Five poems by Chen Xianfa – Translated by Martyn Crucefix and Nancy Feng Liang

Biographies of the three writers involved in this submission

Chen Xianfa is a prize-winning poet and journalist, born in Anhui Province, China. He has published five books of poems: Death in the Spring (1994), Past Life (2005), Engraving the Tombstone (2011), On Raising Cranes (2015; in English tr. 2017) and Poems in Nines (2018; bilingual Chinese/English, tr. Nancy Feng Liang, publ. China) which was awarded the Lu Xun Prize. A Selected Poems appeared in 2019. He has published two collections of essays, Heichiba Notes (2014 and 2021). Other awards include China’s Top Ten Influential Poets (1998-2008), the Hainan Biennial Poetry Prize (2011), Yuan Kejia Poetry Prize (2013), Tian Wen Poetry Prize (2015) and the Chenzi’ang Poetry Prize (2016).


Martyn Crucefix – recent publications are Cargo of Limbs (Hercules Editions, 2019) and The Lovely Disciplines (Seren, 2017). These Numbered Days, translations of the poems of Peter Huchel (Shearsman, 2019) won the Schlegel-Tieck Translation Prize, 2020. Martyn has also translated Rilke’s Duino Elegies – shortlisted, 2007 Popescu Prize for European Poetry Translation – and Sonnets to Orpheus, both published by Enitharmon Books. He has also published Daodejing – a new version in English (Enitharmon, 2016). A Rilke Selected will be published by Pushkin Press in 2023. A translation of essays by Lutz Seiler, Sundays I Thought of God, is due from And Other Stories in 2023. He is currently a Royal Literary Fund Fellow at The British Library and blogs on poetry, translation and teaching at

Nancy Feng Liang – is a bilingual poet and translator living in Massachusetts and North Carolina. She has translated Henry David Thoreau’s Wild Fruits into Chinese (published by China’s Culture and Development Press in 2018) and Chen Xianfa’s Poems in Nines (publ. in China by Anhui Education Press, 2018). Her most recent poetry collection, Qi Cun Tie, was published by Taiwan Showwe Press, 2020. She graduated from Harvard University with a Master’s degree in 2004.

Five poems by Chen Xianfa – translated by Martyn Crucefix and Nancy Feng Liang

The Square

All at once – as if receiving the same secret order –
hundreds of people halted in the square,
then, together, stamped their feet
ferociously, without a word
and all in time, zombie-like, creating
a wave of noise that instantly deformed buildings on every side.

This happened
on a wintry night,
dead leaves dancing on the ground like flocks of headless birds.
Suddenly, I thought, what if these
were heads being thumped on the ground?
Hundreds of human heads thumping the earth together –
what an impact on this floating world
with its many bronze statues, with its rusted

I remember my helplessness
and I remember, on all sides, my sense of shame.
On my feet,
the soles of my shoes thick with the cotton cloth
my mother had sewn into them.

I was unable to answer this universal clamour.
This was the same year I left the Anhui countryside.
I came to Shanghai
in my early twenties, no more than a newcomer,
but one just freed from the noose.

Moment in Cloud

I could never find that remote corner of my body
where I might shelter
the flutterings of a desire from who knows where.

Until one night, naked,
as I walked out of my bedroom,
as I passed the long mirror hanging by the door,
the powerful beam of a searchlight beyond the window
swept suddenly between me
and the mirror.
In that moment, I was divided in two.

I stood dazzled for a few seconds.
I stared at myself beyond the beam of light,
gazing back, divided,
from the farther side, dazzled.

Climbing back into my dry, hot bed, I was thinking
of my other self, living
inside the mirror, out there, tormented still,
sufficient to himself,
forever slowly dwindling . . .

Then I was pleading with him, cling on,
in the nothingness, just a few moments more . . .

The Year is Closing

A willow tree standing on the breakwater
is surrounded by countless others.
A girl is jogging round the lake,
passing one willow tree after another.
She is running so quickly,
she bursts from her own skin over and over again.

Close to the edge of the lake,
an egret moves in slow motion.

In the gulf that separates the girl and the egret,
a nurse who has just finished
her night shift is climbing out of a red taxi.
The year is closing.

The egret gathers up all it has in the world
and quietly leaves, skimming the surface of the water.

Tremor in the Dust

I tread very carefully on the earth
as I move forward.
Any slight tremor in the least of the dust
runs the risk of spilling over into another life.

Our bodies are no better
than that of a cricket under a dry leaf.
And our songs to solitude are not even as delicate
as those of the cricket.

At this moment, I am sitting at my desk,
squinting out into the glare of the blazing sun.
I see my father up a ladder –
he is near the top of a derelict wall, waving
a large pair of shears.
He has been dead these seven years.

It’s time he left.
Both his brooding and his shyness remain so powerful –
now it’s time for the cricket to express them
in a different language.

Gifts of Birdsong

Moving among the bushes after a shower of rain –
birdsong strikes the slick, damp surface
of my hearing,
making tiny perforations –
this hole, a blackbird, this, the black-tailed tit,
so many other small, ragged holes
of birds without name.
My ears display a flair for the healing of such tiny rifts.

Hidden in every bush,
there is an ear
delicately making an answer to our own.

I try calling out some of the names of the dead.
This extraordinary world of hearing
is all I have to balance the debris of the Cold War.

My fingers broken along with the sounds of the zither.
All the organs of my body
failing too –
only my ears left to absorb the landslip of defeat.

But I am waiting for the birds’ singing
to lift my pen that has for so long now been left
to rot in the rain.

In this quietness, peeled open by the singing of the birds,
let me rise up into my other self –
though I cannot – as if I was to return blind –
re-live a second time a world once lived.

Note: Nancy and Martyn have permission from the original author for online publication


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1 Response to Five poems by Chen Xianfa – Translated by Martyn Crucefix and Nancy Feng Liang

  1. Reblogged this on Martyn Crucefix and commented:
    So pleased to have these 5 poems published by The Galway Review. This is another of my translation projects (working with Nancy Feng Liang, without whom none of this would be possible pf course). We ‘met’ during last year’s Cambridge Poetry Festival and she was looking for an English language poet to work on Chen Xianfa’s collection ‘Poems in Nines’ (2018). The more I have done so the more I love his work. I hope you enjoy these poems.

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