in order to write the realities of the industrial age, or postmodern writers insisted on reflecting the shattering and fragmentation of grand narratives and the mirage of the “post-industrial”, this kind of work seeks to open our eyes to the realities of change, albeit change that registers in planetary geologic time as much as, if not more, than human-historical time.
Returning to a poem like “Thinking of Frank O’Hara Mid-Epidemic,” then, there’s something of the terrible human awkwardness inherent in blurting out a comment about, say, looming ecological catastrophe in the midst of a pleasant dinner among new friends and acquaintances while enjoying a beautiful view (something I refrained from while enjoying incredible home-cooked meals with my Chenjiapu hosts). It’s the mark of that nagging double consciousness of our time that reminds us that the energy we use today to peruse our phones and share photos of stunning landscapes contributes its little bit to the cumulative enormity of a growing human transformation of the planet into something post-O’Hara and post-Holocene, as the finale of “Thinking of Frank O’Hara” rather awkwardly notes:
…in a sense we’re all winning
we’re alive, though he died at forty
defeated by a reckless young couple
Defeated, we’re alive, at least
Today, thinking of O’Hara again
I have to concede that I’m defeated by him
along with all those defeated others who say
in a sense
we all lose
The sense of loss that so many have felt as 2020’s coronavirus pandemic grinds its way through our lives, with all of its economic, political and psychological collateral damage, resonates throughout Sun Dong’s “early 2020 poems” (as if the first three or four months of the year comprised a full era — but isn’t that just it? The crisis accelerates, dilates, elasticizes our perception of time to the point that it might as well be). The pleasures of the everyday take on a new valence in memory and in memorialization, as in “Forced Adaptation” (《应变》), which transposes a measure of O’Hara-esque urban excitement and compression onto her home metropolis, Nanjing:
Back then we’d find ourselves flush up against the piano in Shiwangfu
sitting at the top of the steps to the stage, which later became [the spot at Wuyuecheng where we
shared steak and onion soup before it became the movie theater [where we caught whatever was
showing before it in turn became the Lizhi Building
O’Hara’s present-tense excitement, here, has given way to Sun Dong’s backwards look, which isn’t just tinged with nostalgia (“Nostalgia” is the title of another of these poems, 《怀旧》), but also what Australian philosopher Glenn Albrecht has termed solastalgia, or “the homesickness you have when you are still at home” — an emotion arising less from missing the old days than, as it turns out, from missing the old planet. “Forced Adaptation” continues, picking up from memories of a Nanjing cityscape, encoded with deeply personal memories, that has transformed repeatedly:
So we’ve seen that movie already and the building goes [nameless now
as we find ourselves mid-epidemic and recovery
lurks within its own latency
“Recovery” — 恢复— is by its nature hidden, as undetectable in its way as the virus was in its outbreak and spread, and the return to the normal, even the normal state in which one might indulge in nostalgia, is no longer there, even in moments of apparent domestic tranquility:
And now we’re home side-by-side frying up a few dishes
to cram into the overstuffed refrigerator
while downloading movies onto the computer while still [watching
Sometimes we even mix the place names up
but maybe we don’t
Domesticity is indeed a temporary refuge, one in which many couples and families have found opportunities to renew connections frayed by the pre-pandemic pace of life, yet, in the wash of digital representations of experiences, of narratives of others’ fabricated lives, and of news of unfolding disaster, something goes missing and, it seems, will not be restored: the desire to go back, to return to “how it was before.” Representations mediate experience in our social-media era even more intensively than they did in the recently departed television age, driving us deeper into distraction (technological hyper-mediation is another running theme in these poems.) And in the context of the rest of her 2020 work, it’s hard not to read “forced adaptation” as being about adapting to the Anthropocene and not just well-documented and commented-upon rapid transformations of modern urban space, or to a quarantine that will, eventually, lift and allow life to return to “normal.”
It’s easy to forget all this when, after months of confinement in the city, one has the opportunity to escape into “nature.” Chenjiapu offered that, despite my own sense of solastalgia and of living in shadowtime, of living in the Anthropocene which, by definition, means virtually no nature that hasn’t been altered at some level, visible or not, by humankind. It had stayed with me on the high-speed train as it raced through a countryside built up to an incredible degree, in which farmed land blurs into newly built high-rise apartment blocks, factories, power plants, high-intensity power line towers, and other features of eastern China’s intensive industrial development, flashing past travelers sitting, chatting on and staring at their phones. But that feeling did indeed dissipate as I walked into Chenjiapu — the car could take me no further — and down narrow stairs onto the path that led to my home for the next two weeks, with its view of mist-shrouded peaks and the calls of birds and drone of cicadas drowning out memories of the city’s clamor.
I might not have expected O’Hara, but I could have anticipated Wang Wei — along with Du Fu, Li Bai, Bai Juyi2 and a handful of other famous Tang poets. Sure enough, one evening mid-way through my stay, he came up in dinner conversation. My hosts and a few of their friends took turns cooking dinners served on an open-air table overlooking the valley. The meals were fantastic, often featuring vegetables raised in village gardens, bamboo shoots and other delicacies foraged from the forest accompanied by one of the chickens that range freely throughout Chenjiapu’s steep, winding lanes. A young entrepreneur hoping to launch his own bookstore and cafe was visiting to research Librairie Avant-Garde. He introduced himself as Ethan and joined us, eager to talk poetry and translation.
We were admiring the view as the setting sun cast dramatic shadows across the landscape when Ethan asked if I had read Nineteen Ways of Looking at Wang Wei, edited with commentary by Eliot Weinberger and Octavio Paz. The concept is simple. In chronological order, starting in 1919, Weinberger presents and critiques various translations of Wang Wei’s poem 《鹿柴》. The first edition ends with Gary Snyder’s 1979 untitled rendition; the expanded edition ends with 2006’s “Deer Park,” translated by J.P. Seaton. It’s a book that I love and frequently teach at NYU Shanghai. I responded to Ethan’s question with an enthusiastic “yes!”, adding that I was a bit surprised that he knew of the book. Native Chinese speakers can simply read Wang Wei, after all. His response surprised me more: “Oh, it’s quite well known here!” This minor mystery was cleared up for me shortly thereafter, when my hosts gave me the gift of the 2019 translation into Chinese of Weinberger and Paz’s expanded edition (which adds an additional nineteen translations). It’s a gorgeous edition, translated into Chinese by Guang Zhe (光哲) as《观看王维的十九种方式》.3
Wang Wei is, among other things, often thought of as a consummate nature poet, and 《鹿柴》— most often, but not always — translated as “Deer Park,” is as a good an example as any of why. Kenneth Rexroth’s title for his 1970 translation provides a clear example of how this poem imagines “nature”: “Deep in the Mountain Wilderness.” And when sitting by a clear-running stream a bit outside of Chenjiapu just below a small waterfall, looking out at the pine-studded ridges and bamboo-clad peaks rising above the valley below, I could almost believe that I was there, too, deep in the mountain wilderness, that I’d “escaped into nature.” But I was actually sitting on a slab of concrete presumably hauled up the ravine to help channel the stream, which waters the garden plots below. And I was online, no doubt thanks to that microwave tower just visible in the distance through the branches of a twisted pine. I could see a car, then a truck crawl along the two-lane highway on the valley floor as an airliner plowed the Anthropocene skies above, its contrail mingling with the high cirrus.
When did the Anthropocene begin? The current consensus is the mid-Twentieth Century, with fallout from nuclear weapons testing as a prime geological stratigraphic marker. But paleoclimatologist Bill Ruddiman argues that we can discern the beginning of the Anthropocene some 7,000 years ago, with the advent of widespread rice cultivation in what is now China and resulting spikes in the greenhouse gas methane, legible in ice core and lakebed samples. Ruddiman’s “early Anthropocene” theory has no chance of being endorsed by the international body of Earth System scientists responsible for the Geologic Time Scale (they’re currently considering whether to make the Anthropocene official and declare the end of the Holocene), but, as Simon L. Lewis and Mark A. Maslin note in The Human Planet: How We Created the Anthropocene, the theory “has been tested again and again, as all promising theories should be, and has emerged even stronger.” The point? We humans have been a planet-shaping force for a long time, and “nature” without some degree of human influence is, increasingly, a fiction.
In Nineteen Ways, Weinberger favors Gary Snyder’s untitled translations of Wang Wei’s 《鹿柴》, writing that it is surely “one of the best translations, partially because of Snyder’s lifelong forest experience. Like Rexroth, he can see the scene.” Snyder, however, sees it differently. He closes his 2016 essay “‘Wild’ in China” with his 《鹿柴》translation, commenting on how poetry like Wang Wei’s helped change his relationship to the idea of “nature”:
I first came onto Chinese poems in translation at nineteen, when my ideal of nature was a 45 degree ice slope on a volcano, or an absolutely virgin rainforest. They helped me to “see” fields, farms, tangles of brush, the azaleas in the back of an old brick apartment. They freed me from excessive attachment to wild mountains, with their almost subliminal way of presenting even the wildest hills as a place where people, also, live.
So instead of “wilderness” or “nature” as a landscape empty of the human, or within which the human plays a minor or even insignificant role, Snyder sees in verses like 《鹿柴》the indelible mark of the human: “Empty mountains: no one to be seen. / Yet — hear — human sounds and echoes. / Returning sunlight enters the dark woods; / Again shining on the green moss, above.” Even in “the empty mountains” of Wang Wei’s time, there were “human sounds and echoes.” Several scholars propose the sounds are those of woodsmen on Wang Wei’s estate whose job it would have been to cut trees, hunt, and otherwise manage the “wild” forest. One might speculate that Wang Wei, a devout Chan Buddhist, no doubt intended to present a kind of koan (from the Chan 公案 gōng’àn), a paradox of “emptiness” that gives rise to sense perceptions of the phenomenal world which necessarily fall back into emptiness.
Sun Dong is more of a city poet than a “nature” poet, though “nature,” as in a poem like “Fixed Gaze,” permeates her urban world. Her cosmopolitan verse references Eastern and Western literary, philosophical, and religious traditions with equal facility. She is not a Buddhist, though her work often draws on Buddhist philosophical themes and references, as it does in the final stanza of my favorite of her early 2020 poems, with its reference to 合十, which I translate as “palms pressed in blessing.” There’s no obvious Anthropocene reference here, though within the pattern of the set of poems the strange admonition to “inform those passers-by / who overdraw on spring, that night itself gives birth to night” does suggest that we have overtaxed nature, and, as in Wang Wei’s 《鹿柴》that our human strivings and desires have always-already fallen back into emptiness. I find it to be a beautiful, soothing poem, one that calms a mind agitated by reading of collapsing glaciers and ice shelves, of massive wildfires and heat-fed superstorms, and that says we may yet, together, somehow rise to meet the challenges that come with pandemics, ecological upheaval, and concomitant geopolitical strife. “Do you recall the bell,” it insistently asks, nudging me — and maybe you, too — from a moment of crisis-news induced paralysis:
Balloon with a Bell Inside
Day gave birth to night, night not fully formed yet
like bodiless lacquerware, a wisp of black limning the horizon
swelling, a pair of hands polishing it all to a high finish
Inform those passers-by
who overdraw on spring, that night itself gives birth to night,
like a balloon with a bell inside, so loud in the midst of its [darkness that the deaf can hear it all
without themselves being able to form the slightest sound
Do you recall the bell, speaking in a dream city of sleepless [nights
one pair of hands polishing it all to a high finish
another letting spring rain fall from between palms pressed in [blessing, the balloon slipping
ringing & ringing
- Che Qianzi’s first full collection in English translation, No Poetry, translated by Yunte Huang, is now available from Polymorph Editions.
- O’Hara identifies himself with Bai Juyi in his 1954 poem “To John Ashbery”: “I can’t believe there’s not / another world where we will sit / and read new poems to each other / high on a mountain in the wind. / You can be Tu Fu, I’ll be Po Chü-i…” Tang poetry in translation was in vogue among US American poets of the time.
- Beijing: The Commercial Press (商务印书馆), 2019.
Sun Dong’s poems translated by David Perry: Poems by Sun Dong
David Perry lives in Shanghai with the artist Monika Lin and their daughter. He teaches in the Writing Program at NYU Shanghai and, with Monika Lin, runs Seaweed Salad Editions, a small press currently focused on publishing bilingual editions of contemporary Chinese poetry. You can follow him on Twitter at @DvdPerry or at his website David Perry
Many thanks to Paper Republic, where this article first appeared, for allowing The New Black Bart Poetry Society to repost it for the information and edification of the membership.
The translation of the title, Meditations In An Emergency, is by Chen Dongmei. She also translated the article into Chinese, available here where there are also more pictures of the Chenjaipu Residency.