In today’s Chinese poetry we find some remarkable imagery: Bei Dao’s needle sliding across a tree’s growth rings towards the centre; Duoduo’s plow hung with pearls, Xi Chuan’s humourless monster. Yu Jian, on the other hand, declares war on the metaphor, using language as a self-aware, dangerous caricature which can reduce a human being to substantives particles syllables past time. The poetry of Xiao Kaiyu (1960, settled in Germany in 1997) distinguishes itself from both these contrasting trends. From ‘Saturday Night’:

In passing he mentions his mother’s funeral,
many relatives, many firecrackers, many
unknown children, but very little time
spent by relatives around her portrait exchanging grief.

In China, Xiao is considered a ‘narrative’ poet, like Sun Wenbo and others whose work caught on in the 1990s, first in the samizdat circuit, later also in regular publications. Xiao has also made his name as a critic. He says the principal question is what one writes rather than how one writes it, thus firmly distancing himself from the metaphorists and the language-squeezers. What one writes: experienceable and experienced reality, socially and morally committed. Thus in content his poetic creed has much in common with classical Chinese poetry - from which it differs in the form of his poems, which is mostly free verse. However, Xiao’s work may have its roots in a recognizable world, but no more than classical Chinese poetry is it a simple reflection of that world. And apart from the ‘narrative’, there is a lyrical Xiao Kaiyu, in a short poem like ‘Ahh, Mist’, and an imaginative one, in ‘Northern Station’, who feels himself ‘a crowd of people’: ‘I sense there’s another pair of feet in mine’. Xiao Kaiyu is a versatile poet. His work has been translated into German, English, Italian and Dutch.

Maghiel van Crevel
Translated by Ko Kooman


A mountain top? A house? A person?
please don’t breathe out again
please don’t put today to sleep
please don’t force it out, don’t
please don’t open your mouth
please don’t believe in the buoyancy of air

and let down a first well-meaning desire
let down a hand held out
a dazzling face
an intoxicating waist
a morning light held close too long
a silently burning scruple

My damp body has already reached noon
my luke-warm heart is already in middle years
I watch the mist scatter into a feeble sunlight
I pass through a thicket of statues
open a book from which almost all type-face has fled
encourage a very small dream

Translated by: Michael Day