By Jerome Berglund
straw hats float like life preservers / in a white sea of cotton
George S. Patton once famously declared that pressure makes diamonds. Folk musician Robert Dylan similarly posited that ‘behind every beautiful thing, there’s been some kind of pain’. Dickens had his boot blacking sweatshop, Bukowski that dread post office, Plath a certain apiary. For one particular youth in mainland China during the Cultural Revolution and ever after the harrowing indignities and discomforts inflicted across his peculiar rice paddy, nearby cotton or soybean fields in young adulthood, and the ‘reeducating’ these locales supplied for him and an entire generation of disillusioned acolytes will come to loom large, rattling past and present, irrevocably informing and energizing the eventual scholar and educator’s tangible and subconscious worlds personally and professionally – shifting paradigms, granting heretofore unprecedented perspective, empathy, incredulity, butterfly wings precipitating an ocean’s worth of ripples outward in profound and fascinating fashions.
Containing a wealth of fresh, original content to marvel at, the newly released full-length poetry collection Dog Years of Reeducation also presents together some carefully selected, arranged, and essential chestnuts – polished or expanded upon, with a definitive, ‘directors cut’ feel – to ensure as complete and comprehensive as possible an exhibition from a widespread and extensive career of Jianqing Zheng publishing in different places, styles, and approaches discussing these topics and experiences, creating an essential showcase of the poet at his finest in discourse upon a subject deeply familiar and important to him – and germane for each of us also, in many relevant ways, wherever we reside or fit into discrete struggles for agency, autonomy, edification and community. Appreciators of his new book should also investigate a previous shorter collection by the author examining similar matters, Enforced Rustication, roughly half the length of this latest robust assembly of material.
Half a century having elapsed since their occurrence, these scenes have only grown more potent in the annals of recollection and grasping their rightful place in posterity, aging like a fine artisanal vintage, fermented and preserved with enormous care. Jianqing’s series has a decidedly Leaves of Grass nature; like the portfolio of Whitman’s representing an industrious life’s work, Zheng’s own magnum opus continues quietly shifting and expanding here, contracting there, everywhere pulsating with the most serious intention and disciplined searching for the perfect words and spaces to express and communicate an ephemeral feeling, convey ambivalence as to what ultimate moral (nor have such revelations remained static; comparing the earliest poems scrutinizing this era from first sections of book with the latest additions in the evolving conversation and debriefing makes for a wildly thought-provoking and stimulating exercise: ‘rusticated years / no longer taste bitter’?!) or lessons should be inferred, interpreted or gleaned, poignant but elusive truth which is slippery as a worm between one’s fingers.
When you feel the pain, the leeches already bloat with your blood.
If you are interested in history, knowledge, the quest for meaning and acceptance, desire to better understand global politics and the murky missteps of that Great Leap Forward in hopes of learning from and not repeating various miscalculations, intuiting happy accidental benefits, discerning glaring pitfalls so they may be avoided, then this will prove an indispensably didactic addition to every student of the human condition’s library. Observing one of the foremost modern masters in English language haiku and haibun applying his talents to such an ambitious, intimate cause and undertaking is truly riveting to witness.
Just as Henry Miller constructively plumbed his ‘Rosy Crucifixion’ period to great effect throughout his career, Edvard Munch would be plagued by an obsession with the image of his sister withering on her sickbed from tuberculosis, Billie Holiday’s nickname Lady served as a constant reminder and hearkening back to that nascence working with her mother in a house of ill repute (imaginably not dissimilar to the French equivalent in which Edith Piaf was almost identically matriculated), the same specter which has so long been haunting Europe made its presence no less felt in the formative years of one of America’s most revered and accomplished living poets of our generation as Jianqing Zheng ironically found his voice amongst crushing subjugation and pressure to remain silent and conform, traumas and anxieties both patent and invisible inherent of coming into maturity under the regime of Chairman Mao Zedong.
life in the fields / a fly trapped / in a web
In a tactic quite analogous to how Canadian and the American indigenous children were removed from their families and cultures, indoctrinated with Christian beliefs, clothing, hairstyles, robbed of their names, encouraged to not learn their ancestral language or traditions of sustainable agriculture and self reliance, the minutia and broad strokes of what in practice this romanticized initiative of working the land, receiving tutelage by agrarian castes amounted to is captivatingly illustrated here in a case study which should give every progressive reformer pause. This affecting period, equated in the opening poem – and revisited figuratively near the conclusion – to the dog-eared pages of a yellowed book, suffice to say made a lasting impression on its pupils, though a far cry from the sort responsible architects had envisioned it should. The particulars, details, and startlingly similar nuances of an approach ostensibly under the ironic pretenses of rejecting and revolting from capitalism’s peculiar brands of bondage and feudalism, yet creating for all intents and purposes a proletariat dictatorship every bit as tyrannous to the citizen and stifling for the intellectual, has been one of Jianqing’s lifelong fixations – looking back on with the bias of hindsight and a storied career’s amassed experiences with statecraft, philosophy, theory Eastern and Western both, viewed through diverse and holistic lenses.
It’s been said no one is a prophet in their own land. As with Joyce’s intensive, elevated depictions of an Ireland he remained permanently detached from after his exodus, something in the introduction of time and distance, the finality and confliction of expatriation – it’s no surprise or coincidence that one finds the wayfaring hobo and stray dog among Zheng’s recurring cast of characters; the third section of Dog Years begins ‘homesick / a seesaw creaks’ – facilitates much of literature’s most evocative reflections and deliberate meditating.
There is something quite archetypal and timeless about this narrative, from the Biblical Joseph impressed into service by a betrayal of his brothers, to the Athenian children sacrificed one after another to a labyrinth’s minotaur, and more contemporary local parallels such as the story of Solomon Northrup which inspired his memoir of repression and liberation 12 Years a Slave, the many unmistakable commonalities between the coerced physical labor and psychological hegemony exerted upon the individual throughout the People’s Republic of China in the late sixties and early seventies and the abominable practice of forced servitude upon which the Americas were founded – vestiges of which remain vital organs of the nation’s economy, rebranded and obscured through the entrapments of convict leasing – were immediately apparent upon emigrating from the land of his birth, Zheng could not fail to perceive in the Mississippi Delta region of the postbellum South he arrived in, has called home for over three decades.
The anecdotes and realizations of this collection represent an integral catalytic impetus, seeds which would sprout into a strong thread of solidarity and internationalism (e.g. in Delta Notes: ‘hayfield / blacks and whites work together / under the blue sky’; among academic contributions to the critical landscape the author has edited significant and acclaimed anthologies African American Haiku and the Other World of Richard Wright which include valuable articles on a range of subjects and exemplars) running across, perceptible admirably about the oeuvre of Jianqing – whose given name bears a noticeable resemblance to the word zhiqing, or ‘Educated Youth’, used to describe those millions of middle and high school aged adolescents shipped off to the countryside for compulsory drudgery and propagandistic training by provincial agents of supposed ideologic superiority. These preoccupations with class, oppression and homogenizing, affinities with experiences of marginalized and exploited American populations will be discerned and artfully cited for the reader’s attentive consideration innumerable places throughout Zheng’s vast and eclectic body of work; leitmotifs and correspondences become more obvious as one observes the mosaic each piece and facet comes to form when understood as a cohesive unit.
‘Night Life on the Farm’, one of Zheng’s signature and most provocative works is worth paying particularly close attention to, clearly represents a highly consequential and significant piece to this longstanding private puzzle of origins the poet has so worthily grappled with. In different iterations it has appeared in earlier collections, is here presented with a new intriguing ending and twist, serving as a vital backbone and means of grounding and contextualizing the work, offering an overarching through-line across a prolific literary journey and thirty years (in Delta Notes Jianqing wistfully ponders, ‘MLK Day / wondering what dreams / I’ve realized’, laments lacks of progress or improvement: ‘still a black and white pic / at the edge of cotton fields / a paint-flaking church’) of diligent composition and publications. The cotton towns of the United States, microcosms of sorts for the global south, and pickers who inhabit them, their distinctive field holler music (in Found Haiku, Delta Notes) reappear persistently, like Blues standards being covered by deft musicians old and new. Cigarettes as currency, smoking representing momentary release are also noteworthy recurring symbols and themes in many poems. The sparrows Mao failed to eradicate are frequently omnipresent, leaping, pecking, fluttering indomitably through many a storyline.
An initial string in Dog Years ‘Reel to Reel’ describes one young farmer (a father in an earlier variation of the piece, interestingly) in a rice paddy urging an ox through its plowing. Elsewhere the hill Myna blackbirds of his native land are described caged and free, engaged in hunger strike and parroting back basic phrases. Confined parakeets (present in Minis too) and a caged rooster similarly appear in collection The Porch. More overtly in Found Haiku one verse describes the residents of a plantation interning a large enclosure of tropical birds. In ‘Free Choice’ through the dying and style of a women’s hair identity and authenticity, self-determination in the face of or response to domineering societal pressures to superficially conform, toward a presumed aesthetic principle (something very relatable for African Americans past and present, females most particularly, in regards to hair and makeup traditions) is beguilingly relayed. In many areas throughout the author’s writings, the melon as seasonal delicacy and bucolic staple both Asian and American, figures prominently and enigmatically in different usages. There is also a question of qualification, appropriation superbly broached or posed countless times, such as a remarkable verse in Delta Notes: delta tour / a cell phone’s blues ring / in a tourist’s purse. No clear or straightforward answers exist for such perplexing inquiries, and the koan aspect, element of reflecting upon complexities at length lends much value and interest to each of the author’s incisive investigations.
If I never acquainted myself with local peasants…
How a surging populist movement representing groundswells of consensus and public support may compromise its ideals egregiously, a nation can flippantly forsake its population, a generation can misuse (the Emmett Till tragedy subtly galvanizes many of Zheng’s poems, including memorable pieces exploring Money and the Tallahatchie River in Delta Sun) and manipulate their youth, a zealot excuses and consents to problematic means for justifying lofty ends, the way conflating babies and bathwater invariably lead to misunderstandings in the highest echelons perverting objectives, fomenting ignorance, discouraging critical thinking (a scene of apple picking, as well as a striking verse from Zheng’s collection of sequences Minis comes to mind: ‘on every window / of the school shines / a morning sun’; a passage in Found Haiku is also germane: ‘hidden track / through cotton fields – / a train of dust’), fostering complacent automatons rather than the spirited striving toward actualization necessary to achieve a post-scarcity economy, predicated upon learning and constant challenging of imperfect institutions, infrastructure of both commerce and the state… These subjects provide the poet with no shortage of powerful raw material, the careful synthesis of which has required a lengthy and painstaking brewing process which finds some of the most coherent and urgent articulation yet in The Dog Years of Reeducation released this year by Madville Publishing. Daring readers who seek this book out shall encounter compelling contents both immensely edifying and tremendously enjoyable to peruse.
You can find the book here: https://madvillepublishing.com/product/dog-years/#:~:text=About%20The%20Dog%20Years%20of%20Reeducation%3A%20Poems%20by,countryside%20to%20receive%20reeducation%20from%20the%20poor%20peasants
Jerome Berglund has published book reviews and scholarly articles in Frogpond, Fireflies Light, Valley Voices and more. He has also published poetry in short form in Asahi, Shimbun, Bottle Rockets, Modern Haiku and more. Twitter