Poems by Zhang Zao

Zhang Zao (1962-). Translated by Simon Patton.

The Infinite  Umbrella  The Chairs Sit out in the Winter . . .  Subway Harp  Lily Magnolia  Midnight’s Bread  Elegy  Edge 

The Infinite

Top floor, language lab.
  Autumn arrives with a bang,
its radiance puts the universe’s new glass in all four walls;
everyone’s wearing headphones, expressions of jade solidarity.

The pregnant teacher also listens in. The treasured relics of
  slurred sound:
“evening paper, evening paper”, the magnetic tape whizzing in around the globe.
Anxious words, unwilling to pass away, like streetscapes
and fountains, like visitors from outer space entrenched on some border
fondling sunset glow before abruptly releasing a bolt of brocade beauty:
the void is no more than a flower!

She looks at the surrounding
new situation—a loom in everyone’s mouth,
now murmuring exactly the same
fine story.
Everyone’s immersed in their listening,
everyone’s organs exposed, working

completely unawares.


   so many words
so many words I am destined never to know
so many shadows I cannot ride into winter
in this life I will probably not Take to the greenwood
but who knows? that day I reached the summit a cold wind blew
what I wanted was to stand on tiptoe and feel the kite’s wandering heart
I was forsaken. once I played a game of chess with myself
not long after, I went mad. I want to be
a telescope in a submarine, choking with idle resentment
when the others are dead I would rather be that ferry man
out somewhere secluded, secluded, landscape as of yore
by rights a multi-dimensional space, but what kind of
kitchen smoke should waft gracefully at my temples? China,
look there, in the distance, a mantis is scurrying off to paste up slogans
among the dead, there’s a goal-keeper who once in slow-motion
     was unable to utter
a sound. when the birthday candles are all blown out
someone says: “I present you with a ballet danced by a virgin”
umbrella. in a corner, wrapped up tightly in a membrane
intact. here, in this nowhere land, there should be a patch of rainscape
opening up. o life, quickly, hand it to me now

The Chairs Sit out in the Winter . . .

The chairs sit out in the winter, all in all
three of them—coldness being muscle—
spaced out in a line,
terrified of logic. Among angels,
there are not three who could
sit themselves down in them, waiting for
the barber who skates across a river of ice, though
ahead is still a large mirror,
magpies tidying away small coins.

The wind’s weaving loom weaves the surroundings.
The Void is Lord, remote
he stands on the outskirts, exhaling warm air,
features painted heavily, counting the chairs:
without touching it, he could eliminate
that middle position,
if he were to transplant that chair on the left
all the way to the farthest right, forever—

Such an assassin at the heart of
the universe. Suddenly,
in among the three chairs, that unwarranted
fourth chair, the one and only,
also sits out in the winter. Just as it was that winter . . .
. . . I love you.

Subway Harp

Let us stop in mid-journey, no light either side
The cutlery ghosts of the dining car pinging wildly
Or let us walk out onto ground level
Living corpses dead on escalators

I remain your groom. Verging on thirty
My index fingers trying their best to put on weight
A drunken monkey peach in my pocket
Me: just one of the human race, more mysterious than flame

Ten years later, walking out onto ground level from faraway
Sidling up to a shaking desk to write you
A love letter. California's eight o’clock ladies-style jacket
Lightly sugared sunlight licking dark circles under your eyes

You walk out onto ground level, and when I shift aside the vase
Evolution’s shadow glues the heels of multi-coloured
Masks together. The evening bell tolls, lying itself down
In a glass of overturned milk: oh, harp

The milk harp tunes its strings tightly earthwards
Stretched to breaking point and, when I vacantly occupy the bedside
I seem to touch that locomotive speeding on its way to you
Strumming like some strange monster a separate reality

Lily Magnolia

my darling noonday, the magnolia drops her gaze, serenely dreaming
she dreams of me standing on tip-toe before her like a phantom
she makes out the can of water I hold, poison to all but her
and in her face I cannot find the slightest shred of fear
while she now senses how I loathe myself
so deeply loathe this blood, these nerves, these pores, the
look of my ears, my constricted heart; one moment she understands that
I’m plainly only a man; soon after she reminds herself that
I’ve lounged beside windows staring at others, or switched on lights
and passed through doors to penetrate still deeper places
and so she sheds pretending flowers, or makes the best of a
gently gusting breeze in clear skies, or a peal of thunder, to dance me
from her skin, from her uneasy heart

Midnight’s Bread

October went by; no, I didn’t go mad
the fog at the window rolls like a baby
but there’s still no sign of the one thing I’ve waited for

all my life. if I were the quiet
although wrapped in a coat, then that bread
would still come and eat me

who sent this bread?
that boy is me, bike propped
upside down on the ground
when, with his hands, he desperately makes
the pedals go round
I devour that fluid flying free-wheel muscle

who was it who sent the disasters? dialectics?
over the butchered and eviscerated
the dead rise, eyes filled with cotton

I could eat myself if I were the silence


a letter opens, someone says:
the weather’s turned cold
another letter opens
it’s empty, empty
but heavier than the world
a letter opens
someone says: he sings at the tops of his lungs from the mountain
someone says: no, even if the potato died
the inertia living inside it
would still bring forth tiny hands
another letter opens
you sleep soundly as a tangerine
but someone, after peeling you of your nakedness, says:
he has touched another you
another letter opens
they’re all laughing out loud
everything around them guffaws endlessly
a letter opens
a cloud-natural, river-smooth style on the rampage outdoors
a letter opens
I chew over certain darknesses
another letter opens
a bright moon hung in the sky
after another letter opens, it shouts:
death is real


Like a tomato hiding on the edge of a steelyard he is always
lying down. Something flashes past, a warning or a swallow, but he
doesn’t budge, maintaining his place beside small objects.
The second hand moves to
10 on the dot, an alarm clock departs in the distance. A cigarette
also goes, taking with it several pairs of misshapen blue handcuffs.
His glasses, clouds, German locks. In a word, everything that hadn’t gone has now left.
Emptiness, enlarged. He is still further removed, but always on
some edge: the edge of cog-wheels, the edge of water, the edge of
his own self. He looks often into the sky, index finger pointing into the air,
practising a spidery, delirious calligraphy: “Come back!”
Sure enough, all those things that lost their shape regain their original form:
the windows of a new housing development are full of evening wind
the moon is brewing a large barrel of golden beer.
The steelyard tilts with a violent jerk, there, without limit
like a becalmed lion
reclining beside the tomato.

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