The poems of Song Lin, born in Fujian in 1959, are, according to his translator and personal friend, the poet Jami Proctor Xu, “weavings of history, myth, nature, city, everyday life, melancholy, joy, story, image, and classical and modern Chinese.” This would be a formidable range for any poet, but reading Sunday Sparrows leaves little doubt that Xu was completely accurate in her assessment, which is made easier (for her) and perhaps more profound (for us) by its personal nature.
Song Lin’s poetry is, certainly, firmly-rooted in the natural landscape—nature is everywhere, so wherever he goes he has a base, as well as being able to tap into his own “inner landscape”, which is often a reflection of the outer landscape. And in his outer life, like so many other Chinese of his generation, Song Lin became involved in various pro-democracy movements, ending up with imprisonment in 1989, exile to France in 1991, and from 1997 he lived in Singapore and Argentina before returning to China in 2003. While in prison, Song Lin wrote the title poem in this book, “Sunday Sparrows”, in which he yearningly expresses his desire to be able to move again, freely, like the sparrow he can see from his cell; it comes as no surprise, then, that many of his poems feature longing or yearning, as well as movement, silence as well as sounds. Using a well-worn yet effective trope, “I really want to sing a sparrow’s song,” he writes, “That small body’s flame flies across the distance of a footstep.”
Song Lin’s poems are about journeys which end in sojourns, temporary stays which are reflected in his life and in the way he moves about in his inner landscape, with rivers or water featuring again and again. As he wanders the world, Song Lin also explores poetic language and creates landscapes both physical and mental through his use of imagery. For example, in “Thinking of Another Journey While on a Rio de la Plata Ferry”, there he is in Argentina but, still aware of where he is at the moment, he thinks
of the Yangtze, and how it used to be a river on the border
between Zhenjiang and ancient Guazhou, a body of water
as vast as this.
Typically wide-ranging with his references, Song Lin links east and west as he thinks of Heraclitus and Confucius as sharing the same ideas about rivers; “incontestable rivers speak their own maxims/ because rivers are the earth’s tongues.” In “Flowing Water” he declares that “Every phenomenon is like flowing water”, and in “Song of Exploring the Waterways”, one of the longer poems in the book, he tells us that
Rivers and people resound with two kinds of loneliness
like the unstoppable arrow
only arteries echo underground surges,
only memories converge into wider rivers.
Rivers can be placid, static or turbulent—they are a metaphor of universality and of eternally-changing realities, those of the world in general and of the poet’s mind in particular. It’s no surprise that “Song of Exploring the Waterways” was prompted by a rereading by the poet of the Commentary on the Water Classic, a work by the geographer Li Daoyuan (ca 466-527) discussing an even more ancient work on Chinese rivers. Song Li is fascinated with the metaphorical possibilities of water, which I’d venture to say features many more times in this collection than any birds!
Like so many other contemporary Chinese poets, Song Lin draws on history and classical Chinese literature, although he admits in “Song of Exploring the Waterways” that
The Classics have been altered. In a twisted age
I just want to be an explorer,
to plan on a meticulous map
He writes, for example, about emperor Qin Shihuang’s tomb, where
all that persists in the memory, whether past, present,
or future, are the various addictions of despots;
their lavishness while alive, their unbounded extravagance after they die.
The poem opens with the question, drawing here on the historian Sima Qian for details, “What does the labor of 700,000 slaves matter?” and answers it with “700,000 slaves, 700,000 piles of dust.” The fact that Qin Shihuang ordered the construction of the Great Wall of China and was buried with his famous terracotta warriors is not really the point here— “the empty empire needs some things to fill it up,” Song Lin tells us, and at the end of the poem he reminds us that
In a tunnel adjacent to the stoic terracotta soldiers
palace women and craftsmen buried with the dead took their lasts breaths.
In “Winter, Yuanmingyuan”, we have the encounter of the past with the present, as
Beneath construction workers’ shovels
the glaze on the emperor’s pottery shards
is still green
Too numerous to count
like the shy ghosts of palace maids
The crows the poet sees appear “serene as eunuchs,” whose presence also conjures up ghosts of the imperial court. In “The City Wall and the Setting Sun,” Song Lin succinctly sums up his relationship with the past:
It’s so different to walk on one’s native land;
you don’t need to verify the past.
For Song Lin, that past extends all the way from the Cambrian Era and ends with the present day.
Again, like many of his Chinese contemporaries, Song Lin is well-versed in foreign literature, and several European and American writers make an appearance in his poetry, especially when he is actually in Europe or South America. Foreign literary allusions can somehow help to make Asian poetry more accessible, as the authors such as Heraclitus, provide touchstones for Western readers and provide clues to the interpretation of the poems. Here are a few examples: the Rio de la Plata is “as wide as the Lethe”, the river of forgetfulness from Greek myth, an allusion which also features in Keats’s “Ode to a Nightingale”. In “Self-Portrait of a Barbarian”, a poem set in Paris, Song Lin prefaces it with a quotation from Laurence Sterne’s Sentimental Journey, and “slender arms like Don Quixote’s” feature in “Forgetting”. Odysseus Elytis’s “The Sleep of the Brave” provides the theme for the poem “Emptiness” with the line “There time released us.” In “Advice for a Young Poet” he writes of “the logic of the Arabian Nights”, and the title echoes Rilke’s well-regarded epistolary work Advice to a Young Poet. These references reflect Song Lin’s belief in the universality and timelessness of literary utterances, the bond between seemingly disparate writers over the long centuries. Matthew Arnold in “Dover Beach” saw the same link to the past; the “turbid ebb and flow of human misery,” he tells us, was experienced also by Sophocles, who “
Heard it on the Ægean.
As Song Lin says,
Only time creates flows
Given the multi-faceted variety of the thematic material of the poetry in this volume, it would be difficult to do all of it justice here. Song Lin is certainly a major voice in contemporary Chinese poetry, and he deserves to be better-known to English readers—Jami Proctor Xu is certainly the right translator to make it happen, particularly as she was actually working closely with the poet himself, a great advantage for translators of living writers. What would a translator give to have been able to work with, say, Goethe, Leopardi or Baudelaire?
Song Lin is a lyrical poet of great skill and impressiveness, and his subject-matter has universal appeal, from the death of a loved one to climbing mountains, or natural vistas and working in a garden. There is something for everyone in this collection, from the poignancy of “My Father’s Migration”, in which he envisages his dead father
beneath a cloak of corpulent leaves,
hiding safely under death’s protection
to the celebratory “If you can hear the shouts of buds on branches, then you are spring.”
There’s magic waiting for you in these poems if you care to look for it.
John Butler recently retired as Associate Professor of Humanities at the University College of the North in The Pas, Manitoba, Canada, and has taught at universities in Canada, Nigeria and Japan. He specializes in early modern travel-literature (especially Asian travel) and seventeenth-century intellectual history. His books include an edition of Sir Thomas Herbert’s Travels in Africa, Persia and Asia the Great (2012) and most recently an edition of Sir Paul Rycaut's Present State of the Ottoman Empire (1667) and a book of essays, Off the Beaten Track: Essays on Unknown Travel Writers.