rev. of Between Silences by Ha Jin

Issue #54
Spring 1991

There are many reasons to praise this extraordinary book by the Chinese poet Ha Jin. Among the poets of his generation, who came of age in the crucible of the Cultural Revolution, he is, I believe, the first to publish a collection not translated, but written in American English spare, clear, unadorned. The poet, who served in the Chinese Army from the age of fourteen, writes in the voices of men and women and schoolchildren, the frightened young soldiers, even officers and Red Guard officials, with piercing irony and lyric sensibility. Subtitled "A Voice from China," these poems speak a kind of universal language of truth-telling.

Yet this is not merely political commentary in verse. With an urgent story to tell, Ha Jin accomplishes much more than testimony. He has shaped poems of love, fortitude and death which are limpid, often comic, masterful in their uses of imagery, forged under the most intense pressure to remain silent, in the certainty that to speak freely is to court calamity. (An epigraph quotes the revered Lu Xun, whose writing in a vernacular, rather than literary, language was a true revolution in the 1920s and ’30s:
"Silence, and silence either you erupt in silence, or you perish in silence.")

"The starred tie around my neck at any moment can tighten into a cobra. . ./ How can I speak about coffee and flowers?" Ha Jin writes in "Because I Will Be Silenced." His stoical, beautiful poems have no room for trivia, for the personae speak with a certainty of danger, with no choice but to make their utterances.
Between Silences is truly, as Frank Bidart has said, "profound. . . an event."

Gail Mazur