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No Trace of the Gardener: Poems of Yang Mu (review)

From: Manoa
Volume 11, Number 2, 1999
pp. 206-207 | 10.1353/man.1999.0031

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Manoa 11.2 (1999) 206-207

Book Review

No Trace of the Gardener: Poems of Yang Mu

No Trace of the Gardener: Poems of Yang Mu. Translated by Lawrence R. Smith and Michelle Yeh. New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1998. 239 pages, cloth $35.

No Trace of the Gardener presents a selection of poems written between 1958 and 1991 by Chinese poet Yang Mu. Born Wang Ching-hsien in Taiwan in 1940, he used a variety of pen names, including Yeh Shan, up until 1972, when he began using Yang Mu.

Growing up in Taiwan, Yang Mu learned Mandarin, Taiwanese, and Japanese. In 1964 he came to the United States, where he attended the University of Iowa and received his master-of-fine-arts degree in 1966. He then went on to study at the University of California-Berkeley and received a doctorate in comparative literature in 1970. He currently teaches at the University of Washington and serves as dean at National Dong Hwa University in Taiwan. Yang Mu's biculturalism is a source of strength in his writing, and he brings the tradition of classical Chinese poetry into modern times.

No Trace of the Gardener presents Yang Mu's work in four sections, arranged chronologically. The early poems have a tender, haunting lyricism. In the opening poem, "The Woman in Black," the presence of the woman is mysterious, yet immediate, and although in the second stanza the speaker says he will wipe off her various influences, one feels he will be unable to do so:

Drifting here and there between my eyelashes
standing outside the door, remembering the ocean tides
the woman in black is a cloud. Before the storm
I wipe the rainy landscape from my window
wipe the shadow off the wutong tree
wipe you off

The poems in section two reveal a deepening vision and display greater complexity. "Nocturne Number Two: Melting Snow" is in three parts; the third is outstanding in its keen articulation of rhythm and a musical tension that harnesses sound and silence:

At last it falls like irresistible
melancholy. Touch it, you wouldn't know
that it's tears -- ripe fruit
biting wind, autumn of dna
Perching crows set the tune. If you don't believe it
sit down and listen with all your sleep
At first I thought
the strings broke in protest against war
in fact it was hunger, three thousand miles of hunger
flapping wings across a night of mounting tension
followed by ubiquitous fatigue
gracing the anticipated harvest: pick a branch or tree at random
listen well as it moistens and floods
an autumn-water night

In addition to writing in the lyrical, meditative mode, Yang Mu -- as was the case with many classical Chinese poets -- does not shy away from a social and political critique. However, these political poems are never heavy-handed, and they follow Emily Dickinson's injunction to "Tell all the truth, but tell it slant." In "Kao-hsiung, 1973," when the speaker of the poem witnesses "thirty-five thousand female workers leaving work at the same time," the situation is presented in the form of reportage rather than in the form of social critique. The poem creates a wonderful tension between the factual presentation and the emotional undercurrent that periodically rises to the surface.

From sections three and four, it is clear that Yang Mu has assimilated a variety of influences from the West. There are sonnet sequences, as well as poems that show that Lorca and Coleridge are active forces incorporated into his wider poetic vision. In "Someone Asks Me about Justice and Righteousness," it is moving to see how a simple line can become a refrain that acts as a musical bass line that grounds the wide-ranging meditation of the poem.

In the introduction to No Trace of the Gardener, Yang Mu says, "If poetry, or the organic life of culture as a whole, is to be worthy of persistence, we must seek its definition in the process of experimentation and breakthrough." For me, the overall effect of reading through this collection and surveying the evolution of Yang Mu's work is impressive. He has a restless energy...


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