Nine Dragon Island
Reviewer: David E. Poston
Of her award-winning translation of the poetry of Wang Xiaoni, Eleanor Goodman has written that Wang Xiaoni’s work is marked by “keen detail and the use of ordinary objects—potatoes, trains, mountains, sunlight, dust rags—to create emotional resonance. She leans toward simple but penetrating language, with an acute ear for the rhythm, weight, and nuance of each given word and line.” Those words apply equally well to Goodman’s own collection, Nine Dragon Island.
But be warned. By the end of this collection, expect to be emotionally exhausted from traveling through its landscapes: not only geographical landscapes from Vermont and the American heartland to Hong Kong and Sichuan, but also landscapes of family, sexual temptation, illness, death, the ever-present past, and complex and ambivalent relationships. Goodman employs keen observation and highly imaginative use of natural details to provide a penetrating and unflinching look both outwardly and inwardly.
In the opening poem, “For Once,” lines such as “the self that schemes to pick itself apart” might seem at first incongruous with a description of wooded slopes that “will cast the shades of fire” and then “blow bare and show their bones.” Then one begins to grasp the implications of how
each smudge asserts a claim of memory,
flesh ever ephemeral…
The disembodied voice that interjects, “To lose all but the bones, to be stripped down” is indeed a ghost, or at least echoes the later words of her beloved Oma, the most important ghost in a haunted (and haunting) book. The ending line, “call to love, call to danger,” presages how the love poems in the latter two sections are fraught with tension between desire and fear, the speaker often poised to escape. One is almost stunned at how those love poems, as Mark Jarman famously put it, “Confess the terror they cannot withstand / Is being locked inside another hand.”
And what can one say about lines such as this (from the second poem titled “Piety”)?
They will die, the ones you
from murder face-eating cancer
lungs drowned in blood no matter
There is self-recrimination, guilt, and a pervasive “scent of mourning” in these poems. Yet there is also tenderness and empathy for mother and father, for neighbors, for earthquake victims, for orphans, beggars, and the sick. In “Fault Line,” for example, a poem written in response to the 2008 Wenchuan earthquake, the speaker asks: “Which of the world’s desires // does suffering fulfill?”
There are also poems luminous with joy and love for the natural world, such as the praise poem “Alpenglow.” The poem “Hope” praises a fruit fly hunkering down and clinging to an apricot stem. There is “Gift,” which ends,
tonight put on a feast of olives
and art and unreasonable joy and know
for once the place
you’ve laid at the table
is for you
Most prominent in Section I, set against a backdrop of gardens, farms, and post-agricultural tracts, are poems about the separated lives of her mother and father after their divorce, her mother’s illness, and her beloved Oma’s acceptance of and meditations on aging and death. In the tender poem “Dressing,” the speaker witnesses her mother without intervening self-concerns and thus unflinchingly sees herself. The first of the two “Piety” poems begins: “We do not bury our dead— / they stay or leave as they please.”
“Wanting Out” describes a losing battle with cancer, a husband who deserts, and friends who offer hope in the form of “ginseng, Essiac, God, Brazilian herbs.” It ends with:
But Lorraine says no
to mechanized breath, no
to priests and specialists, to catheters, to drugs,
no to someone else’s blood.
She says no to life without life.
Now what’s left is the letting go
of what we think she should have said.
That ending is emblematic of several poems in which the dead have accepted their fate with dignity and a peace that passes the understanding of the living.
Section II is a roller-coaster ride of dark, bleak poems about love interspersed with uplifting poems. It opens with the erotically charged “Swimming Lesson,” which ends with the speaker contemplating a leap into the sea. In the tender and vulnerable “Hummingbird,” the speaker asserts that her lover knows
that I have always been poised for flight
and to clip these wings is to kill
the iridescent body they keep aloft,
and the heart, frailest of birds,
despite love, despite all, still longs to beat.
“Weekend Getaway” adds further complexity to the speaker’s emotions and to the symbolism of the sea:
and I knew why the ocean is a body,
as raw and saline as we are, death at each boundary…
We know no other way of being.
I heard you approaching, but my only muscle
is the simple lever to open and close me,
and I couldn’t swim away…
“Sanctum,” by contrast, is a compassionate address to a damaged loved one who has endured a life of poverty and hardship, ending with a promise to fill all that is missing. “Dance” is a dark tour de force about infidelity, sexual power, tension and guilt. It features an internal dialogue in which the speaker alternates between addressing a lover, describing his behavior, and addressing herself:
you steal the hour
if she knows she says nothing
you want me to wonder
what could be better
you wind my hair
around your hand enough to hurt
It could never be worth it. Never.
The title poem, which opens Section III, establishes Goodman’s keen insight into the China that is behind China, the complex weave of traditional and new, rich and poor. It is a poetic tableau, cataloguing market wares in Kowloon, the fashionable lifestyle and economic bustle of Shenzhen, and the street life of the poor. The poems that follow it are set in locales across China, including the earthquake-stricken Sichuan region. Most appealing about these poems is their sympathetic portrait of the less fortunate: the woman mopping the promenade in “Nine Dragon Island” or the kitchen workers in “Six-Foot Chopsticks.”
The narrative and descriptive passages in this collection employ fluent, unobtrusive, breathing lines and conventional punctuation. Goodman abandons punctuation in the expressive, internalized poems and passages, to great advantage. Meditative poems such as “Hope” and “Fire Conforms” have no internal punctuation; neither does the poem “Six-foot Chopsticks,” which, though it relates a vivid story, is presented through the mind of the narrator reacting to events.
Other poems match form to content in very effective ways. In “Since the Divorce My Mother Never,” the rush of memories and emotions sprawls back and forth across the page. The use of second person in the expressionistic “To leave Zimbabwe” brings the horror of fleeing war into vivid immediacy:
you must cross
the gray corpse
of the Limpopo River
balancing your life
on your head while
with dried mud eyes
skulk the bank
The title poem employs the full range of Goodman’s stylistic techniques: conventional narrative and description, a block of text to catalogue what can be found in one block of the market, shifting of person and perspectives, and internal reactions expressed in unpunctuated sections.
For this reader, the beauty of this collection lies in its characters: in street people and beggars encountered in Harvard Square and Chengdu, in the mother-in-law who says “We’ll make a farm wife out of you yet” in “Obey, Obey,” in the mahjong players. And of course Oma, who tossed her son from the second-story window of a burning house on the Neiderstrasse and carried boiled eggs and a stub of sausage in her apron pocket for years after World War II. The book is dedicated to that son, Goodman’s father. In “On the Slope of the False Peak, My Father Looks for His Grave,” she writes:
We make the world
with the seed of our thought.
wither in my mouth.
Heading down, my hand
harnesses his shirt like a child’s.
His balance wavers, legs
soft as slow-rotting pines,
and then arm in arm
we steady together
and go on.
The journey through these poems is haunting, conflicted and tender, piercingly true, and exhaustingly beautiful.