When a poet becomes an axe murderer, reading his oeuvre gets tricky. On October 8, 1993, after battling mental illness for years, thirty-seven-year-old Chinese poet Gu Cheng killed his wife, Xie Ye, with that primeval weapon, then took his own life.
Such blunt violence unavoidably colors all the poems that came before it. As it turns them into packets of clues, it’s mostly a distraction. The soothsaying sleuth will be titillated by “Mantis Romance—A Fable,” in which Cheng idealizes the spouse-devouring insect: “this is the romance of the mantis / forever together, until the end / not like people here / with all our sordid affairs.” But while the poet’s view of marital cannibalism as loyalty is predictive, it says little about his work.
Taken another way, however, Cheng’s assault provides a helpful lens for his poetry. As Joseph R. Allen notes in his introduction to Sea of Dreams, the assault can ultimately be seen as immaturity—and it is the shape of an immature poetics that this collection sketches.
Sea of Dreams gathers Cheng’s self-selected greatest hits and arranges them chronologically, starting with the poems Cheng wrote as a boy in Beijing and in rural Shandong. Slackjawed and astonished, mixing hefty metaphors, these early stanzas are very much the work of a precocious child. A typical stretch reads, “Barefoot, / I go walking on, / leaving footprints behind / like seals stamped across the earth, / and the world too melts / into my life.” Repeatedly, Cheng stumbles onto lovely images—smokestacks as philosophers puffing cigarettes; the world as “a giant paper-cut in silhouette”—then eclipses them with a boyish tendency to universalize.
Even within a poetic tradition enamored of lofty themes, Cheng counts as transfixed.
Unlike other adolescent quills, Cheng never loses his obsession with the big, elemental symbol, neither in the localized snippets of his middle career—what earns him the moniker menglong, or “hazy”—nor in his final, fractured meditations. His experience in Mao’s China—when he is twelve, his bourgeois family is relegated to Shandong—plays an obvious role in this stunted poetic growth. A two-line poem from this period, “One Generation,” probes his situation: “Even with these dark eyes, a gift of the dark night / I go to seek the shining light.” On one level, Cheng’s tone is sarcastic; the “dark night” of the Cultural Revolution is hardly generous in its “gift” of darkened, jaded eyes. But the lines also seem strangely sincere and self-aware. In his family’s forced isolation, Cheng can cling to an abstract naturalism he might have grown away from in Beijing.
Being trapped in a fixed framework of images is limiting for any poet. It would seem fatally limiting for an imagist. But this endless parade of the same symbols illustrates their pliability. In a mid-1980s cycle, “Eulogy to the World,” Cheng writes, “My dreams all come from water,” and indeed, Sea of Dreams is sopping wet. But water isn’t a single image—it’s many smaller ones (seas, tears, rain, puddles), each with its own index of meanings. Monolithic but divisible, it is ideal for Cheng. His waves alone alternately “convey life,” “sigh on,” are “blown by the Second World War,”“disappear into the sea.” Stuck on the grand totems of childhood, Cheng formulates a sort of inverse imagism, scouting out new particulars in the universal.