Tian Yuan




(China – Japan)






Flying this way, flying that

Is just something birds do

But what they do tugs at my heart

What with chirps that sometimes sound like singing

And other times sound like crying


On gloomy days they come from the distance

Bearing sunlight on their wings

Changing my inner grayness to a glow

And when the sky turns clear

My dim and drafty room fills

With the vigor of their warbling


Living birds

Are witnesses to my dying

Motionless birds in an art book

Sense my gaze and breath from my nostrils


Even in dark dreams

Birds come making flashes of fairy-like light

After leaving notes of song they hide their forms away

Making me forget their eyes and feather color


I often sit facing a window

Birds of the imagination

With vehement flaps of their wings

Come trailing a storm behind them

They swoop to the earth

Trailing freshets of rain


The river where they often drink and wade

Begins to rage and churn

Grasses proliferate at a bend in the river

Making a lurking place for serpents and their fangs

The current winds by under tree canopies

Passing nests in the forks of branches


All of this takes place

In the space of a transparent windowpane

This thin and brittle layer

Distances the birds and me from the world


One day a bird flew from a treetop

Like flame from a torch

Leaping up and away

It left behind a long cry

A note of surprise in my quiet mind


Apr. 25, 2009—in Japan






Now and then the word “transient”

Flashes like a laser beam

From the depths of memory


In those years I was so young

Like a sturdy horse

Driven by that era’s invisible whip

To gallop into a wasteland


That prairie thick with wild grass

Was dotted with barren hills

They stood in the way

Of my view into the distance

Setting my homesickness adrift

Across the waste spaces, yet giving shelter

Beneath their slopes from storms

Providing a haven for a wanderer


That little cottage facing south

Where I dwelled for a time

Often appears in my dreams

Slat-framed windows and red bricks, just as always

In loneliness enduring the weather

And the fearsome howls of wolves


There in front of the cottage

A transient showed up one day

A man who came from Shandong

Behind a thick growth of whiskers

I could not tell his age


One day, after we knew each other well

He brought me a granddaddy fish

He had caught in a haunted lake

And told me in a lowered voice

He was a fugitive


Thinking of the fear hidden in his eyes

I caught a glimpse of the fearsome side

Of the world we lived in

I never knew what crime he committed


Decades have passed since then

Suddenly I wish

To change into a horse and go

Searching for him across that wasteland

Even though by now he may be

A heap of white bones, or a grave


Feb. 7, 2010—in Japan





    —for Hiroto Emi, painter


Sunlight chases away the darkness of a stairway

I sense the floodtide of time

Pouring down the staircase

Engulfing a silent space


A hand holds a brush

As if wielding a beam of light

Out of darkness restoring a stairway

Turning cubical facts to planar abstractions


I am moved by reflection of sunlight

On the stairway. How like a cloud

Of sunlit motes is our life?

Shifting along with a beam, a vanishing figment

Then rising with the sun’s rays to show itself again


A stairway is an orderly system, a set of laws

Concealing deep secrets in its philosophy

A stairway is a kind of silence

Bearing the weight of darkness and solitude


A stairway is replete with structure and texture

Such as gradient, width, material of wood or cement

But it carries out a single duty

Upward: to shorten your distance from the sun

Downward: you walk onto broad ground, toward the horizon


A stairway is a backup device

On nights of power outage, we have to proceed carefully

Climbing as best we may, feeling our way with footsteps

A stairway can also be a chair—there are times

It offers a seat to rest on, or nurse silent anger


We often ignore the existence of stairs

In fact, there is a stair in each person’s heart

It often puts us to the test:

Will we be able to go up; will we be able to come down?


Jan. 16, 2010—in Japan






Heading south, along memories reined in

By a story, in a little waterfront town

A barking dog from another era

Stirs the sadness of a sojourning heart

A pillaged farmhouse is restored by words

Deep in a crystalline pond

Stars of that era are still seen on fish scales

Gleaming under water


Across such a gulf of years

The river is a weary bandage

Enwrapping the wounded village and hills

A dock that has witnessed ordeals

Affords a view of rippling reflections

As if awaiting a haggard boatman

Who will return against the current

Rowing a boat with rattan canopy


Up in an old, straight-standing tree

A few sparrows are chirping

Counting footfalls on flagstones

Inside a dilapidated temple

A monk who reached perfect quietude

Enters heaven in a dream


A boatman’s song is heard faintly

Resounding downstream

But water that bears a boat

Cannot carry away coughing sounds

Mingled with the piping of heaven


The heaven that lays itself bare

Is a mirror

Showing blemishes of memory

Inverted reflections of an era

Waver upon the water’s surface

And lose their clarity of outline


At a little town along the way

Strangeness is less strange when wrapped in night’s darkness

Wherein I see an old boatman in a dream

The intermittent glow of his pipe

Is cast on my face


Apr. 26, 2009—in Japan






The wind that whirled around you has scattered

Clarity gives the sky extra height

The tree we leaned against

Begins to turn frail


Thereupon, you also scatter like wind

Dimness of twilight descends

Swallowing your footprints

On the river’s edge of memory I am

An emptied-out, broken boat

To evade a merciless storm

I rest gasping on the bank


You have taken the wind with you

An unfamiliar face

Floats in the stultifying air

Separating me from you

Along the boundary of night and day

The convoluted world tries on fancy costumes


A sojourner grows numb to loneliness and distance

Floodwaters spread due to betrayal on the opposite bank

Navigation lights are ruddy like an old lady’s cheeks

Writing parables across the river’s surface


After your disappearance

You will always be related to the river

After your disappearance

I become the bodily remains of wind

Strewn along the horizon


Nov. 9, 2004—in Japan






The monsoon that falls in plum-blossom time

Does not drench the downward-seeping fragrance

Raindrops in their stuttering fall

Long for a journey on the Silk Road

The monsoon drenches the horizon

Before it disappears beneath my feet

Far off mountains that swallow up echoes

Are like a gigantic sponge

Greedily sucking in

Every single raindrop

Having reveled in this plentiful bath

Trees bring forth a deeper shade of green

The sun screened off behind clouds

Anxiously waits to show its nakedness

Even the moon’s dark side grows mold

As fallen logs conceive the shapes of mushrooms


July 13, 2005—in Japan






Was it the Motherland’s wind

That extinguished the lamp in your heart?

Or was it the sun of an exotic locale

That lured you to travel far?


Even so, the moment you turn about

The horizon that grew to adulthood with you

Still has to go through a struggle

Before it disappears underfoot


For luggage you have faraway things

You carry them on your shoulders

As if you were bearing your mother tongue

So you and your language can grow familiar

With alien birdsong and sunlight


The ocean is forever tolerant

On its surface bearing every boat ticket

The sky is forever merciless

It grants no admittance to any person’s soul


Heavier than any dark cloud

Are the feelings of a certain one

Darker than the dark of night

Are the eyes of a certain human type


Like driftwood, the one in exile

Unable to determine his place of refuge

His legs will forever be paired drumsticks

Held in the tight grip of fate

Whatever the time and place

They sound a tattoo on earth’s weary drumhead

Further away than the further shore is truth

Dragging out longer than exile is his torment


Scenery falls helter skelter on the retina

The Motherland is still the native ground of dreams

Homesickness begins at the dock

The mother tongue only ends with death


June 14, 2005—in Japan






In glorious autumn sunshine

My busy steps were brought up short

By a butterfly I nearly crushed underfoot

At first I thought she was resting by the road

I bent down for a look

Only to find her breath had ceased


She must have died only moments before

Her two antennae still wavered in the wind

Her fine legs still had strength to grip the ground

Sunlight shone straight through her dark-lensed eyes

Her spotted wings refracted a forlorn deathly color

Her beauty lay in a serenity

More complete than when she lived


Her death made me think of beautiful words

But no beautiful words could describe her death

Without thinking I took her in my fingers

And put her on the lawn, where people aren’t allowed

This burial was most fitting for her


I will never forget that patch of grass

On the east-west street before the Station

At the first crossing, beneath a high-voltage pole


Feb. 6, 2004—in Japan






A few chirping birds

Startle the surrounding stillness

And settle on a grave


Withered grass-blades on the grave all bending

Under gust after gust of cool wind

Stroke after stroke of an unseen comb


The departed one was brought here and buried

From then on sorrow and memory

Settled in and took root here


The living walk up to the gravestone

Before it the make gestures of prayer

Then walk off, leaving their footprints


The desert is the grave of a camel

The ocean is the grave of a sailor

The earth is the grave of a civilization


The grave mound is a form that death takes

Like a shapely breast

Bulging from the earth’s chest


A silent grave matures over time

But never shifts its position

Even when floods and dunes efface it


A grave mound sticks up on the land

Like an ear on the horizon

Listening for the sound of familiar footsteps


May 3, 2007—on a visit to Okinawa…






Like a subterranean river

A person’s memory purls along

Never knowing weariness

It flows beyond death


The memory of history

Is like a great ocean never disappearing

Though earth itself may be destroyed

It will flow off toward other planets


The memory of god

Is like the ever-silent sky

Never uttering a word

Even when truth is under attack


The memory of war

Is a graveyard covered with shifting sands

Even when shrapnel rusts away

Sorrow will remain in that place


Trees cannot remember the color green

Though all is concealed in their growth rings

It will be exposed by a steel saw, without mercy






The trees doze while growing

Hushed whisper of sparkling stars as always

Like a past event rendered transparent


Sleepwalker from a hospital bungalow

Dashes outside the wall, a headstrong feral donkey

His yawp makes the doctor keel over

Like a victim of something terminal


A fishing lantern flickers at dream’s edge

A fisherman at the prow undoes a cormorant’s halter

He ties a line to its leg, loops it on a sternpost

The cormorant shakes its wings dry

Flinging star-like beads of water


The worn-out shoes of the boat, its rusty anchor

Yearn for the dock of its native land

Clouds are fast asleep within clouds

Dreaming of blossoms from downy pillows

Blooming with colors of the season


Late hours belong to the ocean

Its bottomless silence is like forgiveness

Accepting the vagaries of winds that belly sails

A river flows on its riverine course

Mountains corrugate their mountainous terrain

Arms of water and stone

Lay across the good earth


Recorded in the night sky is a virgin’s dream babble

And sounds of gritting teeth

Laced-up trouser legs of a scarecrow

Strike up a dance with no partner

Summing up profound news from cracks in the earth

Out of desire engulfed in sweat

Oppressed voices of women

Make the night later and deeper


In fact, depths of darkness have a royal blue cast

Like a fruitful blessing in ripe autumn

Like the heart of a fetus dozing in the womb


May 13, 2001—in Japan






When I think of a piano

It reminds me of a strange beast’s skeleton

Aristocratically occupying one corner of our city

In fact, it was a commoner by birth

Once it had nothing to do with domes or window glass

Or tuxedoes and floor-length gowns

Its bone structure and nerves, its breath and gaze

Are tightly bound to a country village


A piano’s reverberations are from outside the city

From sounds of a great spreading tree, and they resemble

The songs of insects in a meadow


Its native place is not Holland or Moscow or Paris

The earth’s wastelands and the sky’s brooding clouds

Are also hiding places for its dreams

When the wind expires against a sail

When an anchor rusts away underwater

When flexing fingers make a sound

That can be called music


Resignedly a piano fine-tunes the moods of city dwellers

It is driven to break free from those who would own and control it…

Being caught in a predicament of vain display

Will cause its plangent notes to hoarsen

Much like an urbanite taken to be cremated

There will be nothing but ashen remains at the end


The piano’s strings are hair

Its keys are teeth

Its sound chamber is a mouth


A piano makes me think of trees far away from the city

And after a tree is felled, the wide open sky

And when a tree is torn up by the root

A hole in the ground


When I think of where the piano is

The city seems to be nothing but an ornamented jail

The piano wants to become a chimerical beast

To grow wings and fly away


July 12, 2000—in Japan


Translated by Denis Mair













Tian Yuan


Born in 1965 in Henan Province, China, he first came to Japan as a government-financed student early in the 1990’s. In 2003 he received a Doctorate in Literature for his study of the poetry of Shuntarô Tanikawa. He now teaches in Josai International University in Japan, and is chiefly engaged in the translation of contemporary Japanese poetry. His books of translation into Chinese so far include Selected Poems of Shuntarô Tanikawa (6 volumes) which have been published in mainland of China, Hongkong, Taiwan and An Alien: Selected Poems of Takashi Tsujii. He has also translated some poems of Ryûichi Tamura and Katsuei Kitazono. He has published six volumes of his own poetry in Chinese and English. He has been awarded literary prizes for poetry in China, America and Taiwan, and in 2001 he was awarded the first “Japanese Literary Award for Foreign Students”. His book of poetry in Japanese And So the Shore Was Born (Sôshite Kishi ga Tanjôshita) was published in 2004. He is the editor of the 3 volumes of The Selected Poems of Shuntarô Tanikawa (Shûeisha, 2005). The second poetry anthology of The Memory of Stone was awarded the 60th session of H-shi Prize(2010). He also edited the Japanese version of The Anthology of Chinese New Generation Poets translated by Shin Takeuchi. Selected Poems of Tian Yuan (Renmin Wenxue, 2007) in Chinese was published in 2007. Tian Yuan was awarded the 10th Shanghai Literature Prize in 2013. And in 2014 the anthology of Tian Yuan in Japanese was also published.


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