Wang Ping & Ron Padgett, tr. Brookline, Massachusetts. Zephyr. 2010. xvi + 151 pages. $15. ISBN 978-0-9815521-3-2
Flash Cards is the first book-length collection of Yu Jian's poetry in English. Writing since the 1970s, Yu Jian is considered a representative of the "Third Generation, " a loose group of poets characterized by grounded language and a focus on ordinary lives. The flyleaf calls the work a "primer of modern Chinese life, " and many of the poems read as observations drawn from the everyday. From that point of departure, these selections move variously into the surreal, the satirical, the elegiac—while others remain cryptically banal. Western readers will be intrigued by the evocation of China's changing social and environmental realities: the retired women dancing in the park who "all turn their heads" when the poet shouts "mother"; the vanished animals and lakes and streams and meadows; the party doublespeak and thoughtless materialism. The evolutions are sometimes startling, sometimes hilarious, but also sometimes predictable. While Yu Jian's spare language and brevity may evoke the Chinese classical heritage, and the frequent topicality of his work draws attention to China's contemporary challenges, his strongest poems are stripped of national context—such as when the poet waits for inspiration "like mummies / in the desert / waiting for the fingernails / of archaeologists" or factory workers becoming "like disciples / waiting for God / to come out of the furnace." The style of the present volume—drawn from a larger collection called Anthology of Notes—does not reflect the poet's whole oeuvre, which has frequently been more expansive. Many of Yu Jian's earlier works are available in translation online or in journals, and provide a useful complement for any interested reader.
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