Poetry by Zhu Zhu

clearing in the woods

*****i gain peace, peace after execution, head left aside.
*****around, sympathetic roofs line up, leaning close against each other. shadows of villagers flit past, only after they disappear into deep alleys, heated cries sound.

blue smoke


clear bangs;
a coiled bun,
a standard little lady.
her oval face looks like a peach
that repays the climate ahead of its time.

crossing her legs, turning her body halfway around, an elbow on a small table,
a burning cigarette between her fingers (once the cigarette is finished,
someone will hand her another one and then walk away). in the room
she must maintain her posture until the end,
a photographer walks back and forth, a painter stares at his canvas,
a fly wants to fly through the glass, she watches and wants to vomit.

at night, she wraps her arms with a towel of ice.


they continue to work the next day. she sits again
on the small round stool, lights a cigarette. the painter
talks to her briefly in a low voice, and asks where she comes from and her name.
the photographer has not come yet, perhaps he will not come?
through the window behind the painter’s back, she can see the bund. the river
beats upon wood stakes. a sloop sails toward the deserted island on the other shore.

a trolley rushes by in the ringing of the rickshaw bell. she
thinks of soft cushions at guanshengyuan, thinks of her bottom
that is not round enough, not as bubbly as a black lady’s.
now she forgets that she is being painted, and continues to smoke,

rings of smoke slowly spit out.
something behind the easel bangs on the ground.
the painter’s shady eyeholes scrutinize her again and startle
her. she lowers her head, while smoothing
over the cheongsam that has already curled up the deep of her thighs.
today it goes by much faster.


the next few days she feels
that she does not have to be fully present in her posture, or
leave it completely inattentive.

she sits there, as if wrapped
in a thin mask of expression, thin as her blue and white colored cheongsam.
inside the mask—
she is already wandering the streets, already
lies lazily on a long couch and parts her legs
yawning in a loud voice, already
runs in the canola fields by the edge of the sky that yellows the streams.

the photographer appears once again.
the thick and unbelievably long lens pokes out
of the leathered body, so close that it presses on her face,
she yields and smiles him a sweet smile.

a record player:
“rose rose blossoms everywhere”: (1)
yongchunhe (2) sends someone over to keep them company.


she starts to run out of the mask,
and stands by the painter to see the painting:
the lady in the painting looks like and not like her,
he puts on too much makeup on her face,
the hand that holds the cigarette too delicate,
her breasts in his painting hide instead of bulging under her silk clothes
and he paints the wall in her shadow
as a strange waterfall
stiff and static.
only a wisp of smoke that rises from between her fingers
which looks as if it floats, floating in the air.

she also finds out that this painter
in fact has long finished the painting,
and the long days after, every day
he does nothing but fiddle with that wisp of smoke.



(1) A Paramount jazz song popular on the Bund in Shanghai during the 1930s.

(2) The full name is Yongchunhe Tobacco Corporation, namely the firm that hired the prostitute in the poem as its advertising model.

the wild great wall


label of the earth surface
or a strangled trace deep in memory, vanishing
upon invasion of sandstorms and droughts
into mountains whose skin tone is ever closer to ours.

we were once here. even
a young solider conscripted from a small town
would stand tall and with the heart of a rich man
judge aliens through piles of arrows,
the herd of people, no better than beasts crawling in wasteland.

here, we have already built a giant bathtub,
to soak ourselves in warm and languid routine.
when women play on a swing in the garden,
men’s eyes seek out reflections in the water;

barely-cooked bloody meat too uncouth,
the eaves of our civilization
now exacting to the last stretch of an upward tip.


now, go through
the most thorough of all destructions:
forgetting—it is like

a reptile spine
moving toward the end of its weathering,
mountain ridges full of jurassic quietude,
as the setting sun moves away, the engine dies slowly down,
the remnant light falls like rusty arrows.

i come to trace the life that disappeared long before our birth,
as if the philological fingers knock in anguish
the ridge of an empty shell,
whose inside has been picked clean.


in the peach trees on the steep slope,
bees hum and buzz around,
they have set up a campsite
in a nearby beacon tower
that has been smashed like crockery.

their song seems to say:
everything returns to nature…

wild grass like fingers deep in the earth,
like a fiery ghost troop with halberds and lances held high
climbs onto collapsed steps,
this moment, countless startled landscapes
must be fluttering and fleeing off the walls from museums everywhere.

small town

Là, tout n’est qu’ordre et beauté,
Luxe, calme et volupté.
*****— Charles Baudelaire, “L’invitation au voyage”



early in the morning before the window i
drink coffee, before my eyes, the hotel’s

big garden, flowers in bloom,
bushes trimmed even;

besides a gravel footpath
stands a statue of a half-naked goddess,

around me, soft murmurs of people talking,
their elegant manners closely resemble

glassware on the table
and reflective silverware.


moored yachts fill the old harbor,
ropes slack on the mast as if strings

wait to be tightened to be plucked violently by wind—
most tables in cafés along the shore still empty;

thousands of tourists
will come here in summertime.

when i walk along the pine forest
to the beach, past those mansions

and a big park—
in the cold and clean air

there is a void
different from the taste of poverty and despair,

more like a velvet-carpeted prison,
or a hospital with a fountain where the privileged stay.


late night i stroll alone in the city,
and find a bar by its music,

and sink myself
in the golden foam of beer,

deep in my dejected mind
the verse of baudelaire like a curse

lingers still, as if i
were him, halfway through the voyage

a night stuck in the mauritius bay,
listening to slaves whipped in the deep forest

as if poems of mine written in the past
echo in my face.


is it that when a man walks too far,
he wants to return to pick up his name,

family history, and the broken-down cradle?
is it that he hates being trailed by shadows

and once gone,
freedom means ennui?

isn’t it that i am already twisted
like a rusty spring,

its elasticity lost?
isn’t it that in complete darkness

i can only feel the truth of existence?
like a whirlwind or engulfing torrents,

sharp hidden reefs
and terrifying swirls of water,

that bring to sailors the feeling instead,
of having a life squarely snatched in arms.


my memory heavy, in a split second,
can turn lips to mud,

my love sticky, like an
unbreakable umbilical cord—

my happiness, a perishable rope railing on a cliff,
my landscape, an ancient abyss.

unable to sleep in this midnight hotel,
i open the window to suck

on the ice-cold sea wind, i long to return
—as i longed for the first sail.

our entire life is
the peach blossom spring and its foe.


Zhu Zhu

Zhu Zhu was born in Yangzhou, P.R. China. He is a poet, critic, and curator of art exhibitions, and has published numerous volumes of poetry and prose, including Drive to Another Planet, Salt on Wilted Grass, Blue Smoke, The Trunk, Stories, Vertigo, and Grey Carnival—Chinese Contemporary Art since 2000. Zhu’s honors include Liu Li’an and Anne Kao national poetry prizes, the French International Poetry Val-de-Marne Fellowship, the Chinese Contemporary Art Award for Critics, and the Henry Luce Foundation's Chinese Poetry Fellowship at the Vermont Studio Center.

Dong Li

Dong Li was born and raised in P.R. China. He is Literature Fellow at Akademie Schloss Solitude 2015-2017 as well as German Chancellor Fellow with the Alexander von Humboldt Foundation 2015-2016. He was Colgate University’s Olive B. O’Connor Poet-in-Residence 2013-2014. His honors include fellowships from Yaddo, Vermont Studio Center, Millay Colony, and the PEN/Heim Translation Fund. His writing has appeared or is forthcoming in Kenyon Review, Conjunctions, Black Warrior Review, Barrow Street, Cincinnati Review, manuskripte (Austria, in German translation), and elsewhere. His translations have appeared or are forthcoming in World Literature Today, Circumference, Asia Literary Review, PEN America, Guernica, and elsewhere.

Copyright (c) Zhu Zhu, 2011. English translation copyright (c) Dong Li, 2016.