by Angelo Mao | Contributing Writer
At the height of civil war, Du Fu began a poem with the line: “国破山河在.” Or: the country is broken, but mountains and river remain. To a reader attentive to Chinese culture, this terse line is doubly poignant for the prominence of the mountain to Chinese identity, a relationship underscored by its metonymic link to nationhood and its prevalence in Chinese art. What, then, might we make of the debut collection by a young poet, born and raised in China but living in the United States, titled Burying the Mountain?
Shangyang Fang’s book, which bears that title, affectingly explores the longing and alienation that result from unbridgeable divides: between oneself and one’s culture, oneself and an adopted culture, and between lovers. The collection’s opening poem, “Argument of Situations,” ends:
My toothbrush leaned against his.
The man must be lonely, I said. No, the mountain
is never lonely. Burying my forehead inside his shoulder
blades, the mountain is making itself a man.
The erotic distance between the speaker and another man is represented not as a gulf between two humans, but of observer and a remote vista: the “mountain” as opposed to “a man.” The nature of this gulf precludes any hope of equal or reciprocal interaction because it is existential. Moreover, it is internalized by the speaker, who distances himself from his own subjectivity: “No, the mountain,” he corrects himself, “is never lonely.”
The founding trauma that engendered this alienation is suggested to be the hostile response of the speaker’s family to his sexuality. In “Satyr’s Flute,” the speaker recounts:
How my mother once saw
me with a boy. How she said, no. The n preceding
the choir of the o is like a castration
that severed me from her.
Here, the mother’s rejection severs the speaker from his family and leads to self-loathing: “[I] stayed a whole afternoon / in front of the mirror and thought I am not / beautiful, thought she was right.” The “castration” of forced exile and internalized self-loathing is echoed in images throughout the collection. “Phantom Limb,” reimagines Hans Christen Andersen’s fairytale of the one-legged tin soldier; “Comrade Mannequin” takes the voice of a mannequin, missing humanity itself. These personas allow the speaker to retell his trauma in a positive, even hopeful light. In “Comrade Mannequin,” he writes: “Through the numerous binoculars in focus, / you shall inhabit the history & I will be loved.”
Fang’s predominant escape from loneliness, however, is Western high art. Fang quotes excerpts from favorite works, evaluates writers and composers (“Paul Celan wasn’t necessarily the saddest person / in history. Trakl could have been sadder”), and recounts his experiences of them. The speaker’s arch tone and flippant pronouncements (on Mozart: “From G to D— / it’s clear—he didn’t get that far in his career”) have the attitude of a precocious child, but the stance is suggested to mask a sense of distance, as though he were an interloper in the Western cultural milieu. The poem “In the Movie Theatre” evocatively conjures two gay men in China visiting a movie theatre:
The movie is about
eros, about two men in love, then failing to love.
The kind that is banished in China, where they are,
in this impoverished town […]
The movie, with its “two men” doubling the two gay men in the audience, is inaccessibly “in a language [the men] can’t comprehend,” but the speaker imagines that the pair remain attentive: “the handsome actors / walked to a church of Saint something, then a colored- / pebble lane named after a philosopher or a poet.” This close attention to the screen parallels the speaker’s fascination with Western cultural products, and also summarizes the archetypes that Fang finds attractive: “philosopher” or “poet” (as opposed to artists and writers more politically or socially engaged).
Elsewhere, this sense of the West’s inaccessibility darkens into artistic and personal inferiority. In “Meditation on an Authentic China,” Fang plays on the double meaning of China/china and invents a set of doubles: the American Hugh and the Chinese Hu. While Hugh is refined, with “slim, translucent fingers, well-preserved / by Patagonia mittens,” Hu, a poor laborer, has produced a piece of china
whose ghastly craftsmanship & unrefined
sensibility will continue to startle [Hugh] like the screech
of a blackbird shot through the midnight blue.
The poem buckles under the broad caricatures, but Fang’s speaker ultimately subverts the inequalities between Hugh and the “unrefined” Hu. Hugh is fascinated by Hu’s artistic creation, and the poem concludes with the hopeful birth of Hu’s niece, “whose first name is I, / which means love,” a witty pun on the prospect of self-love, if not for the speaker, then for future generations.
If Fang’s speaker is precocious handling the West, he is more reticent handling his Chinese heritage. The witticisms are gone, but Fang’s cultural heritage nevertheless pervades the collection, ranging from section epigraphs (lines from a Du Fu poem) to religious and historical topics, to a poem about the poet’s given name (Shangyang was a one-legged bird in Chinese mythology). In “轰隆隆 Is the Sound of Thunder,” Chinese onomatopoeias weave through the poem:
The sound of the autumn moon is 寻寻觅觅, 冷冷清清
凄凄惨惨戚戚, which is also the 点点滴滴 sorrow of 李清照
Because to mourn the frog one must speak in the language of frog
which is to 呱呱呱
These onomatopoeias define even the sounds of the “autumn moon” and “frog[s],” indicating their formative influence on the speaker. Some of these onomatopoeias are excerpts from Chinese poetry (寻寻觅觅, 冷冷清清 opens a famous poem by Li Qingzhao), suggesting that this influence is specifically cultural. But the lack of notes or phonetic crib suggest that Fang pointedly expects—or hopes—that these references remain untranslatable to the average reader, a reversal of the Western “language [the men] can’t comprehend” in the movie theatre.
Fang’s speaker is particularly coy on the topic of the political, though he frequently summons this topic by invoking Russian and Soviet artists who had faced political persecution. In “If You Talk about Sadness, Fugue,” the speaker’s aunt “drove two hours to my town, begged me / not to be a poet. She read the poetry under my pillow and found out / Akhmatova’s son was arrested.” The fact that Fang evokes Akhmatova and not a Chinese poet is telling. I read it partly as an act of substitution, done for safety, but also part of the process of “burying” the mountain with his chosen pantheon, a replacement of a political Chinese poet with the more aesthetically satisfying Akhmatova, “moon / of Russian poetry.”
The loneliness that drenches Burying the Mountain derives from rejection and alienation, but also from portent. “[The] border,” Fang declares, “is the beauty we live for. Is closest to our ruin.” For a writer so committed to appreciation of high art, ruin may be the dulling of beloved artworks or encroachment by sociopolitical realities. Indeed, Fang’s engagement with Western art can be read within the current trend of Eastern appreciation for Western high culture, as evidenced in high Asian representation in Western Classical music; for example, Asians comprised more than half of the International Chopin Competition’s recent entrants. Whether this trend can survive increasingly fraught geopolitics remains uncertain. Chopin, living in exile after the partition of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, understood the toll of a homeland that no longer existed. Fang, in Burying the Mountain, mourns a homeland where he is not allowed to exist, and hints that his new abode may prove tenuous as well.
Angelo Mao is a scientist and writer. His first book of poems is Abattoir (Burnside Review Press, 2021). His work has appeared in Poetry, Georgia Review, Lana Turner, and elsewhere.
Shangyang Fang grew up in Chengdu, China, and composes poems both in English and Chinese. While studying civil engineering at University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign, he realized his bigger passion lies in the architecture of language and is now a poetry fellow at Michener Center for Writers. He is the recipient of the Joy Harjo Poetry Award and Gregory O’Donoghue International Poetry Prize. His name, Shangyang, originating from Chinese mythology, was a one-legged bird whose dance brought forth flood and rain.