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”
Generally, we encounter writers in two ways: through their writing and, at times, in person. (Encounters via translation add another, stranger dimension.) When I departed Shanghai via high-speed train for Lishui, where I would meet the driver who would take me up to the mountain village of Chenjiapu, I anticipated spending time both in person and on the page with the Nanjing-based poet Sun Dong. We would meet after I’d drafted translations of her new poems — all written in the first few months of 2020 — during my two-week literary translation residency in a place that has, in recent years, gone from remote “hollowed-out village” to a burgeoning writers’ colony and boutique travel destination. Chenjiapu retains its rustic charm, with longtime residents still cultivating small plots cut from a mountainside so rugged that the village is car free of necessity, even as scores of tourists amble about on any given day, whether they’re coming from the Stray Birds Art Hotel, hiking up from a B&B further down the mountain, or pouring forth from a bus parked just outside the village where the winding road to Chenjiapu ends.
I knew, too, that I’d likely encounter other Chinese writers, ancient, classical, modern and contemporary. Despite being in a village of some 500 permanent inhabitants, I would be staying in a comfortable studio in a renovated old home right across a picturesque ravine from the remarkable Chenjiapu outpost of Librairie Avant-Garde (先锋书店) which, in partnership with Paper Republic, sponsored my Chenjiapu translation residency. Their range of books is impressive and includes a fantastic poetry section, so there would be plenty of opportunities for on-the-page encounters. There was the chance, too, that I’d meet one or more of the writers who have their own studios in the area in person. And not long after my arrival I learned that poets Chen Dongdong (陈东东), Zhang Dinghao (张定浩) and Hu Sang (胡桑) would be coming to give talks and workshops (sadly, I had to return to Shanghai just before their arrival).
I hadn’t, however, expected Frank O’Hara. And I certainly hadn’t expected a Chinese-speaking O’Hara offering ghostly cold comfort in these overheated times of global pandemic and deepening ecological crisis. Yet as I began my work the day after arriving there he was, his words, in Sun Dong’s translation, aglow on my screen. Outside my window, tendrils of mist laced their way over and through the forested slopes, obscuring brick-and-clay walls and black-tiled rooftops, as well as a distant, gleaming microwave tower that delivered the admirably stable Songyang County public wifi signal to my laptop (a truly classic contemporary Chinese landscape scene). Meanwhile, from my screen O’Hara addressed our 2020 pandemic planet from late 1950s Atomic-Age Manhattan. The poem begins:
Thinking of O’Hara Mid-Epidemic
Thinking of Frank O’Hara on the Lunar New Year
I said to myself
Geological strata sink and shear into conflicting opinions, the [problem an impossible knot
My shoes still aren’t broken in, one more phantom enemy
The event is yet to happen, but
Frank O’Hara says
in a sense we’re all winning
My initial surprise at finding O’Hara in Chenjiapu soon faded. It suddenly seemed natural that he would be there, his lines from his 1964 Lunch Poem “Steps” echoing in Sun Dong’s Chinese. She’s a cosmopolitan, global poet as much as she’s a Chinese poet, frequently translating her own work into English and, as a professor in Nanjing, teaching Anglophone literature and Western literary theory. I first encountered her and her work at a 2018 conference in Suzhou where she appeared with New York poet and publisher James Sherry, then again later in Shanghai when I hosted her for a reading with Pulitzer Prize-winning poet and translator Forrest Gander at NYU Shanghai. The Suzhou conference had been organized by the poet Che Qianzi, whose work1, like that of Sun Dong and many other contemporary Chinese poets, draws significantly upon modern and contemporary American writing, including the New York School, Language Poetry, and other experimental 20th century veins.
Yet a deeper surprise persisted — an uneasy one, less the delight of recognition than a doubly uncanny sense of what Sun Dong terms “the betrayal of déjà vu” (似曾相识的背叛) in her poem “Fixed Gaze” (注视). It’s the feeling of living in a 21st century “shadowtime,” which British nature writer Robert Macfarlane has defined as “the sense of living in two or more orders of temporal scale simultaneously.” It’s a problem that the historian Dipesh Chakrabarty tackles in work like his essay “Anthropocene Time,” calling for us to find ways to think and feel “human‐historical time and the time of geology” simultaneously as we irrevocably change the planet and as planetary changes (including outbreaks of diseases new and old) inevitably change us. Her work is suffused with this awareness, insisting quietly and steadily — and at times forcefully — that the reader, too, see our contemporary world as it is, not as it was or as we might wish it to be.
Since the turn of the century, when Nobel laureate chemist Paul Crutzen led the effort to popularize the idea that the planet has entered the Anthropocene — a new geological epoch in which human influence has become the primary force in driving planetary change — writers and artists have done much to forward a conversation that otherwise might remain obscure to those outside the sciences. The hallmarks of the Anthropocene are terrifying: climate disruption, mass extinction of species, acidifying oceans, saturation of soil and water with microplastics, intensifying flooding in some areas and drought in others, and so on. As I worked further into that first translation, my surprise subsided once again. Sun Dong is one of many writers globally working, to one degree or another, in an “ecopoetic” vein.
The sense of uneasy awareness remained, however — an effect, I argue, that is a mark of much of the most important and compelling contemporary writing of our time. This feeling simmered beneath the surface as I worked, arising like mist from the fissure in the poem over which the reader must awkwardly leap to get from the cosmopolitan sophistication and cultured pleasures embodied by O’Hara to a line about “geological strata” and “conflicting opinions” in the context of the coronavirus pandemic. We’re not in O’Hara’s 20th century world anymore. We’re not even in 2019’s world. We’re probably not in the Holocene Epoch any more: so goes the Anthropocene thesis. But the pasts we leave behind haunt us, as do our increasingly strange possible futures as they colonize our shaky, protean present. I began to understand something about what I find so compelling in her work: the juxtaposition of literary wit and aesthetic acuity with not only the everyday pleasures and pains of living as we do (“My shoes haven’t broken in”) but also with an awareness of the Anthropocene. In “Fixed Gaze” she explicitly names it; elsewhere, it permeates the work, contaminating with the new abnormal:
Spring in the Anthropocene
You who’d scream to breathe, add a mask
Don’t pick your nose or suck on your fingers
No getting together and no making love
Don’t start rumors and don’t spread rumors, get it?
The wind’s fixed gaze through the barely slit blinds
The webcam’s fixed gaze from the top of the screen
Shall my existence be fixed here in this instance, exist
Even more than the bedroom the kitchen resembles a classroom
Packed tight with boundless desire
Hung thick with all manner of torture implements
Smash what’s smashed,
Cut what’s cut,
Roast what’s roasted
The betrayal of déjà vu, in spring
the flowers bloom and wither, the swallows return, life thrives
in this divide-and-collide Human Epoch
whose existence shall be fixed by whose gaze
It’s not just the eventual exhaustion of our individual persons or youthful adventures that we must contemplate, à la O’Hara in 1957’s “Meditations in an Emergency” — “[e]ach time my heart is broken it makes me feel more adventurous … but one of these days there’ll be nothing left with which to venture forth.” And it’s not the historical tragedy of a fallen dynasty or state that is to be mourned, or even the death of a culture: it is rather life as we know it in its geologically recent abundance and variety. “Fixed Gaze,” while obviously addressing the surveillance state and its management of the coronavirus outbreak in China, is also, inescapably, rooted in — or perhaps better said to be uprooted from — the deeper ground from which the outbreak arose, as the opening couplet makes clear.
This element isn’t new to Sun Dong’s poetry, and it is, I think, the element that first drew me to her work. Since moving to Shanghai over ten years ago, I’ve become increasingly interested in how writers and artists in China are engaging not only with crises of pollution, wildlife habitat loss, and fragmentation (a driver of zoomorphic virus transmission to human populations) and other obvious effects of accelerated development, but with the overarching questions of climate change and the Anthropocene. Thus, Sun Dong’s engagement with geologic time — a key component of the Anthropocene turn — resonated with me when, several years ago, I read Josh Stenberg’s translation of an earlier poem, “Wall,” which begins:
Geographic change is too slow
a species goes extinct too slowly the years roll on
everything is the opposite of the poetic
the carrot top is a little conspirator Brodsky also drank
Again, the quotidian (“carrot top”) nestles within the awareness of larger, longer, slower processes (extinction, “geographic change”) from which mere history unrolls. It’s a blunt material account that, being the “opposite of poetic,” may constitute the most honest kind of poetry left to us. Its lineage lies in a cosmopolitan, global, literary tradition, in this case signaled by the reference to Joseph Brodsky — another poet, as it turns out, with an interest in geoscience, having worked as a geologist’s assistant in Russia prior to his emigration to the United States. Though unlike Brodsky, or Forrest Gander, who studied geology prior to becoming a poet, Sun Dong has no formal background in geosciences, she frequently references deep time — geological, “geographical,” and evolutionary timescales — in her work.
Consider, for example, from her 2020 poem “The Contemporary” (《当代》): “In this Museum / I believe in the ginkgo and cockroaches alone / these two most ancient of creatures” (这座博物馆 / 我只相信银杏和蟑螂 / 这两种最古老的生物). Likewise, from “Dog Rose and Wild Pear (《狗蔷薇和野梨》): “My dog rose has lived 40 million years already / My wild pear too is older than humankind / I tend to their lives, facing earth’s childhood, offer / a greeting, pay homage to humankind’s earliest efforts at cultivation / Pure species should not vanish”（我的狗蔷薇已经生活了4000万年 / 我的野梨也比人类更老 / 我打理它们的生活，只是向地球的童年 / 致敬，向最早驯化他们的人类致敬 / 单纯的物种不该绝迹). And though the longer poem “The Conversation” （《谈话》）seems, primarily, to be about the epistemological and ontological crises of the psyche under pressure of surveillance, the “I” of the poem, in the course of being interrogated within a “kind of homogenized dreamworld” （一种均匀的梦境）, finds herself being questioned about “that chance encounter between you and that extinct bird,” to which she responds, “Of course something like that must have taken place long ago / The extinct bird is not contained by time” （你与绝迹之鸟之间的短暂邂逅 / 发生在哪一年？/ 那是很久之外的一个事件 / 绝迹之鸟，它不在时间的控制之内）.
It was, in part, this side of her work that led me to invite her to read at NYU Shanghai last year with Gander, who was in China at the invitation of Shanghai poet Wang Yin for a poetry festival. Gander, author of key ecopoetics texts, such as “The Future of the Past: The Carboniferous and Ecopoetics,” is also a prolific translator. Sun Dong’s own interest in translation is central to her poetic practice — she co-edited with Sherry the experimental Reciprocal Translation Project, which invited Chinese and American poets to translate one another, and she frequently creates her own freely experimental translations into English from Chinese of her own poems. As it turns out, Gander chose to read primarily from his translations of Spanish-language poets in their joint reading, and a conversation that foregrounded translation — the sine qua non of cosmopolitan connections of the sort necessary to think “global” in the first place — resulted, renewing poetry as a site of hope, inquiry and vital connection for an international audience all too aware of our times crises and risks.
—Part Two on Meditations In An Emergency will post February 12th—
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. There are also more pictures of the Chenjaipu Residency.