At the Sky's Edge: Poems 1991-1996
If you value the poetry of the past quarter-century, and you do not already own Forms of Distance (1994) and Landscape Over Zero (1996) by Bei Dao (pseudonym of Zhao Zhenkai), then At the Sky's Edge belongs in your collection.
Bei Dao, known for his role as the poetic voice of the Democracy Movement in China and as the leader of the "misty" school of Chinese poets, combines surreal images with a simplicity of diction that echoes the classic Chinese lyricists. David Hinton's translation is economical in the spirit of Rexroth's translations of Li Po and Tu Fu without giving up the outrageous in Bei Dao's vision or the dark sense of humor. The graceful calligraphy of this bilingual edition is a welcome addition, clarifying Hinton's role as a translator rather than one writer imitating another's poems in a different language.
The exile that dominates Bei Dao's life since 1989 is always present in these lyrics. Witness lines from "Midnight Singer":
is an ever hostile tree
beyond the border
it unleashes its promise
that wolf-pack feeding on tomorrow.
Constant, also, is his sense of driving metaphor as far as it will go, only to tie it firmly to the actual:
is the death of a singer
pressed into black records
singing over and over and over.
At the Sky's Edge allows us to hear directly from a certified hero about the cost of asserting individuality in a society that renounces the individual. It is also heroic, as I see it, to turn bitterness into beauty without betraying it into sentimentality.