A poem by Bei Dao

I thought I’d include a slightly more “difficult” poem in my radically accessible series. It’s a poem in translation, so it’s one step removed from the original, which may account for some of its obliqueness. It’s difficult only in that the images don’t connect in a completely linear fashion. Still, the sense comes through clearly, I think.

The poem is by the Chinese poet, Bei Dao (the pen name of Zhao Zhenkai), who was exiled in 1989.  This requiem is written for those who died in the Tianamen Square demonstrations. About it he has said “a  poet does have the responsibility to be the memory of his people…and this is especially true in China where there is a state policy of national amnesia. The government would like the people to forget that Tiananmen ever occurred.” In any case, I find the end especially moving, the many dead embracing each other closely in the register of deaths.


Not the living but the dead
under the doomsday-purple sky
go in groups
suffering guides forward suffering
at the end of hatred is hatred
the spring has run dry, the conflagration stretches unbroken
the road back is even further away

Not gods but the children
amid the clashing of helmets
say their prayers
mothers breed light
darkness breeds mothers
the stone rolls, the clock runs backwards
the eclipse of the sun has already taken place

Not your bodies but your souls
share a common birthday every year
you are all the same age
love has founded for the dead
an everlasting alliance
you embrace each other closely
in the massive register of deaths

Bei Dao


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