Green Mountain: Poems
by Yang Jian
Translated by Fiona Sze-Lorrain
60 Poems ~ 156 Pages (Chinese and English juxtaposed)
Price: $25.00
Format: 5 ¼” x 8 ¼” ~ Perfect Bound
Publisher: MerwinAsia
ISBN: 978-1-937385-36-1
To Order:

Reviewed by Michael Escoubas

In a moment of distinct clarity about the power and purpose of poetry, Wallace
Stevens, writing to his daughter Holly averred: “Poetry is a response to the daily
necessity of getting the world right.” That quote whisked through my mind, like
a comet in the night sky, as I worked my way through the poems in Yang Jian’s
Green Mountain.

While China’s most respected and prolific poet would no doubt disabuse the notion
that his poetry is an attempt at “getting the world right,” Yang’s work carries with it the
force of change. But ahead of change, Yang knows that history and suffering must be
engaged, treated with the deft hand of a skilled craftsman, and brought to light by a
generous sprinkling of love.

Born in 1967, Yang felt the full force of Mao Zedong’s Cultural Revolution. Green
responds to those times with clear-visioned courage. Yang never offers
platitudes, nor does he sugar-coat the truth. Therefore, readers must brace themselves
for poems that prioritize truth over beauty, reality over fantasy. It is within that thought
that we, his fortunate readers, wrap ourselves in the warmth, light, and power of Sze-
Lorrain’s compelling translation.

The collection is structured around three divisions: I. Ode to a Dead Tree; II. Mysterious
Gratitude; and III. Speak, Heart. These divisions provide anchors that readers may grasp
on the journey upward, toward the light of truth and beauty. I hasten to point out that I
greatly appreciated Christopher Merrill’s foreword and Fiona Sze-Lorrain’s illuminating
introduction both of which provided historical context.

While I feel that each poem in Part I, carries its own weight, “1967,” for me, sets a tone
not just for the poems appearing in Part I, but indeed, for the entire collection. “1967” is
fraught with images that vivify Yang’s concern for China. The poem is structured by the
repetition of “They say” in the first four stanzas. Yang then completes each stanza
with a symbol of what has been lost because of Mao’s influence on Chinese society and

       The say
       Snap the erhu’s cords
       crush its body

       We’ll no longer have its music

This two-stringed, Chinese violin is perhaps the most powerful metaphor available for
that which has been lost. Its sound, its appearance, its centuries-old history is one of three
powerful images exploited by Yang. The others: ancient trees, craftsmen such as stone-
masons and carpenters, and written history contained in manuscripts, temples, and clerics,
all come together to provide essential context for the whole volume. Yang is thus

       I’m destined not to die
       but to open my mouth and speak among ruins
       to open the iron door sealed by dust

Moving into Part II. Mysterious Gratitude, Yang offers the gift of hope. His Buddhist
faith lifts his heart, is the source of hope. “Mysterious Gratitude” tells the story, now
forgotten, or at least not told anymore, of well-water bestowed by a red koi. Yang is
grateful for what he has; he prays for peace, he prays for wisdom:

       Here, I pray for peace: dusk to protect a farmer
       who returns with his old ox
       Wisdom I pray for sways like his rope
       My tears will fall on this rope
       by virtue of a mysterious gratitude that enfolds me in autumn
       Gratitude, unbroken through generations
       I live in a country that knows even well water is bestowed by heaven

Reviewer’s note: The red koi is important in this context as it stands for longevity, luck
and wealth.

The spiritual dimension in Yang’s work stands out like a searchlight shining bright in the
night. What is a culture when bereft of its stories, its legends, its impossible things? We
who live in the West, need such faith. Note this subtle image of immortality in Yang’s
short poem “Gift”:

       A leaf falls without defense

       Lifts it up
       Without defense, it shuffles again

       In its thin, dried body
       love burns stronger than on a trunk

       Yes, I’m immortal
       a gift from these leaves

All the poems fit on single pages juxtaposed beside its Chinese original. Sze-Lorrain is at
one with Yang, sensing his love for China; she make his soul sing with passion. Her
translations are cool sips of water to be slowly savored. Keeping in mind that Yang’s life
is defined by faith and by gratitude, “Native Soil” conveys this heartfelt flavor:

       When life could wither
       I was just a child
       In golden old maple woods
       an image of me at fifteen or thirteen
       Like soft river light
       with a tiny beast soothing the water
       and broad chimes from Sky Heart Tower

Poem after poem reveals Yang’s concern for China, his realistic sense of her pain, buffered
by hope for China’s future.

“Native Soil” segues nicely into Part III. Speak, Heart. Indeed, Yang’s heart speaks
throughout Green Mountain. However, there is a particular poignancy in poems such as
“Late Dusk”:

       A horse kicks at a tree stump in the hay
       Fish jump in a basket
       Dogs bark in the yard
       How they embrace themselves
       the wellspring of sorrow
       clear as the moon
       running ceaseless as a river

I noted earlier that readers should be prepared for a kind of stark realism in Yang’s work.
Truth is favored over fantasy. As Sze-Lorrain notes in her introductory, most poets build
an edifice layer on layer. Yang does the opposite: he subtracts. While most people look
for and find the “good” in life, this tendency is tempered by Yang, who states in “I No
Longer Seek Outward”:

       We’re wrong
       to put faith in external changes
       all these years
       blinded by anger

Yang’s wisdom is magnified because of what he knows, because of what he and his
country have suffered. As a result, he:

       No longer seeks outward
       when pain contracts
       I let go
       moonlight blankets the mountaintop

“Speak Heart,” the section’s title poem synthesizes Yang Jian’s wide heart and his love
for China … but his heart offers a warning that should be heard by all:

       Men possess so many treasures
       yet without a vessel to keep them in


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