A Letter from a Distant Place

by Yan Ning

image of postbox covered by wheat-pasted flyers

Mr. Guo, a young poet of unique poetic form and clever syntax riddled with meaning and rich in contemporary consciousness, was illustrious. Every time he published a poem, the poetry world had to comment, and whether lauded to the heavens or given snorts of contempt, Mr. Guo would be joyous and enter into a gratified state into which the critics' words couldn't trespass. After graduating from the university with a major in Chinese literature, he especially desired to hold a post with the editorial department of a literary magazine and thereby spread the wings of his lofty ambitions, making a free and unfettered flight. But when notice was handed down, Mr. Guo had been assigned to a city paper arts department. This paper had a supplement, "Springtime Flowers," which often published poetry and articles and was quite influential. Mr. Guo always made innumerable submissions, but repeatedly the submissions were rejected, and he would fall to brooding. Recently, he had wanted with impudence to go to the editor of this paper's supplement , intending to mock him. But since romanticizing often leads to compromise, Mr. Guo was forced to go against his will and fulfill the duties of his new post.

Assigned to the director's office, Mr. Guo had a view from a bird cage: this arts department was ostentatious. Its three room office was furnished with desks, filing cabinets, even desk lamps and electric fans -everything needed and more; but then, he mustn't be encumbered. The office personnel included the Director, Jin Mou, and in charge of short stories, Mr. Wang.

Mr. Wang had a small frame and a follower's face, one might say mediocre and homely. But as to his novelistic talents, although his works were not many, each certainly received good criticism. He was youthful and already happily married. His relationship with Mr. Guo was well-established; even at their first meeting it had been like old friends getting together.

Jin Mou, in his fifties, also had a poet's reputation. His poetry, volumes of folk verse, read light on the lips: a concurrence of song lyrics broadening to traditional chants expressing contentment with one's lot. This man managed the submission s to his own liking, clinging obstinately to his own course, already dubbed "Mou's style" and not easily changed. Mr. Guo's own ideas would suffer suppression, though his stubborn pride was ready at all times for confrontation. Jin Mou, however, had a pacific temperament and didn't raise his voice whatever might happen - causing one to be unable to fathom that the atmosphere was charged or that Guo was willing to fight.

Reading manuscripts one day, Mr. Guo came across a collection of poems, "The Barbarian's Rhapsody," and he was so taken by them that his heart quavered. This collection had come from the hand of a youth, yet combined the ancient and modern in one volume, richly profound and powerfully beautiful without losing sincerity. In fact, it compared with the magnificence of the pre-eminent Taiwanese poet, Yu Guang-zhong. To push the new poet's work, Mr. Guo suddenly picked up his pen and wrote an enthusiastic recommendation. He repeatedly talked of this matter with Mr. Wang, who - reserved and not really listening -looked askance at the all-serious Jin Mou and laughed indifferently. This laugh was pregnant with meaning. Mr. Guo harbored considerable anger.

Some days later, Mr. Guo got a letter. Upon opening it, he was greatly surprised. The letter had been written by Jin Mou and ran to a thousand words, a tactful and roundabout rejection of the recommended collection, covering some of the must-notes of modern poetry's arrogance and the danger China's poetics was in, advising caution and thought. Moreover, Jin Mou had drawn up a list of a large number of book titles for Mr. Guo to consult to re-evaluate his thinking. The letter's language was to the utmost placid and genial, just like a close relative's kindness.

Mr. Guo had a youth's irascibility, and as before, jumped ten feet in the air, daring flames. He longed to seek out an argument, but didn't see a trace of Jin Mou. Actually, that man had already retired to the chief editor's office for refuge.

Seeing this furious disposition, Mr. Wang laughed out, "A letter has come from a distant place?"

Mr. Guo stared and said, "Together in the same room, is it worth the trouble to write a letter? Mr. Say A Letter Has Come From A Distant Place has also received this kind of honor?"

Mr. Wang opened a drawer and got out a stack of letters and piled them on top of a table. Without exception, each was equally thick and all were in Jin Mou's handwriting. Noticeably apprehensive, Mr. Wang explained solemnly, "Using a letter to instruct a man is Jin Mou's favorite hobby. If there's a confrontation, he's bound to say, 'At the root of our beliefs lie opinions diametrically opposed. But you may write me a letter.' All of which forces you to be conciliatory and make allowances. This letter, moreover, isn't passed on personally, but one must go to the post office and mail it, causing colleagues to joke, 'A letter has come from a distant place.' Mr. Guo, this is only the beginning. They'll come in the daily mail frequently, in excess of what time allows for."

Mr. Guo noticed the stamp, which had indeed been postmarked in Baimajun, a suburb of the city about ten kilometers from the newspaper office. Each mailing of a letter involved considerable expense and backtracking, but Jin Mou was pleased to take this route, leaving others perplexed despite a hundred reflect ions.

Incensed by this enlightening initiation, Mr. Guo raised his pen and hastily addressed an envelope, then boarded a bus to Baimajun- and though his entire body became saturated with perspiration, by the time he had mailed the letter his pores were unobstructed and he felt refreshed and comfortable.

The next day, Jin Mou arrived for work and first read the incoming mail and manuscripts. Messrs. Guo and Wang kept close watch from the sidelines. When he opened Mr. Guo's letter, there was only the envelope; he could find no letter -which was not owing to either tiredness nor having been at it too long. The two laughed secretly, not daring to make a sound.

But to see Jin Mou carefully regard the handwriting on the envelope, reflect a moment, get out pen and paper and bend over the desk intent and serious, was truly affecting. Mr. Guo's smile suddenly froze-he couldn't help the melancholy that came over him. As the ancients had said: It's easy to move mountains and rivers, but it's hard to change a person's nature. Such as it is, 'A letter has come from a distant place' will endure over the years. What can be done about it? This poetry is unlike a poem.

Mr. Wang laughed. A story and a poem, in the end, are not the same.

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Chinese to English translation originally appeared in: Pig Iron: Third World No. 15, ISBN 0-917530-23-3

Translated by John Haymaker