So begins the poem, “Memories,” in Jianqing Zheng’s collection of poems about the time he spent after high school in the Chinese countryside, during the Cultural Revolution, in the late 1960’s, early 1970’s. Launched by Chairman Mao, the goal of the Cultural Revolution was to purge remnants of capitalist and traditional elements from Chinese society. In keeping with this goal, urban high school graduates were sent to the country to be “re-educated” by the peasants. These poems, then, are essentially Zheng’s memories of that time. They are also, notably, often written in the imagistic form, characteristic not only of Pound’s poetry but of traditional Chinese poetry as well.
Mao Zedong’s memory is central to this collection, as well. It opens with the poem, “Picture-taking in the Cultural Revolution,” on an image of the narrator having his graduation photograph taken, close to half a century ago. “With a Chairman Mao badge / pinned on my cotton coat,” he writes, the photographer directs him through the process, but just as the flashbulb goes off, Zheng blinks. “In the resulting picture // only Mao’s eyes were open, / not smiling.”.
The title of the penultimate poem in the collection, “Maostalgia,” a clever play on the concept of these memories, succinctly describes the whole rustication process he endured.
The short answer, of course, is “he’s the guy who completely shook up my life when I was a teenager.” But Zheng merely points to the portrait above the gate of Tiananmen and replies, “He’s hanging over there.” Zheng, who immigrated to the United States many years ago, now lives in Mississippi, where he works for the University of Mississippi Press.
But the bulk of the poems in this collection are indeed imagistic, without editorial comment, and take us through the daily and seasonal tedium of life in the country, working in rice paddies, planting and picking cotton, interacting with a variety of co-workers (Yi, Pigsy, Horse among them). “Night Life on the Farm,” “Morning Chat,” “Lunchtime,” “Break,” “Before Supper,” “Rice Planting,” “Man on the Front Porch,” “Playing Solitaire”: the titles of these poems and many others like them tell you the quotidian subjects of the verse, the implicit tedium that is not without a certain serenity as well. “In the Cotton Fields” begins: “Cotton picking is as drab as reciting / Chairman Mao’s little red book.” If this wry observation is not enough to convey the thought, consider the gorgeous image of the final stanza, like something out of a French Impressionist painting:
The poem “Hunger” continues this theme of bland tedium.
By the time we get to the poem, “Waiting,” we can feel the desolation brought on by the tedium. “When can I also go back to town? / I’ve been waiting the whole winter….” The poem concludes with his resignation: “I clench my desperation, listening / to frozen rain tinkling the roof….”
In the next poem, “Goodbye,” Zheng gets his wish. He leaves the farm before dawn, his college admission letter in his pocket, going without fanfare, not wanting to endure the goodbyes of his workmates
There’s a calm stillness in these poems that belies the seriousness of this time for millions of lives, but the impact is nevertheless felt in these spare, imagistic verses.
You can find the book here:
Charles Rammelkamp is Prose Editor for Brick House Books in Baltimore, where he lives, and Reviews Editor for Adirondack Review. His most recent books include American Zeitgeist(Apprentice House) and a chapbook, Jack Tar’s Lady Parts ( Main Street Rag Press). Another poetry chapbook, Me and Sal Paradise, is forthcoming from Future Cycle Press.