Wang Qiang (Mai Cheng) or, Two Poetic Nights in Dalian

I met the poet Mai Cheng 麦城 (pen name of Wang Qiang 王强, left, pictured here with Yan Li 严力) a number of years back in Seattle, which is to say totally out of his element.  I met him again two weeks ago, this time in Dalian, his very own city.  By ‘his very own’ I mean that the man seems to own the city, and not only because he is a wealthy real estate developer,  wealthy enough in fact that he doesn’t bother to develop much anymore.  I say “owns” because his command of his environment, via the highly understimated medium of the language of poetry, is near complete.  Wang Qiang is, in other words, a successful contemporary Chinese business man who also happens also to be Mai Cheng, one of the best poets of his generation.

Take, for instance, “After a Dream Passes Over”

A dream paved my way to the city
A glimpse provided by a surge
From an out-of-date battery
Showed a different view of my native ground
The silence on the left side of the road
Persuaded the silence on the right
By order of the street light
A Glass elevator
Slowly lifted my social standing
And the marriage that fell in line behind it
Was bottled by pop songs from Taiwan
With their imported melodies
As Theresa Teng’s singing style
Moved from outer to inner regions
There I was, sitting at the most reflective part
Of a transparent screen
Watching mannerisms of wealth enter and leave
My gaze was hijacked
By lurid signs winking through glass
But behind that gaze
Was yet another gaze
A teenager’s red mini-skirt
Scorched by toughness under her skin
Opens a split at the seam
The bartender measures precisely
Two densities of liquor in a glass
A woman pours liquor for a man
His spinning head leaps toward her recesses
In places where nightfall lies in heaps
New darkness embraces old darkness
Spurred by the dream, I try on a new status
Leather shoes, neckties, trench coat
Like a turned-off lamp
Turned on once again
I hurry after another lamp’s light
At a crossing the signal light
Brings my dream to a halt
Along with the self that rambled in dreams
Now night-blue air stretches before me
I try to use it, to elevate the night to higher quality
Then, over the canyon of discarded experience
To make the leap
To go or not to go?
After the dream passes over
(translation is by Denis Mair and appears in Selected Poems: Mai Cheng [London: Shearsman Books, 2008], pp 57-59)

Sight is the operative sense in the work, appropriately for the city, particularly at night.  Mai Cheng is seeing–mini skirts and skin, liquor glasses, glass elevators, and street lamps. But he is also seen, in new clothes, in an orderly marriage, in reflections.  While occupying a rather difficult space of both agent and object of gaze, he can also be found listening carefully, to pop songs, and to the commanding sound of silence that both frames his native ground, again street level, and opens it up as a “night-blue air” that remarkably “stretches” before him.  This unbroken transition from the concrete to the abstract, a rising to higher quality over “discarded experience” seems so familiar, so apt, even for the reader who is none of the things Mai Cheng is.

There is no question that the “value” of Mai Cheng’s voice can be in part attributed to his financial success, a fact which pervades a contemporary Chinese society reduced too often to crass calculations and cost-benefit analysis.  In such a context, if it doesn’t sell, it doesn’t matter.  And poetry doesn’t sell.  On the other and I believe equally important hand, the successful business wo/man in contemporary China is increasingly in need of poetry, and all that poetry symbolizes.  The question, I suppose, is when that need for poetry becomes more acute (such that poetry might in fact jus sell), will there be anyone there to write it?  At the moment, fortunately, Wang Qiang is on the scene.   Let’s hope he lasts.


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