Xiao Hai









In the place I labor

I cast a calculating eye

Down each row of crops

People catch sight of me

In my own planted acre

Laboring until the sky darkens

The sun without a by-your-leave

Has been frightened off by darkness

Yet in the dark I make out shapes

Because it is my nighttime habit

To persist a little longer

Before I feel my way back home

Along an unseen path

This leached-out plot remains here

Its paleness that shows through the gloom

Is the aftermath of extraction

And this will be my life’s illumination

In the end it denies me sight of anything

And by estrangement I become

The fruit of its pinched hunger

My thoughts desert this piece of land

I know a change is going to come

With hopeless expectation inside me

I submit to the final tide of night

That rolls against my planted ground






The resumption of normal life

Is like a village after a holocaust

But giants tread this village


The land makes new arrangements in spring

But I am the widower among all widowers

I have a diversion canal from the river to call my own


Sometimes I push upstream to the west

But the torrent sweeps me back to a further village

I stay alive in a crowd of liars


Ah Holocaust! You have made sure

I will be your inheritor

As I submit to being a man and parent

Because I woke early one morning

To cough up fragrance and confessions

Headier than nighttime,

With strength to outlast its ravages






Each time I walk past the headman’s house

An empty feeling steals up on me


Dutiful sinner, knee awaiting judgment

Jaded horse of feeble faith

In which the village nonetheless puts its trust


(Wraiths hurrying ahead of a thunderstorm

Marry the daughter off to an even further village)


Springtime is a fissure in the land

Daughter of sandalwood, daughter of poverty

How short were the days we watched for each other






First among mortal villages, bathed in sunlight

Locust trees grow from this low, calcined soil

As if splitting through my chest

North Edge River, how far could you ever take me

From the grave of a drowned child…


Honey locust trees

You grow for nothing toward the sky

Like the land in escape from blight

Your rustling deep in winter

Takes hold of formless darkness

Tosses improbability

Like almond trees that blossom in their time

Or dreams that retch bitter water

And crowd onto a blind thoroughfare






I know not whom the moon’s reflection waits for

The river’s restless flow commands my gaze

Zhang Ruoxu, “Spring River of Flowers and Moonlight”



Today I sense the spirit of that old aria

But cannot hold it long, cannot respond in kind

Weighed down by silence of this moonlit night


I have lyricized a night of revelation

A night of grueling care

A winged deva straight from Dunhuang Grotto

A meter too subtle for my pen

A night that breaks tradition’s link


Crown of creation

The good earth receives my body and desire

As for my sensitive soul

Is it he who read of moonlight through dark pines?

That lyricist who lived in the capital unknown?


“Never forget that sentient beings

Are one in their inmost heart…”

But I, bereft of hearing, sight and speech

Go to battle year by year, not liberated yet


I am weighed down, as if by earth’s gravity

To be exactly who I am

I am a wanderer

Who secretly takes along with me

Something of the air I pass through



© Trans. by Denis Mair










Xiao Hai (b.1965), originally named Tu Haiyan, a contemporary poet in China. He was born in Haian, Jiangsu Province, and graduated from the Chinese department in Nanjing University. He is a gifted poet as well as a representative poet of the rebellious generation. His poetic collections include Bending to Weed until Afternoon, Villages and Fields, Bei Ling River, The Great Kingdom of Qin (verse drama), and Song of Shadows (a long poem). He is the speaker in Ilan Stavans vs. Xiao Hai:  Conversations about Literature. As a founder and major representative of They (a poetry magazine), he is the chief editor of They: 1986-1996. Besides creative writing, he also participates in compiling more than ten kinds of local history. His poetry was included in the list of contemporary Chinese literature by Beijing Literature in 1998. Prizes include Writers poetry award in 2000, the 2nd and 4th 5th Zi Jin Mountain literature awards of Jiangsu Province, and Tian Wen Poet of 2012, among others. He lives in Suzhou currently.


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