Eastern Oregon University > Basalt Magazine > A Forest of Names > Fragile as an Urn: An Interview with Ian Boyden

Fragile as an Urn: An Interview with Ian Boyden


Detail from Ai Weiwei: Fault Line. In the foreground is a marble replica of twisted iron rebar pulled from on of the collapsed schools (Rebar and Case, 2014). In the background is the wall covered with the list of 5,196 names. Photograph by Ian Boyden.

Detail from Ai Weiwei: Fault Line. In the foreground is a marble replica of twisted iron rebar pulled from one of the schools that collapsed in the Sichuan Earthquake (Rebar and Case, 2014). In the background is the wall covered with the list of 5,196 names. Photograph by Ian Boyden.

By David Axelrod

[The interest readers expressed in A Forest of Names, after a selection of the manuscript appeared in the print edition of basalt: a journal of fine & literary arts, led to our decision to invite Ian to publish a monthly selection on our website. As Ian Boyden has worked with us here at basalt these past five months, we’ve enjoyed a lively back and forth in e-mails, texts, phone calls, and conversations in La Grande and on San Juan Island. We now have pulled together some of that discussion to make it available to readers on the tenth anniversary of the Sichuan earthquake. During this time, too, we reached out to Ai Weiwei, whose installation Fault Line was its inspiration, and who has followed this project from Berlin, sharing its progress with his followers worldwide. When I asked him if he would comment on A Forest of Names, Ai Weiwei responded with this message:

Ian’s poetry project about the student victims in Sichuan is an ambitious, long-time endeavor. His project demonstrates a deep understanding of the tragic event and the humanitarian loss in a society. The poetry often deals with the intuitive and compelling translations of simple Chinese characters that make up a Chinese name. When a child is born, the family, rich or poor, always bestows all the best wishes, hope, and imagination to this newborn baby through the act of naming. Our names are always carefully chosen, and they reflect the mentality within Chinese culture. The names are often poetically striking. Ian’s writing comes from his deep fascination for cross-cultural practices and profound understanding of Chinese history and literature.

I see this work as conceptual as can be. It is a beautiful and persistent effort of a poet’s heart and mind working together, dealing with our tragic reality.

Thank you, Ai Weiwei, Ian Boyden, and readers, for your interest in basalt. We endeavor to keep it always “dark-colored and fine-grained.” The Editors]


David Axelrod: The names of these children are evocative and lovely, a kind of joy to say, even in English, but in the context of this particular naming saying their names aloud is crushing. Could you say something about Chinese given names and the intentional power of such names?

Ian Boyden: The children’s bodies were crushed, but you cannot crush a name. Their names were pulled from the rubble and the twisted rebar. The names are all that are left, in a sense these names are the only thing that belongs to them now, and they now exist intimately tied to a condition of absence. What we choose to do with this condition of absence says a lot about our humanity. Saying even a single name aloud is a significant act.

I came to think about each of these names as a work of art. That might seem strange, but many of them do what noteworthy works of art do: they provide an awareness of our own potential dimensional increase, they set up a condition by which we can begin to construct our humanity, they present a relational or causational clarity, they locate us in the vastness. In some cases they are even the seeds of a new reality. There has to be a starting point, and maybe that starting point is a name.

The human condition is also one of incredibly fast sedimentation. It is noteworthy how quickly the intentional power of a name—really of any new word—becomes buried by the repetition of its own sound. It takes an enormous amount of energy to reveal that intentionality again. The revealing of intention is one aspect of translation, certainly an aspect that was at the front of my mind as I translated the names and wrote these poems.

DA: So your translation harnessed the energy of the earthquake?

IB: When I was installing the wall of names, reading the names in the silence of the museum, it occurred to me that the massive release of energy of that earthquake had not completely dissipated. This energy could be harnessed to highlight the intentional power of individual names, and doing that might make these children more human than number, and this in turn might in some way help clarify our humanity… and our inhumanity. Our inhumanity, our indifference is another form of intentional power.

But I also began to view the process of translating their names as something akin to geological or tectonic process—from the dramatic shaking of the substrate of language, earthquake to earthquake, to the minute erosion of a cloud polishing a single word with a single drop of rain. This is all a continuum.

I am attracted to creative processes that grow and develop out of the conditions I am working in.

DA: I remember you saying the name wall for you was like a type of landscape. How do you see language within this landscape? is the job of the translator to replicate a landscape?

IB: I have come to visualize language like a river bed. If you look into a mountain stream at the end of summer, the entire bed of the stream is green with algae. You can’t see the individual stones. You might be able to see their outlines, but you can’t see their surface, their matrix. That is how I think most of us relate to names. They spend much of their lives half-hidden in a slimy river. If we are aware of their meanings, we tend to quickly forget them. We even stop hearing the sound, names become reflexive so quickly, quickly fall away from the landscape of conscious thought. I am not passing judgment here. This is the natural course of things. After all, we are calling a living creature to us when we call someone by their name—a billion active neurons is most likely more exciting than a couple of syllables on the tongue. But the microcosm reflects the macrocosm—and I think especially in the absence of those billion active neurons, we see the name remains something utterly extraordinary.

That’s where catastrophic energy is so interesting and so revealing. If you return to that same mountain stream after the winter and spring floods, the entire bed of the river will be naked. One individual stone after another, all laid bare. You can pull one out and look at it, look into an ancient geological process, even look up into the mountain around you and find the layer it fell out of. Each birth is akin to a spring flood. The parents, the grandparents, friends—everyone gathers around to see this new life, to name it. And that moment of naming reveals a great deal about the namers, about their humanity, about the culture, about the language that the child is being named into. All these hopes and dreams for this new life are held in this stone, this piece of rock that has fallen into the river. Then the warmth of summer comes and the algae makes its home over the surface again, and the individual stones all disappear.

In these poems I tried to recreate the conditions of a spring flood.

DA: You write on January 23, “Our mouths fill with sounds / that are not singing,” but doesn’t grief, too, become a song?

IB: These are sounds that are not singing. There is singing and there is not singing. At the end of this first poem of the manuscript I am talking about sounds that are not singing. It might be grief. It might be naming various forms of injustice—abrogation, neglect, indifference. . . or repeating the way these injustices transpired, who was responsible, the chain of command.

But turning to grief—I don’t think grief can become a song. I understand the impulse, but I think it is at the expense of our relationship to grief, our understanding of grief. Grief is an emotional condition, a complex of emotional conditions. Something is lost, your house, an old friend, a child, something fundamental that held and reflected you in its own being. Grief pushes up through the ocean like an island, it pushes the so-called self to the surface. This self in a state of grief is fundamentally asking for company, for support. Grief is a massive doorway to our humanity. Grief may inspire the writing of a song, it can inform the song, it may even call a song to itself—but the song and grief are separate. A song is a container, not an emotional condition. It is a score, always circling, waiting to alight upon the island when we choose to sing it. We never choose grief.

Grief is raw; the song is polished.

DA: These poems poise on a fulcrum, the particular and the cosmically vast, close-up and depth of field, celebration and grief, the private that never wished to be public, the personal that never asked to be subjected to the political. Reading these poems I feel those tensions again and again. Do these tensions in any way undermine your position as the one giving voice to the silenced?

IB: I like this description. These are, in fact, the tensions I sought out, and which I wrote into. I wrote into them because at this stage of my life, my desire is for my Self to manifest inside of these types of complexities, to understand how they are related to one another and why it is important to be clear about their relationships. My imagination right now is most interested in cause and effect, especially in dynamic environments. I find myself paying attention to those moments when I experience the sensation of vulnerability, intimacy, proximity. I also wrote them as a direct confrontation of the conditions I grew up in, in America, on the Oregon coast. As a result of those, I have spent most of my life with a very deep sense of not belonging. There are so many factors contributing to this, but I want to address one here.

We live at a time of extraordinary divide between the internal and the external. The social, political, economic, and educational systems that have governed my life have been profoundly uninterested in my internal self. In fact, they have been very active in trying to manipulate and silence it. And this is ironic, since all we are told from birth in this country is that this is the land of the free and everyone is unique, and we must follow our dreams. Such a huge load of propagandistic bullshit. The fact is, the internal self has no capital value, other than as something to be manipulated to purchase shit we don’t need. And the vast majority of us are complicit in maintaining this state of oppression.

If we devalue the internal self, it turns out we devalue our humanity. It turns out our humanity must be reinvented by each and every one of us. If we do not invest in the structures of empathy and compassion, then we are complicit in our own demise.

So to that end, this project is ultimately not about giving voice to the silenced. It is just one of many acts of remembering these children that have occurred in the years since the earthquake. Some of those acts have taken place on the rubble of the schools, incense burning at the base of a gravestone, at dinner tables, maybe someone planted a tree, some have unfolded in courtrooms and prisons, on blogs, on Twitter, various protests, some on the sides of buildings, interviews, videos, songs, performances, museums. The list is enormous, and most of it occurred in the very real danger of a very powerful authoritarian regime where saying something can be incredibly dangerous. What I have done here is really very small and it is at a very distant orbit both in time and space. I can never give them back their life, I can’t change the system they were born into. In the end, I felt the greatest gift I could give was to think about their names, to translate them into another language, and most importantly to use this tragedy to dislodge myself from my own blindness, and try and grow into a more fully realized state. And I did this very publicly because silence in these matters is only a friend of fear.

Americans, especially American intellectuals, want to control when they experience emotion, and what emotion they will experience, and who gets to deliver it to them, and how much they will pay for it. So vapid.

DA: As regards the question above, I’m thinking especially of “Change” (January 28), “He tried. / He was a child. / No one ever said / just as you are / just as you are.” That categorical “no one ever said,” is a thorn that snags my own conscience. But the two meanings of just (only or restricted to and or simultaneously an action of justice) seem alive to me but also troubling. How to untangle the child from all the many strands of intention in which he was caught?

IB: I am happy you noticed the double meaning of just in that poem. There can be no form of justice without deep understanding of the conditions needed for the Self to thrive, and the lifelong dedication to protect and foster those conditions. That tension between the individual and society is really brutal. All these pressures to conform, to become the same as the next person—ultimately what should be platform for liberation is nothing more than a prison. One of the things I love about hanging out with children is that you can see the self manifesting in all these wonderfully honest and varied ways. The self isn’t emerging at the same time as it is escaping. The struggle is there, but the struggle is not yet about one person having power over another.

So, yes, how to untangle? One name at a time. Maybe just a rope here or a rope there. It is also important to identify which long tangly thing is a rope and which is a root; what holds us back, and what nourishes us.

Detail of name 4416 "Clearing Sky" from the  Names of the Student Earthquake Victims Found by the Citizens’ Investigation (2008-2011) by Ai Weiwei. Photograph by Ian Boyden.

Detail of name 4422 “Clearing Sky” from the Names of the Student Earthquake Victims Found by the Citizens’ Investigation (2008-2011) by Ai Weiwei. Photograph by Ian Boyden.


DA: Given the gravity of the context from which these meditations unfold, there also are glimpses of levity. Speaking personally as a reader, I think the humor is effective—“he stood on his head,” and who among us hasn’t?—and that alone evokes a child-like joy many of these children felt.

IB: Humor, joy, levity, mirth are essential aspects of our humanity, in particular because they draw us together. They also hold us to the present moment more or less effortlessly. There is something in this range of emotions that is so close to that sensation you get when you discover something for the first time, or when your expectations are shattered by the unexpected.

In the case of the poem you reference, the name “Clearing Sky” is a single Chinese character 霽. It is composed of two parts. The top part is of a cloud full of rain, the bottom part is of a field of wheat or barley, theoretically which is starting to mature and you can see ears of grain. When I wrote these poems, one of my main resources was a huge, three-volume set of books that provides the historical development and variations of every Chinese character going back 3,000 years—how they looked written on bamboo slats, carved into seals, carved into stone tablets, cast into bronze bowls, engraved into turtle shells and so on. I especially love to look at these ancient forms because they show the relation of ideas so clearly, how ideas became one with sound. And in the case of this character, I sensed the enduring worry of a giant cloud threatening a crop. In motion there is stillness and in stillness there is motion. The cloud is building up like a mountain above something you’ve labored over for months, and it is a main source of food for the months to come. This single cloud could ruin it all. And then it passes. The eye full of rain moves on from the character, the field is spared…

So, I began to build upon that image in my mind. I was struggling with a poem. Maybe I was being held hostage by Seriousness, David. Then I got up from my cushion and made myself some tea or breakfast or something, I don’t remember exactly what. And when I sat back down my desk to commit some words to paper, the book happened to be facing the other way and I saw the character upside down. I realized for a second that clouds ripen as well.

Clouds are fruiting bodies!

Rain is a fruit of the sky. The gorgeous line from the Lotus Sutra came back to me about the rain falling equally on all things. And this filled me with considerable joy, child-like joy.

DA: How do you think about that differential between the seriousness of whose names these are and a moment of levity, however brief?

IB: Levity is an aspect of gravity, they are one. Gravity is a fundamental condition that all of us share. The entirety of human expression is a meditation on gravity, our will to walk “upright” is an alignment with this most fundamental force, our entire language is organized by it like iron filings radiating across a magnetic field. And so it is not mysterious that our emotions should also align with gravity as well. Laughter is a balloon rising from a falling tear. Gravity appears in the very first poem in this manuscript, “Frost Frost,” and it became a major element of these poems:

Rain falls
over an ancient forest
whose roots have no allegiance
to states or provinces
or human governance.

Roots know the earth
stone by stone,
without thought of light or dark,
following the pull of gravity,

the same gravity
that holds the world
in a thin veil of ice
filled with morning light.

In a recent essay titled “On Poetry,” Ai Weiwei wrote, “Poetry is against gravity.” Such a statement might condemn him to 500 years of being reborn as a fox! So I asked him to clarify the statement. He responded, “Poetry establishes a new measurement of the world. It is a measurement that would never exist except in every sentence of that particular poem. It tells the scale and weight and volume of our heart, which can never be defined by science.”

You can see in his follow-up statement that poetry is actually not against gravity. The poet in the most aware moments is not blinded by gravity, sees it clearly, see our existence within its conditions clearly, and places language very precisely within the field.

DA: I’m a huge fan of naming stories. When I was still a boy, I found myself invited once to a young writer’s workshop, where we met one of the teacher’s protégé’s, who happened to be the possibly still teenaged Howard Norman. He read to us from his research into traditional Swampy Cree naming stories. They were all good-humored and tender. And I recall they were almost always unique to the child and something the child signaled to the parents and others early on. I could cry just thinking about it! If one isn’t somehow obliged today to acknowledge the past by naming a child in memory of a forebear, whether beloved or not, in the USA today anyway, it seems parents sometimes consult websites for name “ideas”. [My own mother, by the way, born in the 1930s, was named for a character in a romance novel of the era.] What was the situation, do you think, with the parents of these children in the poems? The “ideas” seem very resonant of ancient longings clearly perceived. What actually might their naming practices have been?

IB: I don’t know. Chinese naming practices vary considerably from family to family, region to region. Some names are decided by the grandparents, some through divination, some follow prescribed sequences of names generation by generation. You can see the influence of the seasons in the names as they unfold over the course of the year. Often the name will in some way reference the names of the parents or other siblings. Other names are phonetic renderings of foreign names. The quake happened on the edge of Tibet and I am sure there are children here who had both a Tibetan and a Chinese name, or a Qiang and Chinese name.

But there is no way for me to know any of that. All of the names of these children were stripped of their context. I imagine I could go to Sichuan and find some of the parents or family members and ask them to tell me how they chose their child’s name. I would actually love to have the opportunity to do that. It would provide a form of counterweight to this manuscript. But getting the names “right” is also not my intent here. This manuscript is my answer to invitation issued by Weiwei on his blog on March 20, 2009. He wrote: “We will seek out the names of each departed child, and we will remember them… . Your actions create your world.”

This is my action. This is how I chose to remember these children. The translations of the names are a world. The poems give a form of texture and meaning to that world. Of course, it is my hope that one day there will be accountability brought to those who were responsible for the shoddy construction of the schools, and I also hope that there is accountability brought upon those who are responsible for persecuting the parents and family members of the children who died. But I don’t hold any illusions that these poems will have any affect upon the juggernaut of corruption that caused such enormous suffering and grief.

DA: When I think about how these names are officially suppressed, I wonder if it would be plausible for others to mediate on these names as you have? Is that in the spirit of things? Let these voices from the past roar across time to the present? #Enough?

IB: Such an action would be applauded. Weiwei’s invitation is enduring. We remember the names of these children and honor them in part through our own transformation. That transformation is best accomplished through our own acts.

DA: During the time you created this body of work in language, you have been in transition from a settled life with an established studio practice, to an unsettled life without a studio, to settling down and making a space to have a studio practice again. How might this writing you’ve done over the past several years effect your ideas about visual art?

IB: Losing my studio in 2014-15 was a terrible upset, but it was also time. I had reached a point in my practice where something wasn’t working. I wasn’t able to say what I wanted to say in ways that seemed remotely effective. I think of John Berger, who abandoned painting in the late 40s to become a writer and journalist. He was a great artist, who loved to paint. But for Berger, he became gripped by a sense of urgency regarding the proliferation of atomic weapons, an unsustainable politics strangling the world. He could speak to that urgency with words in ways he could not with painting. And for me this urgency is also political in nature, it has coalesced around the destruction of our environment at local and planetary scales. This is driven by a pervasive manifestation of non-sustainable forms of human ecology. These are really hard things to address cogently in a painting. To be honest, am not sure words are all that much more effective. But I keep these words of Camus in my mind: “the only honorable course will be to stake everything on a formidable gamble: that words are more powerful than munitions.”

I want to make sure this is clear. I have not abandoned visual art. In fact, I’m just finishing a new studio. I will be very curious to see how the last three years of writing will affect what I make. As to how this writing has affected my ideas about visual art, that is hard for me to know. I find I am increasingly sensitive to power dynamics, I have a revulsion to authoritarian impulse when I encounter it. The American art world is horribly corrupt, marked by a paucity of humanism and an abundance of narcissism. Of course, this is simply a manifestation of the conditions of capitalism, and the way that this system rewards us when we turn away from the self. It is tragically ironic that the very system that theoretically champions the individual actually punishes us when we turn toward that incredible silence required to develop and understand our inner being.

DA: How does your dual practice reflect a long-standing tradition on the West Coast—I’m thinking about Rexroth and Cage (when he was here), and others, such as the Fishtown Group outside La Conner, drawn there I assume by Morris Graves?

IB: Thank you, David, for seeing that. I understand my practice as part of a current occupied by poet-painter-calligrapher-bookmakers who have lived in this region called Cascadia—people like Sam Hamill, Robert Bringhurst, Morris Graves, Denise Levertov, Kenneth Rexroth, Mark Tobey, Hilda Morris, Gary Snyder, Lloyd Reynolds, Margot Thompson… just to name a few. Some of these people have been my teachers and close friends, others I have admired from afar. There are some salient features here: the influence of Chan Buddhism, the love of paper, calligraphy and Asian monochromatic ink painting, a spirituality rooted in the environment, a commitment to live a life where one’s passion and intellect extend from the heart. Another noteworthy dimension of this group is their insistence on not limiting themselves to a single practice. Instead we see poetry and painting, calligraphy and philosophy, painting and garden design, printing and environmental activism, translation and typography, and so on.

All of these practices feed each other, inform each other. The poet who sets the type of his or her own poem will never write the same again. The calligrapher who makes his or her own ink may see a burning forest in the words. Once the link has been clarified, every poem is political, to sit in meditation is a form of ecology, the rise and fall of the self is to be as cherished as the tides along our coastlines. I think every one of the people I just mentioned is beholden to Walt Whitman, his urgency, his compassion, his dissolving of the boundaries of the self. There was nothing cold and academic about him. He witnessed the war with his own body, sat at the bedside of dying soldiers, called out politicians for their lack of humanism. And after he wrote Leaves of Grass, even while he was writing Leaves of Grass, he set the type, he printed the pages, he designed the lettering on the cover, bound the first copies. Today we might just see another spine on the shelf, but that book is an entire life, a way of being, an irreducible expression of his humanity. Every part is intimately connected and inter-dependent.

DA: In one of these poems, you meditate on calligraphy brushes. I see that such brushes are sometimes made of “wolf” hair, but that means “weasel” hair, which is, in and of itself, interesting to think about the meaning of.

IB: The brush is a theme throughout these poems. It becomes something of an axis mundi of the collection, all of the names turning around that central poem “Forest of Brushes.” I hope we have a chance to discuss that poem later. I’ve spent a great deal of my life researching and making brushes. The brushes you mention as being made of wolf hair, are brushes that are very springy and responsive. They are used for writing small characters, or surfaces with very fine detail. I’ve made brushes out of all sorts of things: egret feathers, porcupine guard hairs, reeds and rushes, my own whiskers….Each of these materials has a its own personality, its own invitation.

DA: There are several surprises in the selection from the month of March. Many of these meditations are formally consonant with the qualities of the previous work—brevity, clarity of context, juxtaposition, and resonant metaphor to name a few. In March, however, there are longer meditations that take many forms, including (I think) an invented legend, and several longer, sometimes formally looser limbed poems. What expressive demands are the names making now?

IB: When I first started this project, I limited the poems to 140 characters, which was the character count set by Twitter at that time. And that is what drove many of the qualities you just outlined. But some of the names demanded something more than the format could accommodate. Numerous themes began to emerge, and I began to feel that I needed to honor that fact that some of the names insisted on spilling their banks. To honor this is to honor not just the environment where they grew up, but the human condition, even the tectonic release of the earth.

I didn’t translate the names all at once, just a few each day. And as I did this, a landscape emerged. The rivers and mountains, the seasonal shifts, the cultural history and mythology of the area—all of this began to become visible through the names themselves. It was like watching a landscape emerge on piece of polaroid film.

I had spent some time in this area in 1990 and then again in 1996. I was really fascinated with the damming of the Min river, a system of levies called the Dujiangyan. These levies are located just a few kilometers from the epicenter of the Sichuan Earthquake. Twelve years before the earthquake, I wandered all through that area without a single notion that the earth where I was walking would ever become liquid and tens of thousands of people would die. At that time, I documented ancient inscriptions, found the birthplace of poets and Chan masters, looked at all these amazing stone animals pulled out of the Min river floodplain, contemplated Li Bing, checked out the pandas. I even ate lunch in Yingxiu in a restaurant I am sure is no longer there. After that I actually walked deep into the mountains to where the Min river bubbles out of the ground. I drank from it there under a sky that was so intensely blue. One of the few moments in all of my time in China when I never saw or heard another human for hours, for an entire day.

So these longer poems are driven by the details of this fabric of memory apparent in the names en masse but also living within my own experience in that place.

The legends in these poems are rooted in actual legends. The name Ice is a reference to a historical figure named Li Bing who engineered the dams on the Min river over 2000 years ago. He is both historical and mythological. Chang’e is a mythological maiden who is grinding the elixir of immortality on the moon. Archer Yi shot down nine of the 10 suns. But I am not really even sure the dividing line between historical and mythological is all that important when it comes to matters of the spirit. The names of the ravines are all actual names of ravines found in the Min river watershed. If you were to walk into them, you would walk out of their name and into an entity born long before human language, before humans were even a thought on the horizon.

Ai Weiwei, Dropping a Han Dynasty Urn, 1995.

Ai Weiwei, Dropping a Han Dynasty Urn, 1995. Courtesy Ai Weiwei Studio.

DA: The month of April opens with this single line, “It’s spring, and the names bloom with water.” And they really do reflect the quality of the season. But in the middle of all this wetness, there’s this urn that has shattered into dust (April 11). Any trace of water is gone. Is that a funerary urn? What happened to the children’s bodies?

IB: What happened to the bodies was horrific. The earthquake stuck on May 12th, during one of the wettest times of the year. When you shake earth that is saturated with water, it turns to liquid. The buildings that collapsed, collapsed into a soup. Dead bodies don’t hold up in hot, humid conditions—they bloat, they turn black. There were thousands of bodies, many crushed beyond recognition. And under those conditions, only four days after the quake, officials decided it was most expedient to throw the bodies into mass graves or burn them en masse. They collected the DNA from some of the bodies, but many were simply destroyed without any attempt to identify who they were. The children experienced a triple burial—all of them violent: once when the schools collapsed and killed them; then a second time after the bodies were recovered only to be disposed of again without ceremony; and then a third time as their names and conditions of their death were buried by the authorities. It is hard to comprehend the shock the parents and surviving family members endured, and still endure to this day.

An essential aspect of the grieving process of friends and relatives to see the body of the dead, to understand it has happened, that it is real. And then to treat that body in accordance with custom—burial, cremation, grave stones, reciting a eulogy, planting a tree, whatever it might be—brings a form of closure, it allows for our humanity to rise to the beauty of the life that has been lost and for us to carry that within us. Weiwei himself describes how he went numb after the quake, unable to speak, unable to write. He went to the ruins of the schools and stood there in the wind, stood there with the knowledge that there were dead children buried in the rubble. He started shaking. It was through direct contact with that space he was able to reconnect something with himself, find his footing again, to see clearly where humanity had failed. I think this is an extraordinary description of shock and attendant grief, and how important it is not to turn our backs on difficult situations. Weiwei was radically transformed by that experience, but I think the real transformation happened over the following months and years as he produced work in response. It was his acts that fostered his empathy, and brought clarity to his compassion, and revealed the real fault lines. These fault lines were not within the earth, but within society and the particular corrupt dynamics of power in Sichuan. And I can say that I, too, have been radically transformed by writing into these names. That is an extraordinary gift that I never expected when I started writing these poems.

Hunping. Western Jin dynasty (265–316), Yue ware, Western Jin dynasty (265–316), Metropolitan Museum of Art, Charlotte C. and John C. Weber Collection.

Hunping. Yue ware, Western Jin dynasty (265–316), Metropolitan Museum of Art, Charlotte C. and John C. Weber Collection.

Regarding the urn. When I sat down to write this poem, I hadn’t intended it to be a funeral urn. The name is Wànróng (萬容), which I translated as “Myriad Container.” That second character róng 容 has many meanings: to hold, to contain; but it also means to forgive, forbearance. The character is composed of a roof over the sound of a valley. Usually that roof means to protect, to shelter, but then when it was brought into the context of the earthquake, it suddenly became an image of a lid to a funerary urn, for what are we alive if not sound? In the Han dynasty, these urns were known as hunping (魂瓶), which literally means “soul jar,” and they were decorated so lid was like a mansion or a mountain, with rivers and valleys filled with trees, birds, and deer—the jar was a microcosm of our world, our miraculous world. The idea was the soul of the deceased would find itself at home in this world of the jar.

So I began to meditate on these urns. My mind turned to a sequence of three photographs by Weiwei titled “Dropping a Han Dynasty Urn.” In the first photograph he is holding the urn in his hand. In the second you see it falling through the air. And in the third you see it smashed on the ground. There it is: cause and effect. Here’s a pot that survived for 2000 years, dropped intentionally, dropped onto hard ground. It is a challenge to culture and what we deem valuable. How do we transform our heritage? How do we break the bonds of our heritage? How is this work different from Yoko Ono breaking the Ming dynasty vase?

But that morning as I looked at the third photograph, I saw in the shards of that urn the rubble of a school. Then I saw the rubble of humanity. For the schools were built by people whose humanity had already been smashed by greed and corruption. We can see this condition of smashed humanity all over the world right now. Our societies are held hostage by rampant corruption—and it reduces humanity to rubble.

If you become part of a system that systematically threatens and persecutes the parents of dead children then you drop that fragile vase of humanity that was given to you at birth to take care of.

Humanity is as fragile as an urn.

DA: The tenth anniversary of the quake is coming up on May 12. Reading the names of May, the water of April gave way to many faces of the moon. Was this intentional, what accounts for its pull in this section of the manuscript?

IB: It was not intentional, there are a lot of moon names throughout the manuscript, but I think what you are seeing here is probably in part the flow of my own mind. During those weeks of May the moon was very active in my mind, I saw it everywhere, I felt its absence everywhere. A friend of mine, when speaking of the loss of a friend, said, “It was as if the moon had disappeared.” Such a primal power in that image. These bodies that orbit us—the sun, moon, and the stars—are central structures in how we visualize love, intimacy, devotion, compassion. Aren’t these also the central structures of humanity? Once you are aware of this pattern, then you’ll see they appear everywhere. Gaston Bachelard once wrote, “The zodiac is the Rorschach test for the child of Humanity.” He felt our humanity was linked by our sharing the same sky. The same stars caress each of our dreams regardless of what language we speak, what culture we belong to, how much money we have. When things are good, the stars align; when things are bad, then it is a disaster, literally a negation (dis-) of the stars (-aster).

Chinese characters are built of parts, each of which originally were images of one sort or another. Over time, these images have become symbolic of various concepts and sounds. When you see the moon (月) in a character, you can be relatively sure that you are dealing with a quality of light, fluctuation, or a measurement of time. We were talking earlier about how I saw a landscape appear in all of these names. There is a skyscape as well, this slowly revolving study of blue—and at night the stars, planets, the moon. And I started to see great constellations in the names as a whole, but also in individual names. All these images that are unnamed form together to make a single Chinese character, to make a name. It is a process that is at once so magical, and at the same time blinding. Jack Gilbert wrote, “We have to unlearn the constellations to see the stars.” Part of my process in writing these poems was to unlearn the names of these children. I had to unlearn the names so I could see that primal dynamism that our language floats on, to see that primitive or unconscious mind that is so wondrous in its directness.

DA: I can feel that dynamism in that first moon reference in May, “Sun-Moon Encircling.” I see the diagram of yin and yang in that name.

Beautiful. I see it as well. In that poem, I translated the child’s name Míngxuán as “Sun-Moon Encircling.” Sun-Moon is how I chose to translated the word ming (明). It means bright, to be understood clearly, to make explicit—it is literally the image of a sun and a moon together, the sun is to the left and the moon is to the right. No one would ever translate it as Sun-Moon. But that is what it is when you write it, and it is what was before it became one of the most common words in Chinese language and probably one of the most common words in Chinese poetry. Sometimes I think translators do a real disservice to the wonder of another language by trying to force it to conform to the logic of the language they are translating into, maybe even the set of assumptions that it has fallen into in its original language. If I translated it “bright” then an entire orbiting cosmos would vanish. You know who was really great at conveying the magnificent abstraction of Chinese? Edward Shafer. His translations from Chinese are really fabulous because of how he captured the linguistic nuances that shape our reality. If you want to get a glimpse of how extraordinary Tang visions of the moon really are, read Shafer’s Pacing the Void.

But the subject of this poem is only partially Taoist, rather is takes its inspiration from Mazu Daoyi, an extraordinary Chan Buddhist teacher in the Tang dynasty. I went and found his ancestral home in 1996. He was was born in a little village not far from where the child of this poem died, and I guess the two of them become one in my mind when I wrote it. There is this amazing description of Mazu when he was born. They described this child as a deep current building up before a weir. These are the conditions when water moves so slowly it makes no sound, and yet is unstoppable. It is as unstoppable as the moon crossing the sky. Mazu had such an original mind that even to this day it can reach across a thousand years and knock you off your chair.

Mazu’s last words before he died encapsulate this child’s name: “Sun-faced Buddha, Moon-faced Buddha.”



Introduction to Forest of Names

Read poems from January

Read poems from February

Read poems from March

Read poems from April

Read poems from May