Yang Lian's A Tower Built Downwards reviewed in The Guardian

Yang Lian's A Tower Built Downwards reviewed in The Guardian

'Yang Lian is a writer of world significance' – Fiona Sampson, The Guardian


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. His poetry has been published by Bloodaxe Books since 1999, all translated (or co-translated) by Brian Holton.  Yang Lian was awarded the International Nonino Prize in 2012 and the Zbigniew Herbert International Literary Award in 2024.

A Tower Built Downwards, published by Bloodaxe in March 2023, 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.  It is translated by Brian Holton, who began a continuing working relationship with Yang Lian in 1992.  

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.  Ai Weiwei also wrote the introduction to A Tower Built Downwards.

Translations of Yang Lian's poetry include five collections with Bloodaxe, Where the Sea Stands Still (1999), Concentric Circles (2005), Lee Valley Poems (2009), Narrative Poem (2017) and A Tower Built Downwards (2023), as well as his long poem Yi (Green Integer, USA, 2002), Anniversary Snow (Shearsman, 2019), and Riding Pisces: Poems from Five Collections (Shearsman, 2008), a compilation of earlier work. He is co-editor with W.N. Herbert of Jade Ladder: Contemporary Chinese Poetry (Bloodaxe Books, 2012). Both Where the Sea Stands Still and Narrative Poem are Poetry Book Society Recommended Translations. A Tower Built Downwards won an English PEN Award.


The Scotsman, Monday 13 May 2024

An interview with translator Brian Holton was featured in The Scotsman of 13 May 2024.

‘For more than 30 years, Brian Holton has been translating the work of Chinese ‘Misty’ poet Yang Lian into English and Scots. The creative partnership, which used to be carried out by exchanging letters, has resulted in more than 15 books and a lifelong friendship.’

Bloodaxe has published five poetry books by Yang Lian, all translated by Brian Holton. Of their long partnership, Brian Holton said: ‘Now, after 31 years, 15 books, several essays, a few prizes, and many public appearances together, we’re the longest-running poet and translator team in our language pair, and of all the translators who have carried Yang’s work into 30 languages, I am the only one to have translated nearly all of his output.’

The piece was accompanied by the poem ‘Ferry Crossing’ by Yang Lian, translated by Brian Holton.  The collection Anniversary Snow, credited to Bloodaxe in the article, was published by Shearsman in 2019.

In print only.  Available to view online via Press Reader: https://www.pressreader.com/uk/the-scotsman/20240513/282024742358053


Under the Radar, Issue 33, also online 11 April 2024

Excellent reviews of Jen Campbell’s second collection Please Do Not Touch This Exhibit and Yang Lian’s A Tower Built Downwards were included in Issue 33 of Under the Radar.  Nine Arches Press, who publish the magazine, have also posted Jennifer Wong’s review on their blog.

‘An ambitious and original collection that charts the poet’s emotional landscape and experience with exile, A Tower Built Downwards offers the reader a door to enter and experience the complexity and the ineradicable nature of memory, and the redeeming power of poetic dwelling and language.’ – Jennifer Wong, Under the Radar


Modern Poetry in Translation
, Winter 2023

An excellent in-depth biographical review of Yang Lian’s A Tower Built Downwards is featured in the Winter 2023 issue of MPT.

‘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

Available via Exact Editions until 18 January 2024. Choose issue No 3 and click through to page 105.


Long Poem Magazine, online 3 May 2023

An in-depth review of Yang Lian’s A Tower Built Downwards went online in the Long Poem Magazine on 3 May. The piece focused on the long title poem as well as giving background to the book.

‘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   

Read in full on the Long Poem Magazine website here.



Yang Lian's A Tower Built Downwards was very well reviewed in The Guardian's best recent poetry round-up of 1 April 2023.

'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)

Read Fiona Sampson's review in full in The Guardian of 1 April 2023 here.



‘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



The Markaz Review, online 4 April 2023

Two poems from A Tower Built Downwards are featured on the US international cultural website The Markaz Review, accompanied by an introductory video by Yang Lian.  The poems featured are ‘Researching Evil’ and ‘Root’.



Read a sample:




Bloodaxe Books hosted a launch reading by David Harsent and Yang Lian celebrating the publication of their new poetry books with John Kittmer and Brian Holton.

John Kittmer introduced David Harsent reading his new versions of Yannis Ritsos from A Broken Man in Flower and then Yang Lian (in Morocco) read in Chinese from his new book A Tower Built Downwards in tandem with Brian Holton reading his English translations, followed by a discussion with the host, Bloodaxe editor Neil Astley.

This multi-lingual Bloodaxe launch event was streamed on YouTube Live and is now available to watch on YouTube or via the video below: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zP-Y3THlVAk

[01 April 2023]

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