Wang Yin’s A Summer Day in the Company of Ghosts

Published by New York Review Books’ Poets series in August 2022, A Summer Day in the Company of Ghosts is a new bilingual collection of Shanghai poet Wang Yin (王寅)’s poetry from 1980s to recent years. Ghe original Chinese text iz accompanied by Andrea Lingenfelter’s English translation.

“A summer day in the company of ghosts / My wildly beating heart fills with anguish.”

From the very first glance, Wang Yin’s poetry is rife with contradictions and oppositions, juxtaposing the hot and the cold, the passionate and the painful. Looking at poetry as a site where contradictions experienced in life are best understood by their subtleties is key to reading Wang Yin’s writing, who excels in assembling imageries that don’t seem to fit, verbalizing ambiguous feelings and emotions: 

There’s sunlight in this voice

There’s a song in these bones

There’s a transparent gap in this lamplight

There’s rain in this red dress

and blood in this dance

This is the first stanza of the poem “灰光灯”(“Limelight/Greylight”), which also lends the title to a collection of Wang’s poetry published in China in 2015. In the Translator’s Note, Andrea Lingenfelter mentions the Chinese word which means “limelight” is a compound word that contains “grayness” and “light”, hence the “greylight” in the title to keep this meaning. She writes, “Wang Yin was captivated by the paradoxical ambiguity embodied by this image as a source of both light and shadow–a light that contains darkness.”

The paradoxical ambiguity that Lingenfelter describes preserves contradictions as an essential part of the human experience. This is manifested through the poet’s unique poetic style of both proximity and distance: in Wang Yin’s poetry, compassion is conveyed through a restrained voice, as he distances himself from the immediate site of happenings, while still engaging with them through his poetic language: “After peeling an apple / I heard a distant apple tree / topple with a crash.” In three simple lines, Wang manages to connect the quotidian, trivial event of the peeling of an apple, to the metaphorical, distant toppling of an apple tree. Carried out with an elegant, calm, and detached voice, the poem leaves a lingering aftertaste of feelings hard to decipher.

This sense of distance in his voice brings out another central theme in Wang’s poetry: “untimeliness”–the contradiction of time, and in particular  the poet’s incompatibility with the present. “You tell me you miss those / slow-paced days of the past / the equally leisurely pace of bicycles / and leaky wristwatches.” In his poetry, especially the more recent poems, Wang writes frequently about the past or the faraway, regarding himself as untimely or out-of-place with his present here-and-now: “We’re both out of step with the times.”

Oftentimes, these feelings culminate in both frustration as well as a determination to still go back to what’s unretrievable now: “The headless fish and seashells flung / to the shore can never return to the sea.” His mind constantly flies from the present to a time in history, or a place in a distant land, spaces and times that he left behind but can’t stop looking back to: “like past events you don’t remember / until someone mentions them, like bullets / piercing the body of a gazelle.” 

In a poem titled “The Task of the Poet, Written in Vermont After Robert Bly,” he expresses his vision of poetry as a task to resist delving into the immediate local, but instead write about what’s years and miles away:

I shouldn’t write the poems I haven’t gotten around to writing yet

Or poems about this place

Instead, I should open my ears and listen

To the cracking of iron

Thousands of miles away

This situates Wang Yin, who is commonly classified as a post-Misty poet, in the Chinese poetic tradition that seems to always go back to the idea of “looking back,” or a sentimentality of nostalgia. Although written in various foreign cities, influenced by and referring to foreign literatures and cultures, writing always seems to take him back to somewhere that he was familiar with, where he can settle both his responsibilities as a (Chinese) poet and his personal nostalgia. His poetry maybe should be read as “just an untimely pause / a drop of rain inside a raindrop,” through which he approaches the past, feelings, and memories, without fully mastering them or getting there.

The sense of contradiction and ambiguity in his poetry can then perhaps be seen as a part of Wang’s poetic project to refuse the elucidating of things and resist certainty and rigidity of utterances. A great part of this effect owes to the obscurity of language itself, as a line goes–“you’ve started to love obscure words.” This obscurity is achieved through the Chinese language’s unique potential of staying obscure and inviting multiple interpretations. A line as simple as “秋天凋落的头发” can be interpreted as “autumn’s withered hair,” “withered hair in autumn,” or “hair that withers in autumn.” The obscurity retained by the Chinese language turns the poems into an open, undefined space, filled with only sentiments floating in the air, never to be fully grasped. This indeterminacy embedded in the Chinese language is unavoidably  hindered slightly when translated into English–not even taking into consideration the several instances where mistranslation happens. This means that for readers who can’t read Chinese, the experience of experiencing Wang Yin’s poetry will have to be compromised to a certain extent.

Nonetheless, while taking it into consideration, this should not discourage you from reading this collection: despite what’s lost in translation, the overflowing sentiments in Wang’s poetry still manage to shine through in English. As contemporary Chinese poetry doesn’t get translated and published internationally so often, this is an opportunity to enter the realm of contemporary Chinese poetry that you should not miss.