Wuhan Poems by Zhang Zhihao

...most shoes are no longer fit for my feet
I can’t even recall when I wore them...

Zhang Zhihao 张执浩, born in Jingmen, Hubei province in 1965, is among the most renowned contemporary Chinese poets: his awards include the People’s Literature Prize (2004), the annual October Prize (2011), the Chinese Literature Media Award for poetry (2013) and the Luxun Literary Prize for poetry (2017). Currently, he is executive editor of Chinese Poetry, a quarterly poetry magazine in Wuhan, China and vice president of the Hubei Writers Association. He is author of nine poetry collections, five novels and novellas, and many essays.

Translator's Note

Poetry is news. These poems by the Chinese contemporary poet Zhihao Zhang, capture the overwhelming power the virus wielded over human life. All these poetic responses to the eruption of the virus prompt us to contemplate how to cope with the lingering pandemic as it still shows little sign of abating in severity. The solution seems nothing but what the poet suggests in his most recent end-of-the-year poem:

When it [the camera] finally directed towards me
I saw the one who died in my stead
Standing behind me whispering:
“Go forth, to love and hate for me.”

We shall go forth against the virus and love life. That is the news Zhang’s poetry retains.

Due to the differences between the Chinese and English languages, and the Chinese and American cultures, translators often struggle to stay faithful to the original sentence pattern, order, or cultural references (such as the Hanyang Gate reference discussed below). Zhang’s poetry has been celebrated for its simple yet solemn and powerful language use. But that simplicity of language dictates the poet to place the words in such as a manner that they amount to the targeted poetic poignancy. I take great pride in being able to stay very closely—due to similar poetic disposition and early life experiences—to his original lines, whether it is a poem brief as “The Spring Equinox” or more complex as “Spring at Hanyang Gate.”

“Spring at Hanyang Gate” was written as the poet was experiencing the pandemic (during the spring of 2020). It seems a simple verse, but is in fact heavily loaded with historical, poetical, and political references. The landmark place is not only a tourist scenery hotspot, but also the converging point where past and present compete, merge, and shape the future. For instance, though the line “I also lean against the railing” depicts a common posture of casual tourists, it is meditative and solemn, harking back to the poetic works of Chinese Song dynasty poet Su Dongpo as well as the modern political leader Mao Zedong. The lines weave in such a way that it’s ambiguous whether it’s the past tourists, those who are not the “few that hear,” or even the speaking “I” that cannot hear what the river speaks of. To cope with this ambiguity, I translate it as a simple present verb tense to bring the past, the now (the young woman’s chin) and the seasonal blooms together.

—Yuemin He

The Spring Equinox

What wonderful sunshine
Such waste
like an insult
that persists
I look out the window repeatedly
empty courtyard
lifeless market
even the chirping of birds lacks vibrancy
Slippers in the living room
one here and another there
their wretched look
makes you demoralized


Spring at Hanyang Gate1

When I feel desperate
I go to Hanyang Gate
Many people used to gather
under the bridge to view the scenery
The sound of the river flowing east echoes
but few hear
Like a tourist
I too lean against the railing
It’s spring again
a young girl’s chin on the shoulder of her dear one
How she wishes for it to stay
First plum blooms
then magnolia
the train passes the bridge overhead
the river flows as it always does
all feels like a life ago


End of the Year Poem

While sorting out the shoe cabinet I discover
most shoes are no longer fit for my feet
I can’t even recall when I wore them
nor where I have been in them
Under the shoes my way was lost
The shoe uppers are misshapen
some even hard to tell the left from the right
One by one I take them out
and put them at the front door. I seem to see
a crowd thronging into my house
and yet the room is unusually quiet
When I walk barefoot
I hear the thumping of my heart

This isn’t poetry

Last night death took from us
a person—This is not poetry, for
the deceased wore a mask, death in disguise
Poetry must confront the features of the dead
Before the body bag was fully zipped
and the deceased was moved into the crematorium
we recognized him as her husband
a violinist, a good young man back from the South Sea
but she could not identify him either, herself in a mask
—this is not poetry, for I had no courage
to rush downstairs and face this fact
The lights of the hearse shone on the sad road
on both sides stood several health workers
in full protective gear
Shrouded in the heavy lead-colored sky
There was no crying, let alone
the gut wrenching imagined
All was formulaic, silent
as if death had become a disgrace
The unfortunate taking place in the small hours of daybreak
morphed into material for WeChat conversations—this
is not a death I could comprehend
No obituary, no memorial
one person’s death ground life into
ashes in the heart of all of us
We could only try harder to live
on death’s turf
Only living itself can redeem a poem


1Note: Hanyang Gate is a landmark in Wuhan.

Yuemin He is a professor of English at Northern Virginia Community College. She has published book chapters, reviews, essays, short stories, and translations. Her poetry translations from the Chinese appear in Oxford Anthology of Modern and Contemporary American Poetry (2nd ed.), Metamorphoses, Ezra, The Northern Virginia Review, and The Cincinnati Review.

91st M 2021 Vol 11 no 1



· Zhang Zhihao: four Wuhan poems; translated from the Chinese by Yuemin He
· Choi Jeongrye: five poems; translated from the Korean by Brother Anthony and Chung Eun-Gwi


· Homeira Qaderi, from Noqra, the Daughter of Kabul River; translated from the Dari by Ali Araghi
· Iana Boukova, from Taveling in the Direction of the Shadow, translated from the Bulgarian by Ekaterina Petrova
· Pilar Quintana, "Easy Money," an excerpt; translated from the Spanish by Joel Streicker
· Beaudelaine Pierre, "You May Have the Suitcase Now," a memoir-essay.