Saturday, December 6, 2014



SKY LANTERNS: NEW POETRY FROM CHINA, FORMOSA AND BEYOND, Edited by Fiona Sze-Lorrain and Frank Stewart
 (Manoa, Honolulu, Hawai'i, 2012)

Sky Lanterns offers the work of 23 contemporary Chinese writers. Obviously, no attempt to be exhaustive exists in this 154 page collection. It simply represents a wholesome if ultimately random sampling of contemporary Chinese poetry. My own reading of Chinese poetry centres on the T’Ang Dynasty (such writers and Li Po and Tu Fu). I suspect many others share an equally limited view of Chinese literature.

I note, tho: thru out the book, in essays and poems alike, contributors refer to Western writers. Right off I recall direct mention of Rilke, Stevens, Hemingway, and Dickinson. One can safely say American poets know little of what’s going on in other outposts of English literature—Canada and England, for instance—and zilch about Chinese literature. Despite the supposedly insular society in The People’s Republic, folks there seem more attuned to the poetry elsewhere than us in the U.S. That’s a sore point to admit.

A good deal of these poems were written in English. The original accompanies on facing page those that were not.

Rich visual description plays a major role in much of this book. I don’t mean 17 adjectives surrounding a poor noun, Poetry magazine’s lush standard, but nuanced images that seem like remembered glances. The poem “Swallow Terrace:Autumn” by Li Shangyin constitutes a catalogue of almost surreal (yet grounded) images. Here are two contiguous verses:

Red laurel spring closed with a golden fish lock.
Ancient dust fills the bed of a pair of mandarin ducks.

Worth grieving, how little how a little garden becomes the long road.
A jade tree is merciless in exile.

The implacable first person pronoun appears at times in this book but seems less engaged in solipsistic emotional weather reports. Perhaps I allow myself to fall for the romantic view. One cannot say that no hard edges exist here, tho. Here is the first verse of “Steel Gray Sky by Yang Zi.

Steel gray sky like a contagious hospital—
all the people are sucked into it,
all senile, cunning people
all kind-looking, ferocious-looking people,
all those who do not wish to leave or stay,
are sucked into it,

Du Yu writes a disturbing poem, “A Bullet Flies in the Sky”. The poem places an almost blasé interest in the phenomenon of the title. The last lines spook me:

no one knows
what exactly
this bullet
desire when
it flies

Despite claims of the subtitle, the volume also includes a story and four essays. One essay, “Richen, the Sky-Burial Master” by exiled Tibetan Woeser, concerns the Tibetan tradition of completely chopping up and breaking down corpses and leaving the remains to the vultures. Surely this represents a shock to my thin Anglo-American blood but the essay is cool and thoughtful. It does rather hype the romantic view that I cannot help to avoid, the Mysterious East.

By the way, reference to Formosa in the subtitle is anachronistic. That early name—from 16th century Portuguese sailors—isn’t used anymore, is it? The island is called Taiwan.

Anyway, Sky Lanterns includes a number of photographs for ambiance. The essays, intro, and back matter provide useful information and viewpoint, and the poetry itself speaks for itself. As I said, this anthology cannot be taken as definitive, but the editors have chosen wisely and well. It may just provoke you.


Allen Bramhall maintains two blogs: his dither blog ( and his poetry blog ( Both are ratified by angels. Likewise his two volume poem, Days Poem( Further details available upon request.

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