Red Wall

by Tracy K. Smith and Changtai Bi, translated from the Chinese written by Yi Lei

copyright ©2021

Hot. Having burned me but also
Warmed me. I regard it from a distance.
The flowers choking it, bleeding onto it,
Red legacy binding our generations.
From below, we thousands cast upon it a
beatific, benighted, complacent, complicit,
decorous, disconsolate, distracted, expectant,
execrative, filthy, grievous, guileless,
hallowed, hotheaded, hungry, incredulous,
indifferent, inscrutable, insubordinate, joyful,
loath, mild, peace-loving, profane, proud,
rageful, rancorous, rapt, skeptical, terrified,
tranquil, unperturbed, unrepentant,
warring eye.

Notes on the Poem

We begin the week with “Red Wall,” a poem by Yi Lei from her 2021 Griffin Poetry Prize shortlisted collection, My Name Will Grow Wide Like a Tree, translated from the Chinese by Tracy K. Smith and Changtai Bi. “Across the English and the Chinese, readers will hear, perhaps more than anything, the conversation that took shape between Yi Lei’s poetics and my own,” writes Tracy K. Smith in the preface of the collection. The long-lasting friendship and extraordinary collaboration between Smith, Lei, and Bi enabled the translation of this collection in English. This week’s poem, “Red Wall,” captures Yi Lei’s unique personification of the political, the way her erotics are deeply entangled with questions of state, party, and freedom. Not one premised on individualism, but a freedom in which the individual can embrace its collective and ever-shifting composition. In Yi Lei’s poem, the self contains multitudes, just as the enumeration of adjectives used in “Red Wall” expresses the impossibility of reducing experience to a single word. Of My Name Will Grow Wide Like a Tree, 2021 Griffin Poetry Judges say: “One of shortest poems in My Name Will Grow Wide Like a Tree creates—in just five lines!—a lasting theological perspective: ‘When life ends, / Memory endures. / When memory ends, / What persists /Attests to the spirit.’ Such larger-than-life—and yet also such delicate—approach distinguishes this collection as it gathers poems of eros and grief, each page bursting with attentiveness to our world. ‘Each blade of grass is a glorious eye,’ Yi Lei writes, echoing, and also revising, Whitman. In very beautiful versions by Tracy K. Smith and Changtai Bi, Yi Lei's voice here becomes invigorating, lasting poetry in English.” Read more about Yi Lei in this LitHub article by Tracy K. Smith and in this New Yorker profile.

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