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Bei Dao

Four poems

Translated by Clayton Eshleman and Lucas Klein


My shadow is dangerous
The performer employed by the sun
delivers final knowledge
which is empty

That is the dark nature
of the termite’s work
the footsteps through the air
of the smallest child of violence

The keyword, my shadow,
hammers the iron inside dreams
stepping to the rhythms
a lone wolf walks in

The dusk undefeated by anyone
the egret that writes on the water
a life    a day    a sentence

Landscape Over Zero, 1996


You are outside your window looking at your
whole life’s fluctuating beams

Eyes blinded out of jealousy
stars take off against the wind
surpassing death’s metaphor
unfolding morality’s landscape

At that place called Wellspring
the night finally catches up to you
its insomniac army
salutes the flag of solitude

Rolling and tumbling the night watchman
illuminates Baudelaire’s panicked flower
a cat leaps into the long night
dream tail flashing once

Landscape Over Zero, 1995

As Far as I Know

Only when those people advancing to the legend
cleared away its great mountain
was he born

I set out from that legend
to now arrive in another country
turning over alphabets
to fill each meal with meaning

On tiptoes to touch the mark of time
the war is still too distant
his father too close
He buries his head to pass a test
steps onto a boundless deck.

The walls have ears
but I must match his speed
to write!

He paints the road red
allows the fenghuang making
signs of dying to descend
Ambiguous roadsigns
encircle the winter—
even music is snowing!
I am extra careful
under each character is an abyss.

When a huge tree
quells wind from all eight directions
his garden
goes to waste from fantasy

Carelessly I flip through
his tarnished record
believing solely in flowers from the past.

He forged my signature
to grow into a man
switched coats with me
to infiltrate my nights
searching for that legend’s blasting

Landscape Over Zero,1995


A swarm of country moths attack the city
street lamps, spectral faces
long, slender legs holding up the night sky

There are specters, there is history
unmarked on the map a subterranean vein
is the thick nerve of Prague

Kafka’s youth passed through the square
dreams are cutting class, dreams
are the stern father sitting in the clouds

There is a father, there are rights of inheritance
a rat is wandering the palace halls
attendants to the shadows a bustling entourage

A carriage setting out from the century’s gate
turns into a tank midway
truth is choosing its enemies

There is truth, there is forgetting
a drunk quivering like a stamen in the breeze
shaking off the curse of dust

Traversing the bridge of time over the Vltava
River, entering the daylit glare
the ancient statues are full of enmity

There is enmity, there is splendor
a vendor mysteriously unfolds a swatch of velvet
please purchase this fine weather gathered by pearls.

Old Snow,1991


Earlier translations of these poems can be found in The August Sleepwalker (translated by Bonnie McDougall, New Directions, 1990) and Landscape Over Zero (translated by David Hinton and Yanbing Chen, New Directions, 1996). Landscape Over Zero includes the Chinese texts along with the English versions, but for “Prague,” from The August Sleepwalker, the reader of Chinese may consult Bei Dao shige ji 北岛诗歌集 (Nanhai chubanshe, 2003). Clayton Eshleman and Lucas Klein decided to offer alternatives to the McDougall and Hinton / Chen versions because they felt that, based on their knowledge of Bei Dao and his work, more accurate and substantial versions were possible. Bei Dao has given them permission to translate and to publish their versions of his poetry.


Photo of Bei Dao, Berlin, June 2001, by John Tranter

Photo of Bei Dao, Berlin, June 2001, by John Tranter

Bei Dao was born in Peking in 1949. He has lived in exile since 1989.

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