That Golden Self: Poems by Zang Di

by Zang Di
translated by Eleanor Goodman

An inveterate traveler and obsessive observer, Zang Di uses his daily experience as an entryway into personal abysses. His poems tend to begin with finely wrought details, frequently of the natural world, and proceed inward along paths of his own idiosyncratic logic to cut open and reveal the layers of his psyche with surgical precision. He has written at least a poem a day for many years, and that habit lends his poems a confidence and ease, although his verse is never lazy.

Zang Di was born in Beijing in the 1960s and still lives there today, although the city has changed profoundly around him. A professor at the prestigious Peking University (often called the “Harvard of China”), he has read widely; not only in the traditional Chinese canon but also the Western one, from contemporary Polish poetry and Latin American literature to the Russian greats. His erudition is as evident in his verse as his conversation, but it quickly becomes clear that what concerns him most is the emotional underpinning behind every experience. In Chinese, one word, xin, can refer both to the heart and to the mind. For Zang Di, they are frequently one and the same.

—Eleanor Goodman

New Life Series

Two selves, flashing through the same brief moment.
Purple martins and fireflies don’t believe the little valleys in dreams
will lose out to the iron bars of memory.
Whether one flies isn’t important, whether one wants to fly
is a kind of measure. The sighs of shuddering feathers
are never mistaken, calculating correctly
that at any given time, there are two selves. But parting
only signifies that parting can have significance!
Two selves, like a pair of black and white wings.
But life is more like the tread of a story. If one’s grip loosens,
the world turns more slippery than mudfish. The things that can be grasped
will ultimately fall in love with the orbit of falling leaves.
That golden self, that old eye-catching self was large,
but now I care nothing for size.
The little greetings of tender seedlings surpass all artifice.
The universe has its own weight, and not being fooled by nothingness
is like not needing to see death clearly.
Once this naked self was opaque to everyone,
it did very well, it held onto our brief moment.
The naked self is inconsequential to time,
but for memory, it is form’s last chance.
Death is merely a fish not yet on the hook.
As long as there’s new life, the present is greater than the spring breeze.

In Vermont, or A More Allegorical Than ‘White as Snow’ Primer

At a latitude of 45 degrees north, snow dominates the background;
whether left- or right-leaning, you can’t get around going from East to West;
the sequence of whiteness seems rehearsed
and the boundary between reality and nature eventually dissolves.
But it looks like the mallards don’t mind,
they choose to spend the winter here,
sealing up the south in the unknown again;

Each spot with scenery more ancient than nature
flashes with the silhouettes of those mallards,
like an opening act for the taciturn mountains;
their natural enemies completely gone, they flap down
from the snowbanks into the freezing river,
demonstrating the mysteries of winter swimming for you—
as though coldness is still the real secret of success.

All around, throughout the Appalachian highlands
only the fast-flowing Gihon remembers
your name; it doesn’t seem that way,
time’s forgetfulness can’t touch the secret justice
in our bodies. Other indications
include: a maple tree plucked bare,
a prayer struggling into the north wind.

The crows’ caws are like a lone ode
ornamenting the boundaries of the world over and over.
Deceiving the angels, they distribute ice-hearts evenly over the barefaced
snow, and display their own nakedness,
looking like half body-doubles against the earth.
As soon as they lift a leg, that’s the end. And in the end,
you excel at extreme solitude.

Recovering, the chilly starlight is like
a signature, it carries your vision
across to the other side of the cosmos.
No need to worry how we’ll get back,
beneath the moonlight, there’s never been a distance
that comes closer to the riddle of our origins
than your body’s small tunnels.

The Original Role Series

Many years ago, my body passed me by.
It shouldn’t have happened, but in truth,
it’s happened many times. My body is my miracle,
but that sounds too high-flown. At the time I thought
miracles would weaken freedom, and that very likely
miracles are another form of degeneration. My body, hanging
like a ripe apple, might fall any moment.
You know, if I happen to fall on my head,
the world might be set straight again. I lie in the grass,
with the summer insects’ many thoughts all around me.
I like anything that has rhythm.
No need to refine the grass, the insects’ thoughts have rhythm.
In that rhythm, I seem to feel the reins of fate.
I brought half a bottle of wine, and the jerky I’m chewing
emits an odor like yak. I’m wearing down
the self that won’t be passed by again. My body
was once three yaks summiting a mountain pass.
There, Aba’s melting snow was like a transparent string,
memory more solid than once-dissolved granite.
My body has passed me by, which means, from the beginning,
my body has been made up of a man’s body
and a resurrected body.
The happiness they’ve have brought me is as conflicted as the truth.
But what’s blind has never been my body,
and you know, I have explanations for more than just this.

Life Art Series

Waking up in the middle of life, I receive a piece of ice.
It is solemn and cold, harder than the most ambivalent gift.
The light it reflects back has the appetite of ten ducks.

The droplets dripping from its bright corners
are like the smallest destinies, repeating themselves endlessly
like some sort of transparent music—

It is about the size of a circus cage.
To push it toward a lion would take a lot of tools.
I wouldn’t let a hoisting jack mess with it.

Right now I just want to return to a simple position.
I don’t need to move too much.
I’ll put this piece of ice on its end, facing love.

I’m guessing the art of life emerges from this:
enormous chunks of ice will continue to melt over time.
The water will gurgle off in all directions, seep into the earth, and garner

a kind of symbolic power. I could also stand the ice upright
to face any of the things that puzzle you; but for that,
you’d have to tell me whether you like the truths ice tells.

Published on July 7, 2016