By Way of You to Reach Myself3 min read

Poems by Yan Li – translated by Denis Mair

Translator’s note: Yan Li was in on the ground floor of art and literature movements in Beijing during the late 70s and early 80s. As a teenager, while he was an apprentice machinist, he and the poet Bei Dao hitched a ride to the rural marshlands of Baiyangdian two hours south of the capital, where their friend Duo Duo was a sent-down youth. At that early period, the three friends were already passing around notebooks full of copied poems.  Yan Li was also a core member of the Stars Painting Group, which held a march in 1979 calling for artist-initiated exhibitions. In 1985, Yan Li went to New York and founded the poetry journal First Line, for which Ai Weiwei collaborated with him on illustrations. Yan Li has been pushing the envelope of free expression ever since. He is an amphibious visual artist who brings his own home-grown surrealism into the domain of the written word. – Denis Mair

Addicted to Each Other


If only love could be refined into a drug

To get people hooked on each other

And give them even greater contempt for hatred

I often remind myself when going out in the morning

To cancel out all dreams

That can cancel each other out

To save me from spinning circles in this world

I have been looking for the route

That goes by way of myself to reach others

Just as I’ve maintained all these years

I may take off umpteen times

But I can only land on mankind’s runway


Nobody can take away my freedom to fly toward you

Though I can only fly by inventing

A posture that disdains tradition

But I have set forth on the path

That goes by way of you to reach myself

So now that I’ve run into you

I won’t go off to catch rays in some darker place

I have no doubts we two are getting addicted

The Lord’s prescription may have come a few seasons late

But for us it is only the onset

Thank You

The state has occupied all geographical surfaces

I can only construct my inner world downward

The government has taken the biggest banquet table

The plate in my hands will have to serve as my table

Social institutions occupy all the skeletal joints

I can only pound out a romantic mood with percussion of flesh

Schools have occupied the vantage point of education

All my theories can do is fight guerilla actions

My wife has occupied the facial expression of family life

All I can do is polish the mirror a little brighter

My children have occupied the future

All I can do is help them tie their shoes

For this kind of arrangement

All I can say is thank you

Before the Heist

The phone rings from the pile of books and papers I was pillowing my head on

It is the ringleader, a man with impeccable cover, ignored by modern literature

He tells me

The weapons are ready

The explosive effects

And a souped-up vehicle

I try to express precise calm before we go into action

But due to the current tyranny of visual style over words

Nothing is left in people’s mouths but a jumble

Of hyped-up advertising reflexes

And since I’m no exception to the rule

I stammer into the receiver

Promptly I relay news of the rendezvous

To a few cohorts, who like me are tired

Of tongue-tied businessmen who let money do the talking

Like me they are ready

To put their lives on the line for this operation

Which we have code-named Regain Depth

When I think that before long

My mind’s expression will be rich again

My hands get that good old clammy feeling

Of writing about life

I toss back half a glass to toast my success

Feeling confident that we can pull it off

This robbery of the bank of language

As I stare intently once again

At the getaway map unfolded across

The body of mankind ∎

See here for the original Chinese