PROVIDENCE JOURNAL, February 2014
Reviewed by G. Wayne Miller
"A Moving Collection from Chinese Poet"
Reading Across Borders, the latest collection of poems by Chinese expatriate Xue Di, a fellow in Brown University's Freedom to Write program, is like passing a night with a succession of elegant, brooding, atmospheric and sometimes disturbingly realistic dreams. Your emotions have been moved, and they have pulled your intellect along. You return to the here-and-now with powerful impressions, your mind reflecting on what you have experienced. You have been somewhere you have never visited before, and you hope someday to return. Perhaps you will have to return several times before true meaning is yours.
Born in Beijing in 1957, Di came to America in the wake of the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre -- a protest he supported, at peril to his life, through his leadership of the Chinese Writers' Association. Given the fate of other protesters -- recall the iconic image of the man in the path of the tank -- the fact that he escaped is itself remarkable. So, too, is Di's earlier life: a harsh childhood during which he lived in substandard conditions and was punished for his parents' divorce. He found spiritual salvation as a boy when he found and clandestinely read a collection of Russian poet Alexander Pushkin's work.
This early influence is evident throughout Across Borders: in the poems "Bubbles," "Shore," "Gift," and especially "Echo Lake," whose surrealistic landscape also captures the sense of isolation Di must have felt on leaving China for America and eventually Providence.
That poem begins with immersion in the lake, whose "tinted water swallows my skin inch by inch." A "strange and distant memory" is awakened. We feel it, and then it ends, the sensations giving way to a vow:
"My lips will never recount anything. The world will not pour in or out of them. They sink into the water and kiss the fish in the weeds. Like time, they take on a cold and lasting silence. Mysterious lake, let me enter you naked. Let my feeble song fall into your grasses like a length of yellow ribbon…
"All the misunderstood, let me distance myself from them. Distance, what a pretty hoax. I have lived a brief time and in a frenzy. I loved poetry with my life. Was that not enough?"
Published after Di's Another Kind of Tenderness, An Ordinary Day and Heart into Soil, Across Borders contains the original Chinese text, and what appears to be a beautifully rendered English translation by Alison Friedman. Di is also the writer of four chapbooks: Forgive, Cat's Eye in a Splintered Mirror, Circumstances and Flames.
The Across Borders collection is a treasure. So is Di, and we are lucky to have him here with us in Rhode Island.