the invisible man by Zhu Zhu, translated by Dong Li

—an elegy for zhang zao


an extended winter,
snow was still falling in march, no leaves
on the branches yet migrant birds returned in time,
completing a great expedition; in tübingen,
your place of departure, you laid down your wings
tangled into shrouds and flew no more.

for a long time you have been an invisible man,
poetry did the flying for you, casting shadows among us,
their traces followed, their lines recited; before
tank treads crushed the carnival age to pieces,
before i staggered to write the first line, you
went afar. an isolated nest by the edge of the black forest,

a tiny black dot wriggling on the aerial map, an anonymous flotsam;
there, you experienced the first shocks on the journey,
like a hot red iron you fell into neckar river in winter...
after the sizzling dispersed in the ripples, not only were there
chimerical fumes with life-denying claws, but also
roiling youth, and ears everywhere, swelled with blood for the sight of beauty—

strings not tuned by friendship, echoes of home,
resounding, a gesture to beckon ghosts,
seething like orpheus from the netherworld, unsure
whether true love followed close behind? there,
alms of freedom could not cash in for bread,
outside the door of probation, a lonesome k and his rolls of castles.

alas, the surveyor doubled over in boredom; often
quiet snow blanketed night as you drank to yourself in the window pane,
body desirous of inebriation like a slowly sagging scale,
tired of weighing every word,
letting them go fluttering and then buried
on the horizon of white papers spit from mt. lichtenstein’s typewriter.

i first saw you in shanghai. in a cramped elevator
your pudgy physique more corpulent than ever,
not a sign of the handsome youth from hearsay, then,
at a bar, you showed off a card trick,
as if it would redeem your miraculous image—
i was taken aback by your boyishness, your bloated sweetness,

yet tough at the core; i was taken aback
by your snoring, loud as a muck car
waking up streets, like the “bad rhymes” you mentioned,
strenuously shifting in the two airs that you breathed—
rather than saying german is ice, chinese the ember, why not say
the present is ice, the past was ember, sizzling inside of you.

china is changing! we are all in the throes of a migration
view remembrance as regression, nostalgia as terminal disease,
we scuttle like lizards, afraid of lagging behind,
but wherever we pass, everything cracks into abyss...
you folded your wings under the static eaves of europe, dreaming
of timeless grief, missing the current epic of displacement.

you returned, like a watchman patrolling the wrong latitude,
like diogenes of sinope daydreaming, with a lantern in hand,
searching the air there were no longer
fragrant discourse, the likes of zhong ziqi were going deaf,
laughter like fireworks set off in bleak outskirts many years away;
only you spread out the map of the last age, stubbornly,

until a dagger’s flash you made your own assassin,
your heart in pieces, you came back to a new invisibility,
and were reduced to a teacher’s ruler, to a barroom table,
by your homemade prison of words; preferring to lose your voice,
behind the clamor, your strings were snapped, done with lingering
in the political arena of rhetoric, on a rapper’s stage.

tonight, i pull your slim volume from the shelf,
after closing the book i see a comet with its tail fanning behind,
down below, the cages of two continents open up—
just as poets are myths after death,
birds among apes, kings of no lands;
perhaps you never truly landed on earth.
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, such as 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, Chinese Contemporary Art Award for Critics and Henry Luce Foundation Chinese Poetry Fellowship at the Vermont Studio Center.

Dong Li was born and raised in P.R. China. His honors include fellowships from Akademie Schloss Solitude 2015-2017, German Chancellery–Alexander von Humboldt Foundation 2015-2016, PEN/Heim Translation Fund, The Corporation of Yaddo and elsewhere. He has poems in Kenyon Review, Conjunctions, manuskripte (Austria, in German translation), and others, as well as translations in World Literature Today, PEN America, Guernica and others. His book-length translation of the Chinese poet Zhu Zhu, The Wild Great Wall, will be published by Phoneme Media in late 2017. His trilingual anthology of contemporary American, Chinese and German poetry in response to a poem by the late C.D. Wright will be forthcoming from the German publisher Matthes&Seitz Berlin in the fall of 2017.