Yang Lian, A Tower Built Downwards, trans. Brian Holton, Bloodaxe, 2023: Jason Allen-Paisant, Self-Portrait as Othello, Carcanet, 2023
Reviewed by Simon Collings
Yang Lian is one of the most highly regarded mainland Chinese poets writing today. A Tower Built Downwards is the fifth book of his verse, in English translation, to be published by Bloodaxe. The poems are translated by Yang’s long-term collaborator Brian Holton.
The inside flap of the front cover describes Yang as living in ‘enforced exile since 1989’. But his story is more complicated than this descriptor implies, as the reader will soon discover. Several of the poems are clearly based on recent trips by Yang to China. ‘Monday, with West Lake for a Backdrop’, for example, describes a visit to the famous tourist attraction, Xi Lake, in the city of Hangzhou. The title of another poem reads: ‘Touching a Set of Western Zhou Dynasty Bells in Shanghai Museum’.
At the time of the Tiananmen Square massacre (4 June 1989), Yang was in Auckland at a conference on poetry and translation. He organised protests against the Chinese government in New Zealand and as a result had renewal of his passport denied by the Chinese authorities, forcing him to apply for political asylum. He spent several years wandering before settling in London where he is now based, with his wife Yo Yo, a prose writer. But Yang has been visiting China since 1993, has spent time there teaching and is published in China by official publishers, albeit with some censoring of his more critical work.
From the 1990s Chinese culture has become increasingly commercial, creating space for independent artists. Poets, novelists and filmmakers are now able to secure wider distribution for their work. Like many dissident Chinese artists Yang has engaged with these shifting dynamics. His international fame makes him attractive to Chinese publishers and he uses his status to negotiate the limits of state control.
The events of 1989 and the years which immediately followed had a marked effect on Yang. At the time of his exile he spoke no English, and as a result he experienced significant social isolation. In a paper published in 2019, the scholar Qing Liao characterises Yang’s work as marked by a ‘ghost poetics’ which he says ‘are manifested through use of a ghost persona, repetition, and the mood of haunting stasis.’1 Yang’s exilic poetry is imbued with this sense of living death. Qing says:
Writing about his lifeless experience in the early exilic years […] Yang conjures the separation between body and spirit. Here, Yang refuses to give peace to the dead who can exit the world neither by descending to hell nor by ascending to the heavens, but rather are deployed in an endless, torturous cycle of darkness and pain.
This is very much the tone of the poetry of A Tower Built Downwards. The mood is solemn, melancholy, at times angry, and clearly haunted by recent events: the Covid pandemic, the war in Ukraine, and Yang’s father’s death in 2020.
At the heart of the collection is the long poem ‘A Tower Built Downwards’ from which the volume takes its title. It’s a sombre poem of great power, reprising many of the themes of Yang’s work. In the rest of this review I will focus specifically on this poem as it embodies all of Yang’s major preoccupations in this collection.
The poem is in seven sections, the first of which describes a sculpture by Ai Weiwei of a tree, first exhibited in 2021. Ai found the ancient, 34m tall tree of the Caryocar genus while investigating deforestation in the Amazon and China’s role in it. The sculpture was made by creating a scaffold around the trunk and taking moulds. These were then cast in iron and the tree assembled from the moulded sections.
In Yang’s poem the sculpture becomes a metaphor for the role of art, and by implication the poem, in bearing witness to life and the constant threats it faces. The sculpted tree is a ghost of the living tree witnessing to its threatened extinction, In the opening section the poet writes:
a tower’s fictional immensity
overlooks its own fictional insignificance
Amazon leaves that pretend to shine
lift our broken book in motion
screw tight the logic of forgery
irreversible life begins from a welding flame
bitter fleshes begin from a cast-iron concept
assemble a skin piece by piece what’s touched seems true
the truest impossibility is called aesthetics
a dead tree endlessly strips off images
growth art installs our ruins ( page 120 )
Section two of the poem addresses Yang’s father’s death in hospital in China, Yang unable to be with him because of Covid quarantine rules. The scene in the hospital room is vividly evoked, ‘the lonely perfume of daffodils thousands of miles away is an Eternal Flame’, ‘the murmur of snow thawing on the eaves’, all of this experienced via a cell phone. Yang’s father made him learn classical Chinese poetry by heart when he was a child, a training which has strongly marked Yang’s poetry. His father’s love of the classical poets is evident from the books beside his hospital bed. Yang inherits this Eternal Flame of poetry from his father, ‘a poem signifying the well-remembered suffering beauty of a life’. Yang likens the tradition to a tower which ‘in hiding stands inside of all things’, descending to us through time.
The third section takes us to the village of Huangtu Nandian to which Yang was sent as a teenager for re-education during the Cultural Revolution. He worked as a grave digger and coffin bearer. The village no longer exists but Yang revisits the location, searching out the ghostly traces of the past:
a blast of March wind swirls up dust from the road
mud-brick tan immersed in the tan of its name2
endlessly-projected dilapidation keeps its reverse speed
an instant of torn springtime leading the whisper of white poplars
let me see what I continually have to see (page 122)
He is drawn to the ‘dark green of cypress in the graveyard north of the village’, remembering burial scenes, encountering the ghosts of people he knew ‘in a cement wilderness where nostalgia can’t recognise’. The poet asks: ‘is it a kind of blessing being eyewitness to my mature self becoming a departed soul?’
The exquisite fourth part is a meditation on a painting: ‘View of a Fishing Village on an Autumn Day after Rain’ by the renowned painter Ni Zan (1301–74). The subtle and delicate brushstrokes create a sense of boundlessness and melancholy, prompting in the poet thoughts of his own transience and insignificance.
From here the poet moves in section five to the Miluo River, associated with the ancient Chinese poet Qu Yuan (c. 340–278 BCE). Qu, who was driven into exile and drowned himself in the river, is a central figure for Yang. This is not a ‘lyric’, Yang tells us. It is no longer possible to cross over to the world of Qu’s poetry in a culture which offers only a ‘fly-blown / happiness […] endlessly firmed up by a slogan’. But Yang declares at the end of this section that he will cross, he has no ‘other bank’ to aim for.
With section six we travel back further in time to the semi-legendary Xia dynasty and its last sovereign Jie (1728–1675 BCE), a debauched tyrant. The poem describes a bronze tripod wine goblet of the period and Yang imagines Jie urging us to drink. Jie’s excesses brought about the collapse of the Xia dynasty. Parallels with the propagandistic pronouncements of the current Chinese regime hardly need stating.
The sequence ends with a recapitulation of these elements, ‘a seven layered nightmare / inside a nightmare’, the ‘seven fragments […] one human form’. Ai Weiwei’s tree and the threats to the Amazon are recalled, as is Yang’s father’s ‘looking back’ which ‘reaffirms the impossibility of looking back’. He recalls Huangtu Nandian of which he says ‘its dilapidated ruin is me’, while Ni Zan’s painting is described as a ‘tearless sob incomparably heartfelt’. He revisits the vain hope of crossing the river, of leaving ‘the Land of Shades’, the tripod drinking vessel ‘an obscene axle’ around which that shadow world revolves. ‘A poem burns,’ Yang writes, ‘only for the meaninglessness of life’.
Mortality haunts the closing passages with an image of the poet descending a tower, treading ‘the spiral path to the tomb’. The last lines read:
death’s fragrance uses Father’s limpid clarity
to inwardly endure an unendurable world
Jason Allen-Paisant is a Jamaican poet and academic. Self-Portrait as Othello is his second collection. There are three broad themes threading through this volume: the experience of growing up without a father, the poet’s remorse at not having been present at the death of Mama (the grandmother) who reared him, and an exploration of the parallels between his experiences living in Europe and those of Shakespeare’s Othello. The individual poems weave together interrelated strands using different registers of language – Caribbean patois, English, French – to underscore the complexity of the experience of self in a globalised world.
Allen-Paisant’s poetry emphasises difference, encounter and multiplicity. The tensions in his work, between family roots and the dislocation of living in other countries, echo some of the themes in Yang’s poetry. Jacob Edmond, in his analysis of Yang’s work, places stress on collision and encounter rather than assumptions about comparability of experience which often characterise studies in comparative literature. He employs the phrase ‘the flâneur in exile’ to describe poets like Yang, drawing on Walter Benjamin’s reading of Baudelaire.
It’s a term which might also be applied to Allen-Paisant, who himself draws on A Map to the Door of No Return by the Canadian poet and academic Dionne Brand. Her work explores the nature of identity and belonging in a culturally diverse and rapidly changing world. The ‘door of no return’ is both the physical portal through which slaves passed on their way from Africa to the Americas, and a metaphor for the point of rupture in the lives of the ancestors of the Black diaspora as they left one world for another.
Self-Portrait as Othello is divided into three sections. In the first we follow the poet from his childhood in a village in Jamaica to life as a student in Oxford and Paris, and finally to Venice. The opening poem of this section describes a scene from childhood, the poet as a young boy waiting for a father who never shows up: ‘daddy was not in the wind’.
The third poem paints a portrait of the poet as a student in Oxford:
on the terrace of a cocktail bar
a Jamaican country boy
fly as a motha
But look at him though…I just
The Prada lenses fake
straight plastic same as the day
they came out the factory (page 20)
The tone here is self-mocking, comedic, but serves a serious purpose. Later the poem speaks of a version of this ‘story’ in which he returns home before Mama dies. A version which does not happen. Instead, he’s reading Baudelaire ‘among the dreaming spires’, his grandmother ‘the truth he runs from’.
The next poem opens with Allen-Paisant’s excitement about going to Paris. He started speaking French aged 13, he says, the language a place of escape. But Paris turns out to be a city which doesn’t know his ‘body’, a place where ‘Black’ is ‘a different language’. The sense of watching himself play a role, and the anxiety this generates, informs a series of these poems – the sense of pretending, of lacking authenticity.
The absence of a father in Allen-Paisant’s life is a mark of this difference, an emotional void he carries. He quotes the phrase ‘harbourless spade’ from Kamau Brathwaite’s Rights of Passage, and adds:
Bastard pickney embrace each-o-we-a-different-
faada story embrace NO DAD
absence and loss inna de miggle (page 31)
There is both a personal and a cultural dimension to the NO DAD condition.
Venice in the sixteenth century and the character of Othello are the primary areas of focus of section II of the book, though we also get a glimpse of the city today. The opening poem of this section describes a group of African street traders with whom Allen-Paisant interacts. They are migrants, selling ‘small things’ in the Piazza San Marco, ready at any moment to run from the police.
The poet discovers Black people represented in historical paintings, including Veronese’s The Feast in the House of Levi. Most of the Black figures are servants, but there is one man in a turban who is apparently of high social status, though he is shown reaching into the bag of another guest. ‘Disappointing’ the poet comments, finding himself ‘stepping into a different history of representation’, a place where ‘there’s all the stuff a European viewer can’t see’.
The ethnicity of Shakespeare’s ‘Moor’ has been much discussed by scholars and there is no consensus on his origins. Allen-Paisant opts to portray him as a Mandinka warrior from the Gambia River, a perfectly plausible conjecture, but probably not a link most readers of Shakespeare would make.
Similarities between the kind of experiences Shakespeare’s fictional character might have had and Allen-Paisant’s own are explored in a sequence of five poems titled ‘Self-Portrait as Othello’. As with Veronese’s painting the poet is interested in: ‘What Shakespeare did not write about. The story he was unable to tell.’ Iago’s language sets the boundaries to Othello’s freedom, delineates the role to which he must conform, suppressing a reality Venetian (and Elizabethan) wealth and power chooses to ignore. In the first of the self-portrait poems, he writes:
Five centuries later, why does Othello offer up so easy a template for this precarity, for this endless negotiation? Texte, mon corps.3
Why does it offer up so easy a template for the shame produced in my body? (page 45)
In the final section of the book the poet describes how he learned of his grandmother’s death through a Facebook post, ‘Mama dead’, while dancing in a club in Paris. He returns to Jamaica, and to the grandmother’s house, the sound of her voice in his head.
In a sequence titled ‘Door of No Return’ we learn that the second part of his name, ‘Paisant’, is that of his Breton wife’s family. The poet’s facility with French had once led him to imagine that he had Breton ancestors, people who fled Guadeloupe for Jamaica in the revolution of 1789. This history, he believed, might be a space where he would ‘resolve the issue of my name / and of my father’s absence’.
But identity is a complex, fleeting, mercurial thing. In the final poem, ‘Jamaica’, quoted here in full, the poet offers this reflection:
of red village in
of soap sud drying
on limestone rock
of things sun
 Qing Liao, ‘Yang Lian’s Exilic Poetry: World Poetry, Ghost Poetics, and Self-dramatization’, Sino-Platonic Papers No.288, Department of East Asian Languages and Civilizations, University of Pennsylvania, June 2019.
 Huangtu Nandian means ‘yellow-brown earth south village’.
 ‘Texte, mon corps’ is a quotation from Hélène Cixous’ La Rire de la Méduse.