Poetry is astonishingly so: Poems by Ya Shi

by Ya Shi
translated by Nick Admussen
November 17, 2017

These three short poems by the Sichuan poet Ya Shi, 哑石, center around hunger, pursuit, violence, and sustenance—whether those feelings are felt by a reader pursuing a poem, an epicure tasting exotic foods, or the witness of a colorful landscape bursting into view. As is so often the case in Ya Shi’s work, the goal is not freedom from desire in the old Daoist sense, nor is it the romantic satisfaction of the sublime, but some moment of reprieve and perspective derived from the struggle, the swan working hard below the waterline and perfectly placid above it.

These pieces are selected from a hundred-poem series called "Poetics," 诗论, and make up part of a project Ya Shi has been engaged in for several years, in which he ties the practices of poetry to the practices of life and tests whether the responsibilities and joys of life are identical to, or differentiable from, the joys of poetry. Early works in this vein were long, luxurious prose poems, abundant in detail, structured parallels, and narrative; in these poems, we see the identity between our actions and our art minced into instants, into moments in which the unfolding of the beauty and pain of experience is identical to the risky moment when we open ourselves to a line of poetry.

—Nick Admussen

Click anywhere below to read the poems in the original Chinese.

Poetics, #67

What’s written down, doubtlessly a grass snake’s grey line, is a trace.
Pursuers should have dog noses: pointed towards words’ ripples, their fish stink,
pointed towards fakery becoming spiritual history. To chase is to write it all again.
With some luck, between the lines of verse there will appear a swan,
she takes a breath, paddles water, causes layer on layer of overlapping ripples.
You worm to shore, skin topped in droplets, like little crystals that the evening light draws round.

Poetics, #97

Blue lobster meat. Red chili oil on a lump of green bamboo. White wood-ear mushrooms.
In Jia County, Hunan, I experienced a whole horse’s head, steamed and minced.
—— what’re you doing, saying all this? In a lean spring, Paul Celan
threw himself into the Seine. Poetry is astonishingly so: what are you doing, saying all this!

Poetics, #99

Green embroiders spring trees, can’t stand the loneliness and crowding of the tumbling red,
the stones heat up, highway twisting to provoke the insects of the atmosphere.
Great chaos, broader than you can see. Tree branches launch kingfishers
but the ducts got there first, carved a micro-power structure into the cloud
—— and poetry, it’s still hiding love’s lake-colored handle,
rhythm knocking at the door of words, warning her, the dagger is whipping around blind.