WORLD LITERATURE TODAY,
Vol. 77, number 1 (April-June 2003)
by Jeffrey Twitchell-Wass
Among the cluster of writers who decisively inaugurated a post-Maoist literature in the late 1970s, Yang Lian was the poet most intensely engaged with Chinese tradition and who, as a result, has developed the most linguistically adventurous of the original Menglong (Misty) poets. Culminating the first decade of Yang's work, the imposing poetic sequence Yi (pronounced "ee") is an ambitious mythopoetic search for the self enacted along the frontiers of the Chinese language. Strictly speaking, "yi" is merely the pronunciation of the title and is homophonic with the Chinese for "changes," "one," and "poetry." The written form of the title is a figure Yang constructed from the archaic characters for sun (or heaven) and human, which are conjoined so as to indicate their balanced interpenetration. As Yang explains in the essay helpfully appended to this bilingual edition, Yi is elaborately structure on the basis of the classic Yi Jing (Book of Changes): there are sixty-four sections divided into four books incorporating seven different styles of poems and three different styles of poetic prose, further complicated by frequent mixing of different linguistic levels or registers within individual sections that dynamically clash and fluctuate within the given textual space. However, neither the Yi Jing nor the classical tradition stand behind Yi as a key or guide to reading Yang's poetry; rather, tradition manifests itself only insofar as it informs and is thoroughly subsumed into the language now.
Yang Lian is little interested in the Yi Jing as a divination text or as offering a theory of changes. Rather, he understands it as an archaic poetic text manifesting primitive humans' perception of their world and its changes. Yi attempts a recuperation of that archaic perception within the present as a means of stripping away the sedimented layers of historical and social interpretation that mask our access to an understanding of the self. However, the perceiving self so central to Yang's work is a ghost-filled space where forgotten or repressed voices are allowed to speak or, to make the same point differently, where the repressed possibilities of the Chinese language are allowed to play themselves out, embodying the flux of nature, history, and the self. The four books of Yi enact in turn humankind's confrontations with nature, history, the self, and, finally, human transcendence-but transcendence here means groping beyond the limits of language, which, as Yang readily points out, is simultaneously necessary and impossible. This spiritual journey, Yang's own Season in Hell, is not narrated but takes place in a language dense-often overwhelmingly so-with images incessantly changing, twisting, fading, and reemerging. Yang's language is visionary in its tendency toward a complexly self-referential poetic texture that is not linear or progressive but spatial and interpenetrating-both the writing of the poem and the search for the self are ceaseless changes.
Yi is an impressive effort to bring the full weight of the Chinese classical tradition into a perception and language that is thoroughly personal and contemporary, a deeply Chinese poem that nevertheless makes ambitious claims for current Chinese poetry's admittance into world literature.