A review of

Sea of Dreams

by Gu Cheng

Central question: Who put the “culture” in the Cultural Revolution?
Format: 206 pp., cloth; Size: 6.1" x 9.0"; Price: $16.95; Publisher: New Directions; Author is figurehead of: “Obscure” or “Misty” school of Chinese Poetry; Place family was exiled to in the 1969 cultural revolution: Salt deserts of the Shandong Province; Book is translated, edited, and introduced by: Joseph R. Allen; Strange thing author did with a pair of jeans: cut off a leg and turned it into a hat; Incorrect prediction of author’s: “Perhaps I’ll go peacefully / into old age”; Representative sentence: “Yesterday we lost our electricity / the moon was our only lamp / … You went and closed the window tight / calling the raindrops fish”

When a poet becomes an axe murderer, reading his oeuvre gets tricky. On October 8, 1993, after battling mental illness for years, thirty-seven-year-old Chinese poet Gu Cheng killed his wife, Xie Ye, with that primeval weapon, then took his own life.

Such blunt violence unavoidably colors all the poems that came before it. As it turns them into packets of clues, it’s mostly a distraction. The soothsaying sleuth will be titillated by “Mantis Romance—A Fable,” in which Cheng idealizes the spouse-devouring insect: “this is the romance of the mantis / forever together, until the end / not like people here / with all our sordid affairs.” But while the poet’s view of marital cannibalism as loyalty is predictive, it says little about his work.

Taken another way, however, Cheng’s assault provides a helpful lens for his poetry. As Joseph R. Allen notes in his introduction to Sea of Dreams, the assault can ultimately be seen as immaturity—and it is the shape of an immature poetics that this collection sketches.

We hope you enjoy this excerpt.

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—Theo Schell-Lambert

Theo Schell-Lambert is a regular contributor to the Village Voice and several other publications. He lives in San Francisco.

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