Shang Qin was born in Sichuan, China in 1930, but has lived in Taiwan since the late Forties. The author of four volumes of poetry, he is among the first poets in Taiwan to have expressed a significant interest in surrealism.
He began publishing poetry in the mid-Fifties in various modernist journals such as Modern Poetry Quarterly while still employed as a soldier. He was not discharged from the military until 1968 and spent the next two years attending the International Writing Program at the University of Iowa before returning to Taiwan, where he tried his hand at a host of trades from street vendor and gardener to bookstore clerk and editor. He eventually became associate chief-editor of the China Times Weekly and retired in 1992.
Shang Qin's reputation as a prose poet was slow in maturing and did not really take wing until the appearance of his first volume of poetry Dream or the Dawn, which he published the year he left for Iowa. In the mid-Thirties, when the island was still under Japanese colonial rule and Taiwan's poets looked to Japan rather than to China for poetic inspiration, a few aspiring modernists who had studied in the “Empire of the Sun” and wrote in the Japanese language, briefly experimented with prose poetry, which had been in vogue in Japan since the early Twenties. In the Forties and early Fifties, after Taiwan once again came under Chinese political and cultural influence, a handful of poets began writing prose poems in Chinese.
Although most critics describe Shang Qin as a surrealist poet, this attribution is somewhat problematic. To be sure, surrealism has had considerable influence on the poet's work. Much of his early poetry has that eerie “dream logic” associated with surrealism, and several of his poems were clearly inspired by seminal works in the European surrealist tradition, as seen in the poem “My Amoeba Kid Brother,” which directly alludes to and plays off of Joan Miró's celebrated 1926 painting “Dog Barking at the Moon,” and the more recent “Moonlight,” which is awash with allusions to Max Jacob's prose poem “The Truly Miraculous.” At the same time, one cannot help noting that, in the mid-Eighties, when the Nationalist Government began relaxing its surveillance of the nation's writers in anticipation of the end of martial law, much of Shang Qin's surrealism falls from the bone, so to speak. Which suggests that surrealism may have been a political cover for a poet of compassion and social justice.
The purpose of the present volume is to showcase the quality of the poet's work in this particular genre rather than to present a comprehensive survey of his oeuvre.
Near the stove by the window over there, on the far side of the tumbling earth, the sky is the eye of a forlorn mother. The clouds have become inflamed. A garden hoe breaks into dance with the sound of a startled bird bolting from a hot skillet. Likewise, a child experiences a growth spurt. And the creature that just awoke from the dream of an afternoon and is now twirling in circles in the fruitless effort to bite its own tail is both a yellow dog and the planet Jupiter.
My Amoeba Kid Brother
After Joan Miró's “Dog Barking at the Moon”
The angry little fellow plucking at my khaki shirttail as I barrel down the stairs is my amoeba kid-brother, whose invitation I only managed to put off after endless hemming and hawing. The boy is an absolute beast, a dog barking at the moon. The scruff of his neck whines, “How come you never wanna come up to my place? You saw the ladder, look how long and narrow it is. You got a nest of your own in town like this, with stars?”
Weird how anyone could have a kid brother like that, “clean and dirty at the same time.” Like a hand or the paw of a raccoon. I bet the underside of that paw is the spitting image of a pangolin's front footpad. So a guy has an amoeba kid-brother who simultaneously resembles a raccoon and a pangolin, while I throw scores of shadows on the midnight streets.
Steve Bradbury teaches at National Central University in Taipei, Taiwan. Besides Fusion Kitsch (Zephyr 2001), he is the translator of The Prison Diary of Ho Chi Minh (Tinfish Press 2003).
Feelings Above Sea Level, by Shang Qin
Feelings Above Sea Level: Prose Poems from the Chinese of Shang Qin
from Chinese by Steve Bradbury
ISBN 0-939010-89-5 (paper)
5¼ x 9¼
88 pages [Bilingual Chinese/English]
Steve Bradbury's work has set a new standard for the translation of Chinese poetry, a development long overdue.
Shang Qin is one of the most original and powerful Chinese poets, not only in our time but in the entire history of modern Chinese poetry.
Small in quantity but consummate in substance, Shang Qin's poetry epitomizes the doubts and values of the individual during an era of upheaval. In a poetic diction approaching that of speech, he exposed poetry's cutting edge and set the highest possible standard for subsequent poets. Even today we find his work an unflagging incentive to refresh our sensibilities and divest our language of artifice, which is poetry's true measure.