on Words as Grain: New and Selected Poems by Duo Duo (translated from the Chinese and edited by Lucas Klein)

Edwin Beard Budding’s 1830 contraption—the lawnmower—caused quite a sensation and kicked off many an amateur gardening career at a time when the middle classes were still discovering various uses for their newfound leisure. Budding’s invention made grass, and its compulsive trimming, a domestic phenomenon around the same era as Whitman’s Leaves of Grass and John Clare’s finding “a ball of grass among the hay.” Much earlier, however, Andrew Marvell’s “The Mower’s Song” was already drawing morose links between the experience of manually mowing grass using scythes with the cruelties of the speaker’s love interests. One will never know how much the lawnmower reshaped poetic history, or if it is truly the cause of Marvell’s slight complaint turning into Ashbery’s grand dispatch: “They dream only of America / To be lost among the thirteen million pillars of grass.” Sprouting in its edible and inedible variations, grass is also at the center of the contemporary Chinese poet Duo Duo’s oeuvre, offering refuge and sustenance to the speaker but also an unrelenting sense of fragility.

Born in Beijing in 1951 as Li Shizheng, Duo Duo has published his poetry under his chosen pseudonym, commemorating his daughter Li Duoduo, since 1982. After being published in state-owned literary magazines of the time such as The Ugly Duckling (Chou xiao ya), China (Zhongguo), and Poetry (Shikan), Duo Duo marked the end of his Chinese publications with his exile to London and other parts of Europe after 1989. Lucas Klein’s English translation of new and selected poems by Duo Duo, Words as Grain, offers a radically new and comprehensive understanding of the poet. The book opens with Duo Duo’s latest collection rather than his first, choosing to work backwards toward his early poetry, a path that allows one to engage with the most exciting sections of Duo Duo’s work before reaching his earlier, slightly uneven repertoire that first earned him a reputation among his Chinese readers.

The first part of the collection, titled “The Force of Forging Words (2004–2018),” covers the period since Duo Duo’s return to China, while “Amsterdam’s River (1989–2004)” represents his exile years, which he spent mostly in the Netherlands. “Delusion Is the Master of Reality (1982–1988)” corresponds to China’s “reform and opening” years. The final section in the collection, “Instruction (1972–1976),” includes his earliest work, from the middle of the Cultural Revolution to the onset of the Deng Xiaoping era. This timeline is useful when charting Duo Duo’s publication history, but its neatness is not without risks. Translations of modern Chinese poetry have often been sold to Western readers through a simplified narrative of disclosure, where poets are taken for impresarios removing the cloth from brutal historical events. This peculiar lust for allegories of non-Western national pasts is old news, however, for translators such as Klein, who deftly flags the problem in his introduction and notes why such readerly demands are disappointed by Duo Duo’s poetry, which remains defiantly elliptical and fragmentary. It is not that Duo Duo’s poems do not speak to their adjacent histories, but this dialogue concocts its own singular language nothing like reportage or testimony. If there is a history or a critique of totalitarian politics to be unearthed in these poems, it will only be found by paying attention to the wounds and reprieves of their language, something Duo Duo time and again compares to grass.

There are hardly any trees in Duo Duo’s poetry, in contrast with the overabundance of grass. The lack of arborescence, denoting perhaps a specific kind of vision trained in looking at the ground, an uneven, fecund ground, instead of what looms above it, is noticeable in the surface of poems themselves. One could call the syntax sharp, in the sense that it’s paratactic and pared down, with these internal fractures appearing like blades of grass on the page, broken but also smoothly traversable. The 2011 poem “From Golden Ears That Might Have Heard Silence” is a case in point:

green grass—withered grass
two words

looking over a nest of weeds
mother’s five copper toes

all my words
pressed here, all my homes

converging right here

The poem leaves us alone with objects—a patch of grass, weeds, copper toes—without dictating their meaning or the logic of their concurrence. It is among these objects and in the lightness of their construction that Duo Duo houses his “words.” The deictic last word, “here,” leaves us in the same partially green grassland as Duo Duo’s speaker, reading a collection ripe with language but also unashamed of its “withering” points. Several poems in the collection remain suspicious of language, announcing the inadequacies and misdemeanors of “words,” but as in the poem above, language is rehabilitated in the end: landscapes, objects, and memories are never entirely extinguished. For Duo Duo, grass is where language can be redeemed and continue its work. Among other things, it shares a secret kinship with the language of poetry and that of the child; as the speaker of “The Secret of Eating Almonds” (2013) finds out, “children who want to love grass only belong to grass.”

Maghiel van Crevel, in an exceptional book-length account of Duo Duo’s poetry, Language Shattered (1996), explains that reading Baudelaire moved the young Duo Duo to look beyond his immediate context. Baudelaire’s grim vision of modernity “collided head-on with the glorification of Mao during the Cultural Revolution.” Describing the rupture Baudelaire’s view of modernity held for those writing in 1970s China, van Crevel quotes Duo Duo recalling two striking but incongruous metaphors from his youth: “While we sang each day: ‘Chairman Mao is like the sun,’ Baudelaire said: ‘The sun is like a poet.’” The twice-displaced sun ultimately sides with poetry, a curve traced by Duo Duo’s own oeuvre that increasingly digressed from the party line and its populist aesthetics, seeking instead a formally risky and experimental idiom. Many of his poems, especially those written after the mid-1980s, make poetry itself their subject, drawing attention to the extreme precarities of poetic labor. The long title of “Writing That Can’t Let Go of Its Grief Examines the Cotton Field” (2000), written during Duo Duo’s years in Amsterdam, apprehends the speaker’s struggle with writing: “bronze has exiled the witness’s tongue / grass relates the incompetence of words.” Somehow, grass is a comrade in this struggle.

Duo Duo’s affiliation with grass is not one of eco-immediacy nor does it stoke a pastoral vision; instead it marks the peculiar coexistence of fragility and renewal, signaling newer mobilities, boundaries, but also sudden disappearances. The two ends of a blade of grass are not very far from each other; Duo Duo asserts poetry’s capacity to both initiate beginnings and witness ends, as in “The Force of Forging Words” (2014): “dream and the boat on the shore must join force / if words can spill beyond their own bounds / only there, to test the hearing of the end.” This end is again heard in the poem “Chama River, Spectral Pasture,” but not without a wide-eyed desire for endlessness: “nature is not troubled by depletion / those dwarves are coming back again / to unite with the limitless patience of the sky.” The 2015 poem “Dear Light Dances By,” addressed to an enigmatic “you,” is perhaps one of the finest in the collection for how effectively it stitches together a contradictory, grass-inspired, language of vulnerability and resilience:

the stage is overthrown with grass
I have only a pair of baby hands
still digging in the depths

that you, my you
both are one

the valley is silent
a pair of jaguars
have our faces

a family walks by
I cannot follow them

cloud’s sisters walking on the field ridge

a woman already in the moonlight
laughing pearls, raging pearls
line up anew around her neck

each pearl is screaming:
loneliness is the biggest rose

The collision of two types of “you”—one autonomous and one related to the speaker—suggests a misrecognition, a trick of memory or a dream, where nothing in the landscape is distinct from the speaker’s vision of it, including the “jaguar,” the “family,” or the “pearls.” Everything takes on a contingent meaning. The “stage” where this drama of kinship and loneliness unfolds is populated with grass, whose malleability aligns with poetic form. The terse, clipped images contrast with Duo Duo’s early poems, their expanded syntax and intricate imagery. Yet poems from all phases of Duo Duo’s career maintain a sort of continuity in resisting a facile coherence: a move at odds, notes van Crevel, with the ideological lucidity “of Communist lingo—e.g. the people, the bloodiness of revolution, sacrifice.” An obliqueness visits each image in Dear Light Dances By, and the speaker who is otherwise accompanied by “grass,” “you,” “jaguars,” and “family” suddenly finds themself alone in the last line, their “loneliness” taking the layered shape of a “rose.” This loneliness is not singular, it is a scene of collective denial.

The three avant-garde Chinese poets often grouped alongside Duo Duo as the “misty” poets—Bei Dao, Gu Cheng, and Yang Lian—were coincidentally, like Duo Duo, abroad in 1989 when the protest movement of June Fourth was violently quashed by authorities, turning their sojourns overseas into forms of permanent exile. At several points in the collection, Duo Duo establishes grass as a figure that epitomizes and aids his own voice as it speaks of immense historical loss and violence. The “misty” poets are often celebrated for recalibrating within Chinese literature that sense of self which, for various sociopolitical reasons, had evaporated since the late 1930s. “Memorialising These Grasses” (2010) helps us understand what is at stake in this returning of the self to a landscape from which it might always disappear again:

secrets write the grass in our voices
grass carries on grass, grass read aloud by silence
beneath grass, a kneeling formation
that has never petrified

at the depths of sorrow the grass, since it
preserves people vanished
in the depths of names, will flash
the light of conjunction in the radiant forest

the depths will not close again
but only accept grass’s cover

every word comes from here

The “voices” here have an ally in grass, whose thin roots cling to and preserve an increasingly eroding, shifting ground. Grass becomes the name for those marginal “secrets” that the voice takes the risk of bringing to fore, however granularly, with “silence” and “depths of sorrow” being their point of origin. Klein’s decision to use only lowercase in his translations, obviously not a feature of the logosyllabic Mandarin, is perhaps an extension of Duo Duo’s own attention to the granular and miniscule in language, to its grassy “cover.” While the lowercase has its own near-mythological status in Anglo-American modernism, Klein’s choice seems to speak specifically to Duo Duo’s view of poetry as a weak yet “radiant” force of remembrance and memorializing. The point is that no act of memorializing is without its precarities or its weaknesses. Against the poet’s and the translator’s wishes, a 1989 collection of Duo Duo’s poetry in English was titled Looking out from Death: From the Cultural Revolution to Tiananmen Square, pitching him as a chronicler of political repression in China and, thus, wiping away all the ambiguities and blind spots to which his work seems pledged. Speaking as it were to these very asymmetrical demands of the marketplace, “Talking the Whole Way” imagines a language that can resist being mined for legible and determinate meanings:

at the age above the snow line
the wind that enjoys silence, abundance, and wordlessness
will not learn to read for a blind landscape
strum the tree that can grow golden fingers
behind you, words knot their own chain
may emptiness harvest good wheat
there’s limit to water, but not to fluidity
a drop of water that keeps expanding
walking along, arms swinging, and the lotus pond swells

[. . .]

disappearance is but reclusion’s other dance

Duo Duo’s peculiar desire for “wordlessness” within words, for “wheat” out of an empty “harvest,” sums up the labor of his most recent poems. While his work from the early 1970s, such as “Instruction,” specifies the moment of its speaker’s deprivation—“in just one night, the wound burst”—and makes its causes legible, as in “Farewell”—“the green fields are like thought that’s just slackened / construction a dusk without end”—Duo Duo’s latest poetry, one of the triumphant achievements of this collection, examines the very instance where language is rendered powerless and mute, yet replenishing and knotted in its “own chain.” The “fluidity” that has no limits, but also no definition, is perhaps the best portrayal of Duo Duo’s pulsating, anarchic idiom. Although a mowing enterprise is underway in “Where Phrase Blooms”—“the grass of passion decreases / on the basis of us, decreases”—it is in the untamed grass that Duo Duo’s phrases bloom.

New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2021. 280 pp. $30.00.


Mantra Mukim is a poet and essayist. His most recent works have appeared or are forthcoming in Datableed, Hotel, Spamzine, 87 Press, and Poetry Review.