Skip to main content

#goodchinesereads ~ Han Dong

Four poems by Han Dong, translated by Nicky Harman and Maghiel van Crevel

Flash Reviews

Max Mason 13/7/20

Stripped bare of lucid erudition, the poetry of Han Dong reads like the beginning of an earthquake. Put one’s ear to its surface and it rings with something barely decipherable, yet eerily recognisable. Often you’re waiting, reticent, cautious, in that uniquely poetic space that Marianne Elliot called ‘a place for the genuine’, to be struck by certainty or emotional exposure. The effect of this anticipation however – a speaker caught in the throws of the domestic, voyeurism or in psychological disarray – for me catapults Han Dong into the league of great poets. I can’t help but compare his tight, musical cadences, and the judicial balance between public and private, to that of Yeats or Whitman.

So what are we eagerly anticipating from his poetry? He catches our attention only to describe an absurd account of a loud noise, or a poverty-stricken waitress, or something – left attentively nameless – shifting away. Whatever conclusion I happened to expect was held at arm's length; the lines are opened up to allow a dilating, onward progression, yet the poems seem to loop back on themselves, interlock into complex mosaics, or attempt to eddy any narrative flow. The tension between action and inaction; evolution versus devolution, takes technical skill for any poet and is still masterfully balanced.

Even with this deliberate antithesis, the poems still resonate with unforgettable images of cruelty, mystery and beauty. The stringent honesty of Han Dong’s presentation of the waitress – the scruffy reverse image of China’s 1980s economic boom – is leavened by the nuanced details of her clothing. I was particularly struck by the structure of Someone in a Riot of Stones – the fast-paced, run-off lines perfectly depict not only the creature’s frenetic energy, but also its ability to elude sight and capture. Aside from formal precision, his poetry reflects not just a political reality but the human soul. I was compelled to emote to a speaker lost in There is Darkness , as the timely repetition of the title word echoes like a tolling bell, reminding us of the inescapable terror of feeling trapped.

The poetry of Han Dong is simply spellbinding and a particular must-read for any aspiring writers. Like an earthquake, once you can hear what’s beneath the surface, it’s impossible to ignore.

Sean Barrs 16/11/18

Chinese poetry is deceptive when gazed upon by the eyes of the western reader. It all appears so simple and so basic! Even classic poems by Chinese greats such as Du Fu and Wang Wei look underdeveloped. And it is easy to dismiss when compared to the complexities associated with the language employed by the likes of Milton, Pope and Shakespeare; however, to dismiss it so would be a real crime. Han Dong proves a case in point.

The brilliance of Chinese poetry resides in images, of the ever-moving effervescent display of life it so precisely captures. Accuracy and directness are its leading tenants. Han Dong’s poetry addresses the commonplace but underneath it all runs a startling current of displacement, for things that are not meant to be where they are. Through the beautiful waitress who has spent a year working in a poor restaurant, to the rock climber ill at ease with his task and to the broken cup surrounded by quietness, the poems press forward with the idea that there is far more than mere surfaces project. An image, a moment in time, can have an entire history, and though we may not know it exactly, it is always there under the apparent simplicity.

Please do not be one of those people that dismiss Chinese poetry, come read the work of Han Dong and let the words flow over you as you look beneath the surfaces and consider the implication of the scenes he conjures. There is much more happening here, you just need to decide what it is.


Lin Su , 4/9/17

It is tempting, for a first-time reader of Han Dong’s poems, to dismiss them offhand for their seeming simplicity. What is worth recording, for instance, about the fallen chopping-board that broke the domestic tranquility? The hand-me-down outfit of a young woman? What Han Dong’s poems offer us is a momentary stay against the confusion of a centrifugal world—made possible only by practice of focalization. The four carefully selected poems, rendered beautifully by the competent hands of translators Nicky Harman and Maghiel van Crevel, intermingle the domestic with the uncanny and the physical with the metaphysical. Han Dong’s exceptional sensibility concentrates but does not eliminate. The placid surface and meditative serenity of Han Dong’s poems hold together the myriad tensions simmering beneath the merely
phenomenal—the potentially ominous clamor breaking the quietude in “A Loud Noise”, the unsettlingly honest confession of empathy mixed with libidinous flow in “Waitress”, the precarious climber among the riotous rocks in “Someone in a Riot of  Stones” and the shrouding obscurity in “There is a Darkness.”

Readers familiar with the poet’s biography will perhaps be tempted to scout around for political implications—Han Dong lived through the tumultuous years of Cultural Revolution as a youngster when both of his parents were banished to the countryside—such readers, however, ought to be warned that poetry is at its strongest when it cannot be reduced to manifesto or testimony. One is advised, when reading Han Dong’s poems, to try and appreciate how the experiential is refracted in the prism of the poet’s mind and becomes something much more nuanced and refined. If anything, Han Dong teaches us the value of detachment that enables astute observation of the life-world—“I notice forest darkness although I am not in the forest.”