cover image Sidetracks


Bei Dao, trans. from the Chinese by Jeffrey Yang. New Directions, $18.95 trade paper (176p) ISBN 978-0-8112-3844-1

Impressively translated by Yang (Line and Light), this ambitious and capacious long poem from Dao spans the poet’s life in China and in exile abroad, interweaving reflections on history with personal recollections. Over 34 cantos, the poem places Dao’s disillusionment with the Communist Party (“all revolutions are ideals betrayed”) alongside warm encounters with friends and colleagues, including Gary Snyder and Eliot Weinberger. The sections quote Dao’s earlier work as well as other poets, touching on the lives of writers important to him, from Li Bai to Dylan Thomas to Mahmoud Darwish. Lucid metaphors address the impact of sweeping political change: “a row of classrooms hitched to a locomotive/ the new subject is class struggle” and “military troops reverse the spin of the Earth.” Elsewhere, statements of fact (“I will be immediately deported from China”) are interspersed with more abstract pronouncements: “horizon rehearses the winter overture.” For Dao, the act of writing poetry is life-defining, equivalent to “sending letters though tomorrow has no address.” Alternately gnomic and laconic, these poems of motion are a forceful accomplishment, yoking together lyric and epic to narrate one man’s journey and to propose an expansive idea of history. (May)