Before and since his enforced exile from China in 1989, Yang Lian has been one of the most innovative and influential poets Chinese poets. Widely hailed in America and Europe as a highly individual voice in world literature, he has been translated into many languages. A Tower Built Downwards is the latest instalment of his poetry, written between 2019 and 2022. The different sections – short poems, sequences, and two long poems – form a single comprehensive statement of Yang’s recent explorations. It is rooted in his living experience of the historical retrogression of Hong Kong, the disaster of Covid-19, the global spiritual crisis, as well as his personal sadness at events such as the deaths of his father and brother.
The creativity of the writing faces – is even excited by – the depth of the challenges of reality. The long title poem in seven parts is a spiritual journey travelling back in time, completed back in the now, building up into 'a reincarnation within one', as endless time is transformed into multilayered poetical space, in Ai Weiwei’s words: 'This intellectual tower… [turns] the unsurpassable puzzles intermingled with life and death into an in-depth exploration of human emotion.'
The cover Ai Weiwei designed for Yang Lian features CCTV cameras and chains made of gold stretching around the whole book, across French flaps and then continuing inside the front and back covers, becoming an extraordinary visual metaphor for the book’s content.
'In exile from China since 1989’s Tiananmen Square massacre, Yang Lian is a writer of world significance; his admirers include Ai Weiwei, who designed the cover of his latest book. Its title evokes the exile’s backwards struggle to construct belonging. It also summarises Yang’s profound, distinctive verse, which clothes ideas and feelings with details from the lived world. Brilliantly translated by Brian Holton, this substantial collection revisits the poet’s personal China, particularly honouring his late father.' – Fiona Sampson, The Guardian (best recent poetry round-up)
‘To say that this book is ‘only’ political, would however be doing Yang Lian a massive disservice. The poems reference themselves, each other, and a myriad of elements, forming a Joycean web of intertextuality. A Tower Built Downwards is the transgression of language … Brian Holton’s translation is a masterpiece…’. – Jenny He, Modern Poetry in Translation
‘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.’ – Simon Collings, Long Poem Magazine
‘With an introduction and cover by Ai Weiwei, this is Yang Lian’s twelfth collection with his long-term translator, Brian Holton. An important poet of the Misty School (banned in China), his poems “grow in the direction of both life and death” (Ai Weiwei), dwelling on the pandemic in Wuhan and the erosion of democracy in Hong Kong. Containing poems rich in image and metaphor, this masterful translation won a PEN Translates award.’ – Shash Trevett, Poetry Book Society Bulletin, Spring 2023
'Those lonely Tang dynasty poets may be Yang’s original blues brothers, but he’s as much a modernist and symbolist in the vein of Mallarmé or Rimbaud […] Yang Lian’s work is rooted not in geography but in his own imagination […] to exist in Yang’s lines can be a gorgeous but frustrating adventure.' – Tim Kindseth, Time Magazine
'In Narrative Poem, Yang Lian turns his first-hand experiences of these man-made catastrophes […] into a radically strange montage. Narrative Poem would read as elegiac except that we are repeatedly made to regard that mode as premature […] This is what Yang Lian calls a ‘poem’s affront’. Harm does its thing—and if it then doubles back to do it again, so too must poetry. Both will get there at the same time.' – Nan Z. Da, Times Literary Supplement
‘Yang Lian is one of the most ambitious poets writing in Chinese today – indeed, one of the most ambitious poets writing in any language… Narrative Poem represents a stunning achievement of both poet and translator, bringing the two together almost as one.’ – Lucas Klein, Translation and Literature
‘Repressive regimes tend to have little problem acknowledging poets’ power to shape our opinions and our world. Some of those they exile settle in Britain. Yang Lian, a leading member of China’s Tiananmen generation, has just published his autobiographical masterpiece Narrative Poem in translation… A kind of wild lyricism marks the work… a sense of the explosive urgency of writing itself.’ – Fiona Sampson, The i Paper
Yang Lian on Concentric Circles
Chinese poet Yang Lian talks about his book Concentric Circles in English, and then reads the first part of the first poem in Chinese. This film is from the DVD-book In Person: 30 Poets filmed by Pamela Robertson-Pearce, edited by Neil Astley, which includes poems by Yang Lian from both Concentric Circles and Where the Sea Stands Still read in Chinese and discussed in English.
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