At one point, the whole world seemed to scorn Liu Yunfan, including me and my wife.
Liu Yunfan, 23 years old, completed vocational school, but then failed as a cook, a motor-scooter jitney, and a street peddler of roasted potatoes, so as a last resort became an unskilled laborer, which we reluctantly accepted, hoping he would survive with honest hard work. He worked on a farm, did concrete molding and landscaping, but in all these jobs he failed because he was too dopey and cranky. Earlier this year I told him to come to my classes. Even though it was unlikely he would be any good at poetry, I believe art can redeem life just like religion. Sure enough, he began to calm down and ponder his place in the world. He then got his qualification as a security guard, ready to be self-reliant. Just about then, I met Liu Hui, a 36-year-old man from Shaoyang, teaching at Laojida. A painter and a fair poet, quiet and gaunt, Teacher Liu defended art like a fierce warrior. Still, sometimes he despaired and looked for a glass of wine in my house.
Liu Yunfan, stocky but slow-witted, clueless and muttering his words, was considered a dumbhead by many people and became a subject of ridicule and bullying. A while back, he was told off by a girl introduced to him by a match-maker, calling him a dodo. But Teacher Liu said his naiveté was essential for an artist, treasured by all great masters. That day, Teacher Liu saw the painting of a bird by Liu Yunfan —a parrot that had just died. As he grieved for the bird, I urged him to make a painting of it as a memento. The painting turned out to be very ugly, so I tossed it away. But Liu Yunfan had kept a photo of it and showed it to Teacher Liu. Staring at the painting, Teacher Liu proclaimed Liu Yunfan a genius. I didn’t believe it. We once enrolled him in an art class, and saw him disregard all perspectives and proportions. The teacher wasn’t critical, but his classmates made fun of him, so he gave up after a few classes. According to Teacher Liu: good portraits can be painted by any trained hand, but rarely does one come with ingenuity. He envied Liu Yunfan’s uninhibited mind, and said he should take up painting rather than wasting his life away as a security guard. Liu Yunfan agreed on the spot. In my memory that was the first time someone had said something good about him.
"Firefly Flowers" by Liu Yunfan
“Make art with heart! Tackle problems on the way! Theories shackle the mind.” Teacher Liu's philosophy is as unconventional as his art. Liu Yunfan took home his first art work, basically a mob of wiggly lines. The second painting was called “The Fields”, with a hint of poetry and philosophy in it, akin to Wallace Stevens' jar in his poem. The third painting "The Earth" began to enthrall. His fourth and fifth paintings showed progress. Teacher Liu was prepared for surprises, but was totally dumbfounded. Liu Yunfan’s brush strokes were churlish, but authentic and bold. Moreover, his feel for color was unambiguous, his conceptualization was great, never failing to reduce complexity to simplicity, zooming into the heart of the matter, revealing down-home truths with his greenness, unveiling amazing artless beauty. At first glance, some of his paintings looked so-so, but on the wall they looked more and more interesting; their shortcomings in the old-school sense had become essential to his art. To the right: The Earth by Liu Yunfan
Several weeks had gone by and Liu Yunfan’s creativity didn’t seem to be a fluke; only then did I dare to show my pleasure.
At three years old, he could only say one word, that was “Mama”, diagnosed as delayed language development linked to the center cord of his brain. Our well-meaning relatives and friends privately advised us to have another child, to help take care of Liu Yunfan in the years to come. We said "no" resolvedly as it would be unfair to pass on our responsibilities to his younger sibling. Therefore, my wife gave up her job to look after him and to help him become self-sufficient, which has been our common goal. Friends who knew our pain then would understand our happiness at this juncture.
Exhausted from writing, I would come to sit in the living room. The walls are covered with his paintings. To shield them from the sun, wind and rain, I close all curtains.
In fact, there isn’t any need for windows because each painting opens into a brand new world. "Irises” was painted for the three iris plants I brought back from the deep mountains in Sangzhi a hundred kilometers away. The bundle had about a dozen leaves and similar number of flowers, but his painting shows only two leaves and two flowers. I thought perhaps he was too lazy to elaborate. The main object was green, but he also gave it a green background, against orthodoxy. I refrained from criticizing him. However, on the wall, the green leaves and the green background refract on each other, like the emerald from Yunnan, all the more touching and mysterious the longer you look at it. Two small flowers— one in bloom the other still a bud, are like two sullen personalities, back to back, pitifully sweet. That painting is one of my favorites. "Red Rock Ridge" was his first plein-air piece. That day, the sun was bright, the sky was blue and wide, the temperature was 32 degrees. The pebble beach of Lishui River had an unobstructed view. My only desire was for him to finish the painting, to foster the idea that the pursuit of art involved sacrifice. Being a manual laborer over the years, enduring hardship was nothing for him. There I watched before my eyes a blank canvas being infused with tension, weight and warmth. He used simple dark blue strokes to depict the river, and, breaking all convention, added lemon yellow to it.
Teacher Liu said this painting had got it. Sure enough, the painting’s bold lines and its squarely and full layout combine to produce an uncompounded magnificence. This is one of my favorites, too. Although called Red Rock Ridge, the mountain is actually dark red, made of sandstone with moss growing, therefore appearing blackish red. In Liu Yunfan’s painting, the mountain’s red pigment is fearlessly saturated, looking bright red, completely distorted; however, with just a glance my wife, still back home a long way away, recognized it as Red Rock Ridge, which she had visited only once.
In the evening, after playing basketball, we came back to sit in the living room, and I found a chance to ask him about his paintings.
What kind of flower is this? Firefly flower. He said. I asked him where did firefly flowers grow.
He said he imagined it. He felt there ought to be such flowers in the world, so he painted them.
He said let them exist, and they came to life, out of nothing.
For a moment, he was the creator, creating firefly flowers, with a yellowish glow, swimming like tadpoles.
The piece "Life" has a flower in some murky amniotic fluid like a trembling child in the uterus, as if bowing and apologizing to the glassware, as if paying homage to the uterus, clearly a good portrayal of Liu Yunfan himself. In "Grapes”, the subject was on the plate, but Liu Yunfan gave them wings to fly, with yellow sand and red rocks at the bottom, like a king reigning over the world. His “Sunflower" lacks zeal compared to Van Gogh’s. His flower looked frail, lonely, and sad, without the passion in Van Gogh’s painting. In ”Through Time and Space", he showed a green meteorite floating at the margin of time and space, as if carrying the first or the last hope of life. “Earth” has pleasing colors, but also gives the impression of struggle. The bunch of white flowers really want to break through the imprisonment of the vase to rejoin the earth, but the glass is too thick. "Flowers and Glass" suggests a different outlook: the flower is on fire, vibrant and profuse; the glass jar looks wobbly soft as if it could melt at any time, a sharp contrast to the flower. In “Roses", the boundary vanishes between the flowers and the glass. They meld into a mandolin, sharing a warm rhythm, just like when prison guards and prisoners dance together. In "Heavy Rain", the fat raindrops have a bomb-like texture, like the rain I braved on my motorbike through Qinghai-Tibetan Plateau. In "The Fields”, there was a basket of stones in the wilderness, reminding me of Wallace Stevens' “Anecdote of the Jar”...
”The wilderness rose up to it,
And sprawled around, no longer wild.
The jar was round upon the ground
And tall and of a port in air.
It took dominion everywhere.
The jar was gray and bare.
It did not give of bird or bush,
Like nothing else in Tennessee.”
"Evening Cherry Blossoms" depicts the cherry tree downstairs; the branchlets, so heavy with flowers, that they break in light rain. This species of cherry tree does not bear fruit, which reminds me of people who sacrifice everything just to look pretty. I found a broken twig and put it in a vase at home, hoping its beauty would last a few extra days. It was indeed a blessing in disguise because Liu Yunfan preserved it on his canvas. He even housed it in his favorite jar with a spiral color background. Now the beauty for which the tree sacrificed everything would last forever. The three fish in "Fish" are like a family. They recently escaped the terrifying deep sea to swim in the shallows in white light. Naturally, I am the biggest and the last fish, with tears in my eyes. Do fish cry? I don't know, but I would. When Liu Yunfan was five years old, I stayed at home full time to teach him language. One day we were working on a poem:
“All birds have flown away, so high.
Lonely cloud drifts on, so free.
Gazing at Mount Jingting,
nor am I tired of him, nor he of me.”
After 136 repetitions, a number that I could never forget, he still jumbled the words, forgot the lines, without perceiving the meaning; but he tried and tried tirelessly. I pretended that I needed a bathroom break, but couldn’t stop tears rolling down my face in the corridor.
Why is there a white ball in the middle of "Azalea"? Like a spot with flaking paint. I tried three times to persuade him to change it to to the more pleasing yellow. He said it couldn’t be changed, it needed to be white. I asked again, and he, being slow with words and feelings, still couldn’t explain.
When he said it couldn’t be changed, it meant it couldn’t be changed.
In the canvas of fifty by forty centimeters, let him be his own god.
Beauty, like religion, teaches us to be kind.
Compared with a year ago, Liu Yunfan seems a new person.
He has quit smoking, alcohol and beetle nuts. Apart from painting, he attends classes informally. He goes to different classes, sometimes repeating the same class of mine three times, but who knows if he absorbs them or not even though he always has a notebook with him. The rest of the time, he mails books out for me, prints documents for me, fills out forms, plays football, and does laundry and cooking for the family. He also writes a poem each week. The latest one is “Cooking Fish":
“First add a little oil
then plonk in the carp to fry
transfer it into water to boil
next is to eat it
Fish is delicious
they say fish recharges the brain and IQ
particularly suitable for me.”
Mundane inventory, consistent ho-hum, without any technique.
He put it all down without thinking too much. Sending it off to circulate among his friends, he went out to play basketball.
is a lake — a teardrop of a peach blossom, let me call it Peach Blossom Pond,
three feet deep, and farmer Wang Loon* lives nearby.
I love the fish in the water, who pick the best bits to eat,
and flap away the carefree days. I love that peasant woman with a hoe on her shoulder,
raking and weeding, and feeding all the city folks and a hectare of radishes.
But clearly this luminous lake is the moon that Wang Loon
secretly handed to me, which shines like a mirror
and plays the music of heaven and earth.
Translator’s note: Wang Loon was a friend of the famous poet Li Bai in Tang Dynasty. Wang Loon was a city magistrate. After leaving office, he moved his family to a country house by Peach Blossom Pond, where Li Bai visited him several times, and wrote a poem titled Gift to Wang Loon : "The Peach Blossom Pond, a thousand feet deep, is not as deep as Wang Loon's friendship."
Translated by Meifu Wang & Michael Soper
Simultaneously broadcast in China via WeChat （微信） by our partner — China's Poetry Journal（诗刊）: https://mp.weixin.qq.com/s/E2qxRSv5R9kXkOBgn3_Pvw
I gave a rufescent wool sweater to a jackstraw. Since then, all the migratory rufescent birds startled when they saw me—those flying north, as well as those flying south. Then, as if with team spirit, they boldly opened and flapped their wings.
The rufescent birds in flight were staggered to see me—the single flier, as well as those in a flock.
When I went abroad —certainly you might take it as going into exile— that same year in September, Mother pulled out yarn from a train of burning clouds to knit the rufescent ribbed sweater for me.
She gave it to the jackstraw for the long trip in the winter, because the color represented the rufescent hope of a migratory bird, flying north, towards my native home, the eternal home.
The rufescent birds startled when they saw me—those with songs, as well as the silent ones.
Translated by Duckyard Lyricists, a group of devoted poetry lovers: Meifu Wang, Michael Soper, and Guy Hibbert
Simultaneously broadcast in China via WeChat （微信） by our partner — China's Poetry Journal（诗刊）: https://mp.weixin.qq.com/s/KUrC8rQDILbza6CDCSgq0Q
with your eyes’ yardstick, but don’t let it weaken your knees.
Every mountain pass and every tight curve
throws you to the precipice of falling, and leaves you in pieces.
Luckily a swaying roadhouse awaits on the hillside.
Luckily a strong tea slakes your thirst before the mountaintop.
The higher up, the closer you are to an irenic world,
under a lighter weight of time…
Yardstick Mountain is a peak in Mingshan Mountain Range in southwest China. It is famous for its upright profile, like a vertical yardstick, hence the Chinese name Tiechi Liang (Yardstick Mountain) and the Tibetan name Tiejie Ri (Shining Forehead).
Translated by Duckyard Lyricist, a group of devoted poetry lovers: Meifu Wang, Michael Soper, and Guy Hibbert
Simultaneously broadcast in China via WeChat （微信） by our partner — China's Poetry Journal（诗刊）: https://mp.weixin.qq.com/s/XTVl3JPbeNqw8yBD_F4Qng
*In Mandarin, the word “elephant” is homophonic with the word “grand vision”, or “grand illusion” as in Buddhist teaching.
The meadow stays green, the spring lies in the mountain,
but the Tang Dynasty outpost nearby is reduced to a playground,
an emperor’s dragon robe for rent at 20 yuan
— to see the sea in a drop of nectar —
plus, for free, the drifting clouds and the wind-swept willows.
Dreamer Zhang is not bothered by any of that,
but focuses on keeping his tiny house safe,
including his wife’s tomb after three decades together.
His left leg is prone to arthritis past midnight;
not an old fogey in looks, but he longs for the end of life’s toil.
Arm in arm, all of us took part in
the death of the grand vision. The thing to do now
is to remember the hard times when life is good, to foresee
bloodshed in peacetime, to keep our minds open for epiphanies.
The only destructible part of life is our old skin.
Why not climb the Fairy Mountain.
Why not visit the Wonders of Crater Cavern.^
^Wonders of Crater Cavern, or Tiankeng Difeng in Chinese, is a Karst physiographic region characterized by a big sinkhole and an underground river system including caves. It is located in Fengjie near Chongqing, China . It is also known as the Heavenly Pit.
Translated by Meifu Wang, Michael Soper & Guy Hibbert
Simultaneously broadcast in China via WeChat （微信） by our partner — China's Poetry Journal（诗刊）: https://mp.weixin.qq.com/s/7vg98ZVa2yWwH1dXMvKQrw