Get our latest essays, archival selections, reading lists, and exclusive content delivered straight to your inbox.
Photo: José Carlos Cortizo Pérez
Reading cross-culturally lets us see ourselves through comparison: it’s not objectivity, but it’s not the same subjectivity we started with, either. In An Anatomy of Chinese: Rhythm, Metaphor, Politics (2013), Perry Link talks about a phenomenon recognizable in contemporary Chinese writing: the deep level of martial analogy and war metaphor that accompanies daily language. After decades of revolution, and after a Cultural Revolution dominated in part by the People’s Liberation Army, the history of the community became visible in its language. Experiences become the raw material of our idiom, and our idiom in turn shapes the way we experience the world around us. You really do learn to “soldier on.”
I see a similar pattern in Chinese poetry after the end of the Cultural Revolution, in the first heady moments when underground literature became possible to read and circulate. Besides a linguistic record, there is a psychic, social impact to acts of violence—an infection or inscription of the violent act into the people involved. Perhaps we are made up, in part, of the violence we have seen and the violence we have done. As the idiom of the military entered twentieth-century Chinese language, so might the experience of violence enter all our works and acts.
America has invented a violence that it no longer has to feel.
One cannot always feel the mark of past violence in poems written later, during a time of relative peace, but such feeling is evident in the work of the poet Mang Ke, who lived and wrote through that intense moment of transition when the organized and disorganized political violence of Maoist China gave way to the uncertain openness of the early Deng era. In the poem “Sunflower in the Sun,” translated by Jonathan Stalling and Yibing Huang, the grimness of the age is drawn into the natural world that holds it. Here is the first stanza:
Do you see?
Do you see that sunflower in the sun?
You see, it didn’t bow its head
But turned its head back
As if to bite through
The rope around its neck
Held by the sun’s hands.
The image is intensified by the fact that sunflower in Chinese is written something like “flower that points toward the sun.” The sunflower loathes the sun, is dominated and punished by it, lashes out at it, and yet pursues the sun out of the needs of its own nature. The image is further intensified by the way that the propaganda of the ’60s and ’70s identified Mao Zedong and socialism with the rising red sun and depicted the masses as rows of obedient, radiant-faced sunflowers, following their source of heat and light. (Here is a Chinese song from the Mao period called “Commune Members Are All Sunflowers.”) As the poem progresses, the sunflower itself begins to glow, until the crashing last lines reveal that the sunflower is growing in a bloody field, itself constituted of the victims—and perpetrators—of violence.
It is possible to read this complex tableau through familiar psychological categories: PTSD, the epidemiology of violence, the mirror neuron. But I prefer to understand the poem as an aesthetic rather than deterministic reaction: we make decisions about how to construct our lives around the violence in our history. The stories we tell and the relationships we draw are like works of art, escapist, realist, obscure, lyrical, or haunted, all tethered to but not defined by the experience of the creation of pain in others. We look for responsible and pacifying narratives to tell because conflicts in language are always preferable to conflicts of the flesh—knowing, all the while, that since dialogue transforms all its participants, our choice of art also has the potential to reinforce and sharpen the trauma of violence.
Seeing a poem as an edifice built to hide, reveal, or address violence helps me read poems I would otherwise struggle with. When I was younger, my most well-read friend asked me in exasperation whether I could make any sense of a series of poems by John Ashbery. After trying my best, I admitted I had no idea what was going on. (This experience brought us closer and encouraged me not to fake it about books later.) Now, on the other side of many years of reading Chinese poetry like Mang Ke’s, I see some small proportion of Ashbery’s late poems as having a thereness-but-not-presence, an abstract understanding of a distant and unsensual truth. I can see it most clearly when the truth is a violent one. “Token Resistance” from And the Stars Were Shining (1994) contains the following command, spoken in a dream:
All the vulgarity
of time, from the Stone Age
to our present, with its noodle parlors
and token resistance, is as a life
to the life that is given you. Wear it. . . .
It’s not too fierce, this vulgarity; instead it feels crude—the difference between a fine French meal and the kind of noodles you slurp. That crudeness is then visualized as a kind of badge, the life affixed to one’s life. What kind of person, what kind of citizen, wears another life? The patriarch does, the oppressor, the tyrant: when they choose to be vulgar, they take themselves down toward (but never to) the level of the abject thing that they dominate. By comparison, if we asked Mang Ke what he considered vulgar, what would it be? Many things, but among them would be pain, the pain of experience; Ashbery’s poem instead contains an emblem for pain, the cheap restaurant, the faux-modest shake of the head in “token resistance.” This interpretation might seem like a stretch, like forcibly reading absent violence into a basically peaceful dream, but look where the poem ends:
Now it’s years after that. It
isn’t possible to be young anymore.
Yet the tree treats me like a brute friend;
my own shoes have scarred the walk I’ve taken.
If the violence we experience comes out in the heat and blood of our writing, we might discern from the coolness of this poem that this is the work of a writer who missed America’s many twentieth-century wars, perhaps one accustomed to a quiet life, a farm life, a scholar’s life. That is true. Still, there is harm in this poem, harm deferred, hidden—the speaker of the poem does not accept his brutishness, but has it ascribed to him. The scars the speaker causes appear as if by magic under the feet, as if the ground itself has become oversensitive to those who pass across it. These are the poems of the air war, the poems of the Empire State, feeling out toward the distant edges of the organism where the feeding takes place. This is why, in a dream, the speaker is told to wear it: America has invented a violence that it no longer has to feel. To put on the token of its presence is to resist unfeeling and make a first (small, easy) step toward resistance.
Thinking about violence as something that accumulates in a person or society may help us better understand the United States today. What does the difference between the demonstrations in Hong Kong in 2014 and 2015, where large numbers of citizens were allowed to occupy public space, and the struggles in Ferguson and Baltimore, suppressed with overwhelming force, tell us about how groups of people should and do treat one another? Perhaps the engine of the difference is the level of violence experienced by the two communities. Hong Kong had no firearm homicides between 2007 and 2010, and has stopped tracking them separately from other murders; it has exceptionally strict gun laws and no standing military of its own. St. Louis, with about a third of Hong Kong’s population, was named America’s most dangerous city in 2006; gun ownership there is especially easy and gun violence is particularly high, and it is part of a republic that has been engaged in several full-scale wars since 2001.
If violence from one source soaks into the people around it, we can imagine a kind of cause-and-effect network with no center. Ex-soldiers and others are paid to police a heavily armed country shaped by a history of racial violence, and then are given broad license to harm and kill citizens; the population comes to fear and loathe the police, and look for ways to resist them. Boxing gives way to ultimate fighting; the sunflower turns its head and bares its teeth. This reminds us that the Ferguson and Baltimore protests were in and of themselves provoked by racist state violence; it is not hard to see why police assumed they would face a violent response, one spoken in the same terms with which these communities had been addressed.
Compare to this the terms of the Hong Kong conflict. The central issue was representation in local government; the struggle for protesters, over the long weeks during which the demonstrations took place, was to keep up their energy and commitment, to justify the sacrifice of hours worked and classes attended. These problems of energy disappeared when the police used unprovoked force: people streamed into the squares, motivated by anger, a sense of the need for self-defense. In the absence of police violence, though, the uprising became a conversation, one written at the Lennon Wall, sung through public performances songs like “Boundless Oceans, Vast Skies” and “Do You Hear the People Sing.” Eventually, protesters left at least partly of their own accord: not as victors, perhaps, but as yet without casualties.
In Mang Ke’s poem, and in the speech of the protesters against police abuse in the United States, one can feel a pulse of rage and pain quite different from most of the voices raised in Hong Kong. This is a rhythm—not the only one, to be sure, but a loud one—of the life of American spaces today. As we experience them, fear and pain and hopelessness arrive as a powerful, causeless, aggregate blur, but when we speak them in the poem and on the street, though, the sunflower turns its attention toward its oppressor, the eye of the public falls on police officers who harm them, and even Ashbery begins to try to delineate the light and magical sensation of distant imperial evil. If violence is aggregate and self-reinforcing, then speech—even speech about violence, or speech that uses the language of violence—creates discernment, the hope for progress, an identification of our current problems that could serve as the first step to change.
Vital reading on politics, literature, and more in your inbox. Sign up for our Weekly Newsletter, Monthly Roundup, and event notifications.
Both regulators and employers have embraced new technologies for on-the-job monitoring, turning a blind eye to unjust working conditions.
But I do miss the hymns, / the small, hard apples with their dimpled skin. I do miss / things.
The vast hinterlands of the Global South’s cities are generating new solidarities and ideas of what counts as a life worth living.