by Shuting Chen
A lonely stroll, I deem it a metaphor of Chao’s poems but not the poet himself, because he is never thoroughly presented in his works. It seems that he has multiple personalities. Sometimes he is a delicate “wife”, likening marriage to the rosebush. Sometimes, he is a loving father, withholding his tears at his childhood retrospection because he is holding his son sound asleep in his arms. Sometimes, he is just one of those keen observers, watching an ant bore a hole in his book. But above all the dramatic or natural parts he acts, I am exceedingly attracted to his character as a lonely stroller in the woods, a term derived from his Strolling through the Woods:
Two student girls, one in white
the other in orange
I saw in my stroll
through the woods
sitting in a sunny stubbled clearing
bent over their books
Vigilance shown on the two girls as the narrator unintentionally approaches leads to his embarrassment and sadness. It is as if he is the source of disturbance, the “source of nightmare in this seemingly quiet world”. I remember the same uneasiness when I stepped into an elevator and saw a kid in an attempt to hide his snacks at the sight of me, apparently considering me a villain. But my reaction turned out to be keeping a distance from him as a testimony of my innocence, just like the narrator’s – lowering his head. The use of “seemingly quiet” instead of simply “quiet” is indicative of disdain for the hypocritical, desire-driven world, peaceful on the surface, clamorous in effect. In this world, adults are hypocrites. Only kids can be a reliable witnesses and accusers. The narrator blushes either because he is one of those pseudo or because he is helplessly ashamed of his deceptive counterparts.
It seems that from this turbulent world Chao craves for an escape, as can be inferred from his poem dedicated to Emily Dickinson. He addresses this prolific poetess as “a lonely woman in a beautiful prison” and this prison is presumably Dickinson’s house which she dwelled in and seldom left. Yet I am so familiar with her life after a comprehensive research for a presentation this semester that I am confident to say that this house is not a prison but a palace of inspiration, a prairie where imagination can run riot, for it is in this house that Dickinson conceived most of her masterpieces that withdrew themselves from the public along with her before her death. Chao, as a keen observer and thinker, is fully aware of that for he describes this “prison” as “beautiful”. Despite that, he emphasizes its confinement by comparing the “hyphens” that constantly appear in Dickinson’s poems to bones that line up like fences. It seems that, on one hand, he appreciates the delicacy of her mind palace, and on the other hand, he feels sorry about this genius dolefully struck in her own fortress that bars the entire world from her brilliant ideas.
There is too a part of Chao that yearns to be a “hermit”. In Dream of a Hermit, he portrays a hermit on the rack in the limelight:
at my turning
I saw numerous faces
a ghostly tree
I sped up
Finally, the narrators discovers in utter horror that the spotlight overhead is indeed a butchering knife. By virtue of actually “putting” the figure onto a stage, this thrilling poem dramatizes how the sadistic public attention afflicts the secluded. Analogous to such a play, I visualize a hermit, ready to free the letters from his pen so that they can dance on the paper, terrified by sudden flashlights from outside the window or scoops about him on the newspaper.
Amid crowds of utilitarians, rather than a feeling of suffocation, poets form the loneliest group. Unlike novelists, who are always allowed to state frankly what he intend to get across, poets do that in circuitous ways. Metaphors, imageries and symbols are among the various elements used by poets to convey their sentiments. Therefore, as Chao has pointed out in one of his lectures, poems are open to free interpretation. Yet from my perspective, it would be rather disappointing for a poet to see that, among thousands of readers, none is able to penetrate his true intention of creating such poems. On the other hand, because as to some special matters, it is better not to spell everything out, poems have to be vague. Thus Chao writes:
Therefore, Chao’s words are but the tip of an iceberg that defies a single interpretation. It is loaded with lively imageries: a stone that drops down and perches on a tree branch like a bird, a rainbow that can whistle like a whistle and the wrinkles of time in the life of a Chinese immigrant. In Chao’s mind, everything can be anything else, just like himself, frequently straddling personalities. This seamless shift of characters, together with his mastery of short and fragmented lines, enables him to replace a congenial atmosphere with a gloomy one in the blink of an eye. He is a bold experimenter of new poems, not just in the language of Chinese, but also in English, which is extraordinarily difficult and impressive. Glen Phillips, a renowned poet and critic, lavishes praise on such a Chinese poet, “Only a select group of writers has such a powerful poetic impulse that it shines as an unquenchable flame in their poetry no matter in which language they choose to write. Chao is such a poet”. Such a part he chooses to act made him a lonely stroller in this utilitarian world as well as the world of poetry as a Chinese poet writing English poems.
However, currently as an associate professor in Guangdong University of Foreign Studies and formerly writer-in-residence or visiting scholar in various universities including Cambridge and the University of Sydney, Chao is constantly in the academic spotlight and close contact with students. Such a stark contrast makes me wonder which personality presents the real Chao: a lone stroller in the woods of poetry, or an amiable teacher enthusiastically inspiring his students to analyze the “ecology” of human beings via literary works?
Surely Chao is not a hermit in real sense. The lonely stroll in the woods is but a metaphor, a metaphor of his complicated character demonstrated in his poems. The poet himself is a unity of contradictories, delicate in his use of imageries yet powerful in his economic use of words. His loneliness is reflected not just in his indifference towards the materialistic side of the world but also in his successful experiment in literary creation beyond his mother tongue. It is in fact a rosy road, teeming with marvelous tales of letters. Rambling through this path is a lone stroller, whose poems are the spring that nurtures the blossoms.