Clouds and Hutongs

Two poems by Xue Di – translated by Alison Friedman



Those are clouds – lifeless expressions in eyes swaying below

cracked lips; on vision’s gloomy coast, they hide and seek.

That is me in the empty field,


The road’s deceptive snakeskin pattern; in all directions voracious trees

devour sunlight.

Those are clouds. In delusion I summon those clouds longing

for rain: lost in erogenous days,

exposed, fumbling to refasten my shadow, until my heart wizens to a blood-red desert, tree-trunk legs in quick-sand lust.

Those are clouds – swooping toward me

contracting sharp talons into black down of their bellies.

Those are clouds, taunting me with sun’s cerise tongue, chasing my bone-

protruding body. Voices of thunder

until dusk blood-splatters sky. Until in darknight’s mirror, I scrawl again and again a stranger’s name.


Zero Hutong

Where are we going? Answer me, you can’t answer, no one answers. This distant close place, you reach out and it floats off like a balloon pushed by the air current of your hand. There will be a time that you, with grizzled hair, reach the end of a prolonged journey, and stand ex- hausted in the place you sought. Only then, you glance across a small gully. Looking back at you from the sun- chasing hillside: childhood.

Now, we ride down this sepulchral hutong. In daylight it pulls back from a close-up, camera lens dodging in and out, probing forward forward forward along the al- ley. Through tree branches I see flocks of people rising and falling, flapping their wings and soaring across the square screen, flying down fate’s narrow hutong. At night, lemon-yellow lamplight twitches like a gecko’s tail on  a wall.

Walking along, the wall intrudes, icy and smooth – empty,  your heart in your throat. By your body gapes    a black hole, sucking out all reaction. Bleak lamplight when you pass by; shadows shiver. In front of you spills an illusion: lofty storied building, glass windows, each winking with candles… Along the road spurt fountains, water columns interweaving, droplets soaring through city air, across flower bushes like herds of green buf- falo… Hazy, someone near the wall slides toward you, buzzes beyond your body. Funhouse mirrors, loneliness and terror, this strange, new hutong!

We ride onward, ever onward, toward our unknown destination. Feelings like projection slides are inserted into my brain and one by one are pulled out again. We throb from head to heel, exhausted; our heads crack open and by adhesive plaster are pasted together again. Minutes bore like drill bits into my skull, the road hisses below us. When the last slide is pulled out, only lemon lamplight on the screen of my skull. Lamplight, yellow lamplight. Motionless. Blank space.

In Zero hutong we turn a corner, realize: if we want to reach our goal, we must return along this wall – a wall between; on either side, Zero hutong. No way to surmount the stones. Perhaps our destination is across the stones, but we must complete this serpentine journey. Wall… Journey… We ride forward. Piss-colored lamplight splashes against the projection screen of my mind. All around a kind of constipation, restless anxiety. But this eases to dense softness, then from everywhere gushes past. It blocks eyes and nostrils, suffocates all exposed cavities. This transparent sticky thing binds you close, constricts you, plunges you under each time you strug- gle to rise into free space. Liquid seals off all trains of thought. Yellow lamplight unceasingly flickers.

We ride forward.  Does our destination ride with us? It dodges and weaves, a firefly’s glow. Perfectly straight wall, no way over it. Lamplight palpitates. A hand lifts the clamp on the slide projector. An enormous black shadow appears on life’s white screen. It gnashes its teeth. Exhaustion. Mind in stupor. Riding forward. Clean wall. Solid. No way over. Sound of changing film. Obstruction. People leave and return. Stomach churns. I want to vomit. I feel like retching. But nothing comes… out. Road before my eyes like a child’s kaleidoscope, with each turn, new pattern; puzzle pieces arranged and sundered. This, then, life? Mama! Onward! Zero hutong lashes left and right; destination a whip’s sharp tip, back- lash searing our faces.

Sun splits open. Human bodies in lamplight drift outward like moths.

Xue Di was born in Beijing in 1957, and came to the US in the late 1980s as a writer-in-residence at Brown University. He is the author of three volumes of collected works and one book of criticism on contemporary Chinese poetry in Chinese

Alison M. Friedman is the founding director of Ping Pong Productions, a non-profit performing arts exchange organization headquartered in Beijing with the mission of cultural diplomacy

The poems published here, translated from the Chinese by Alison M. Friedman, first appeared in the bilingual volume Across Borders, published by Green Integer Press in 2013.