Tuesday, January 15, 2013

An Afternoon with a Poet

I spent Monday afternoon with the poet Zheng Min, the 93-year-old writer I profiled in the Wall Street Journal last year. (http://blogs.wsj.com/scene/2012/08/10/a-poet-from-chinas-avant-garde-looks-back/)

The last leaf of the Nine Leaves school of poetry is, I'm happy to say, alive and well and living in Beijing. I brought with me Xin Ning of Rutgers, a scholar of the Nine Leaves school, plus Zheng Min's biographer and another of her students, who now does research at the Chinese Academy of Sciences.

Our conversation was wide-ranging, from the Cultural Revolution to German poets to the Bible to family ties to Mo Yan. Xin Ning, whose great aunt was married to another of the Nine Leaves poets, Mu Dan, opened a book of poetry to some of Zheng Min's works, talking to her about ideas of solitude, romanticism, modernism, and voice in poetry.

We returned to some of the same themes we covered in the other two afternoons I had visited the cozy apartment she shares with her daughter, the poet Tong Wei, just north of the campus of Peking University. How did she survive the Cultural Revolution when so many intellectuals were lost to suicide and despair? Zheng Min's answer was that she knew who she was, and stayed true to herself, trusting no one but herself. She had, she said, a larger sense of history. This too shall pass. She also never challenged the ruling powers, for to do that was to draw attention. And those who, then and today, made martyrs and examples of themselves, did not live to prove their tormentors wrong.

Zheng Min did. She was discovered as a young woman whose poetic voice was fresh and open and leaned upon the modernist traditions of the west. And then she was utterly silent for 30 years. She started writing again in the late 1970s, after the death of Mao and China's opening. She was in her late 50s, and one of her iconic poems from that period begins, "O poetry, I've found you again."

That same spirit remains. It's not significant that she doesn't really remember people from one visit to the next or that as the afternoon darkened into evening, her English mingled more and more with Chinese, so that the conversation sounded to my ears more and more like this: "Chinese, Chinese, Chinese, cultural revolution, Chinese, Chinese, Chinese, post-modern, Chinese, Chinese, TS Eliot."

What was significant was her strength -- as my energy waned, I had the sense that she could have continued talking into the night. And when I hesitated to give her a hug and possibly pass my head cold on to her she said cheerfully, "Oh, I have a strong immune system!"

"I don't know how many days I have left," she said casually, the way someone else might wonder how long it takes to drive from point a to point b.  In fact, her age didn't much seem to worry or burden her. What mattered to her was the life of the mind, her sense of how the past mingled with the future and her certain knowledge of having lived a good life, or the best life she could have managed under the circumstances. For Zheng Min, it was enough.

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