Pee Poems by Lao Yang, translated by Joshua Edwards and Lynn Xu (Circumference Books, 2022)
Lao Yang is likely better known outside of the U.S. as an artist whose practice is sound and music based, but with the publication this month of Pee Poems he will likely be better known, at least among U.S. readers, as a poet. Originally from northeastern China, he has created spaces to advocate for experimental music and sound art in Beijing and performed his own work around the world. In their translators' note, Joshua Edwards and Lynn Xu describe how they first met Yang in 2012 at a fellowship in Germany. He later stayed at Edwards' and Xu's home in Marfa, Texas while the two were away for work, a time during which Yang composed several of the poems in this book.
Pee Poems is broken into three sections: "Pissing Poems," "This Person," and "This Country." Each sections is subtitled with the number of "verses" included in it—not stanzas, necessarily, but individual sections separated by an asterisk or a page break. In "Pissing Poems" the 36 verses are spread across roughly 24 pages, including four titled poems. In this section, the "verses" range from a single word to four lines making it the most spare of the sections. The second and third sections each contain five titled poems, some of whose verses are as long as eighteen lines and three stanzas, or even a prose block.
The framing of each section as both a collection of verses and a short selection of poems is perhaps a glimpse into Yang's process as an artist who is drawn to assemblage. There are pieces of text that sit outside of the "official" verses, and many of the verses are outside of the titled poems listed in the table of contents. A brief "introduction" of sorts opens the book. This "introduction" is headed by a seemingly random series of diacritical and punctuation marks.
Suffering from stomach cramps, kidney problems, and muddled thinking, I wrote some pee poems.
Don’t call me a poet, call me a piss person. Like a “juicy meatball,” bursting suddenly in the mouth and spilling out: piss person
The first section of the book follows this short introduction, including five verses before we reach the poem "Island," the first piece with a title. "Island" itself is a short, aphoristic verse of a single line:
Mainland, small land floating
It's unclear how or even if the text on the following page continues the same poem or is itself separate, linked only by the section of the book they occupy together. Pee Poems is a vessel, within which are smaller, sometimes overlapping, vessels. Yang's experimental music background brings to mind assembled tape loops, the verses operating as stitched together pieces of found recordings in works by artists like The Books and Whettman Chelmets.
Pee Poems is bilingual, with the original Chinese on facing pages to the English translation. This arrangement gives the shape of the poems and occasionally offers insight to the formal and translation choices. Early in the book, it becomes evident just how useful this choice is when we encounter these lines:
Edwards and Xu translate these lines this way:
One of many / many of one
First of all, we can see the slash (/) is included in both the original and the translation (this isn't the only place this mark appears), but more interesting are the Chinese characters. The character translated as "Person" in the first verse is repeated at both the beginning and the end of the second verse, though in the English text the word "person" is absent, though implied. The translators call this "an orthographic interrogation of characters," writing, "This is a particularly beautiful palindrome in which the movement from person to multitude is mirrored, to show both creation and decreation."
Pee Poems is often irreverent and absurd (see the title), but always in service to a deeper meaning, whether that is a gesture toward the spiritual or a critique of the Chinese state—and states more broadly. Yang skewers the despondency that can crystallize in the minds of citizens of empire and totalitarianism. He writes,
—Mother, my world has hell inside it!
—Is there also heaven?
—You have to build it yourself.
When given a hell to live in, we must build a heaven.