Review: Sunday Sparrows, by Song Lin

With a sweeping hand, poet Song Lin anoints both tangible and intangible objects with gravitas and dimension.

Literature Review


Sunday Sparrows
Sunday Sparrows, by Song Lin, translated by Jami Proctor Xu. Available via Bookshop.


How heavy is an unseen object?
For example, a pore of fatigue on the eye


In ‘Montparnasse Model’, Song Lin offers the reader a prism to approach the foliage of meditation, remembrance, and longing that is his latest poetry collection. Sunday Sparrows. These poems span an array of themes and translator Jami Proctor Xu calls them weavings of history, myth, nature, city, everyday life, melancholy, joy, story, image, and classical and modern Chinese. As such, they evade any easy classification yet a unity of poetic voice strings the collection together. Song Lin has given us a tapestry woven of no particular fiber, and following each thread we arrive at new ways of looking at the world and its objects, seen and unseen.


For example, in ‘Gratitude’:

Dust hops on the ground.
Trees, cars, and heads hop on the ground. 
A dirge hops on the ground.


With a sweeping hand, the poet anoints both tangible and intangible objects with gravitas and dimension, describing how they are "thickly covering the planet." In most of the poems, we find him breathing something more than just life into things, something even death at times. This is not mere personification. Here is a philosopher’s inquisitive needle puncturing all that we take for granted but with a poet’s humility of incertitude substituted for analytical pride. The artist revels in inexactitude even when he laments it. In ‘Kettle,’ he compares the darkness inside his body to the darkness inside a kettle and how both "are a night that comes without warning." In 'Death and Praise' he says:


We know very little about the principles of death
just as we know almost nothing about the difficulties of objects. 


Song Lin himself has hardly stayed confined to a particular place or time. Born in 1959 in Xiamen, Fujian, he spent nine months in prison during the democracy protests of 1989 in Shanghai. He has travelled widely and lived in France, Singapore and Argentina before returning to China. This diversity of situation lends a rich substrate to his poetry along with his personality. His influences, too, are wide-ranging. One may call Song Lin as much an inheritor of the rich lyrical tradition of China as an exponent of Rilke or Eliot. ‘Self-Portrait of a Barbarian’ has as its epigraph a line from Laurence Sterne. In ‘Chrysanthemums on the Sea’ he asks in Eliot’s fashion:


What is this that feels so frightened and shaken
Who is it on the leaking rubber boat, so frightened and shaken


In ‘Emptiness’ he quotes Odysseus Elytis, the Nobel Prize winning Greek romantic modernist and goes on to say, in a self-reflexive tone:


The places we’ve been aren’t far from us.

I rest my hand on my head, and my body slowly drifts past all the places I’ve been.


Indeed, he takes the reader past many places in the East and the West. The rivers Seine and Charente purl beside the Purple-Gold mountain of Nanjing in these poems, and Rio de la Plata commingles with the Yangtze. Song Lin talks of divides and waters line the pages, separating people, exacting farewells. In ‘A Song for the Girls Smuggled on a Boat’, he writes: 


In their final glance, their hometown shore
was slanted; the same moon
rose above the Taiwan Straits. 


Having spent the greater part of his life in transit, Song Lin understands and portrays well a sense of belonging everywhere and nowhere. In the foreword, Jami Proctor Xu mentions that he once told her, “Sometimes I feel like someone from antiquity.” This sense of dissociation hovers over the text. "The stones in the river dream of the stones on the riverbank," he says in one poem. Elsewhere we hear "a cricket in the kitchen calling to a cricket in the wild." 


There are lines replete with longing across boundaries, like this beautiful image from ‘Moth Movements’:


But the glass between the moths and the lantern seems to become more powerful, indifferent, transparent 


The wanderer always leaves a part of his heart behind in a homeland’s niche and to it he inevitably returns. While the universality of these poems is striking, there is also a richness of Chinese tradition, history and culture. There is tenderness and relief in lines like these:


It’s so different to walk on one’s native land;
you don’t need to verify the past.

I taste Nanjing as if tasting a tangerine.
I’ve returned.


The fluidity of imagination and surreal fabrications in most of the poems are reminiscent of folklore and myths. Song Lin introduces to us mythological gods and goddesses like Nu Wa, takes us on a visit to Emperor Qin Shihuang’s Tomb, and ramblings in Chinese terrain. He also writes of the varieties of gaze and "the often overlooked unbearable aspects of our homeland." A great share of the credit must also go to Jami Proctor Xu for translation that is true to the original, and in doing so brings to English-speaking readers a treasure of rhythms and images.


There is much else that can be said of Sunday Sparrows  but let it suffice that Song Lin’s is a poetic hand guided by vision that is traditional and scientific, a voice that speaks of Prigogine, UFOs and the konghou – all in the same breath. Here we find idyllic pictures parked alongside horrors and oppression, and questions such as, "who was quietly poisoned by gas?" His mind is relentless in its reimagining the essence of things, and as he says:


The sea suddenly wants to pass through a fish 
to see what waters lie on the other side. 



Literature, Review, Poetry