Brendan Riley reviews the mordant scatological potion that is Lao Yang’s Pee Poems.

Lao Yang, Pee Poems, translated by Joshua Edwards and Lynn Xu (Circumference Books, 2022), 135pp.

Pee Poems by Chinese poet Lao Yang is a mordant scatological potion, but however scathing their pronouncements, these 126 verses in three parts – “Pissing Poems”; “This Person”; and “This Country” – comprise an ultimately hopeful and potent bouquet.

P is for poem, and Pee Poems is full of piss and vinegar, a compendium of aphoristic one-liners and couplets, extended lyrics and four-square rants. The provocative title invites wordplay and Lao Yang’s pissing contest with the “whole world” is no lighthearted piss-taking but rather prickly and prophetic:

When even the right to cry is denied
Incontinence is one of the few remaining liberties

Seeing rulers raise walls in the eyes of the people
I reinvent the act of pissing

According to the poet’s own definition, this reinvention is also revivification:

Tears become urine
And irrigate the field of poetry
#Pee Poem#

Lao Yang’s stream of words (“A river enters an ear”) declares that “The story of civilization is the tale of turd-mountain,” a grim assessment affirmed by references to garbage, dislocation, revolution, cannibalism, the tyrannical city, Satan, Prometheus, Lord of the Flies, darkness, insomnia, black holes, cemeteries, “Tireless Wolves” and “utterly exhausted” sheep, the pale rider, and “the whole world [that] awaits upending / And the upending of the upender’s upending.”

But such a squalid catalog also shares space with a lovely metaphysical poem about a couple’s mutative life:

On the deck of the houseboat
His smile refracts the sun
She    bathes in its light

Under the sun, with transpiration
Sea          slowly becomes         lake
Lake          slowly becomes        puddle
Puddle           becomes         cloud
Cloud              becomes         tears
Tears              become           crystal

Crystal illuminates everything:

That illumination confounds denotation and is in turn confounded by such verses as a dark satirical incantation for collective suicide that recalls the Weird Sisters’ ghastly enumeration of ingredients for their hell-broth in Macbeth:

Into baby formula add kidney stones
Into the vaccine mix side effects
Into real estate put human flesh
Into steamed buns stuff politics
Into the Chinese language stick knives

This dark spell seems to unleash a rant of possession, lamentation, dislocation and extermination:

Emerging time and again from the boiling plucking pot,
spreading out the body’s featherless meat, balancing on
the board as on a sharp knife’s blade, the sharp knife-like
heart demonic, the sharp knife-like heart silent as the
four quadrants of a field, silent but for the relentlessly
howling and loping wolves, breathlessly advancing,
breathlessly careening toward the end of life, pitiable life
and death, right and wrong having nothing to do with me.

Lao Yang’s verses are unabashed blues poems of subjugation from beneath a red flag:

Ever since I was little
I’ve been pressed down by this red flag
Pressed under its magnificent light

a reminder that political ideology is ultimately a physical struggle at the cellular level.

The poet boldly claims to “reinvent the act of pissing”; to survive the modern malaise, he must, like a blues singer, expel the demons; the base must become a basis for exaltation. Writers, singers and comedians including Juvenal, Petronius, Joyce, Beckett, William S. Burroughs, Thomas Pynchon, Karen Finley, George Carlin and Patti Smith have all embraced scatology but Lao Yang’s spirit ultimately seems more akin to the exuberant excretions of Henry Miller and Rabelais. In his essay “Third or Fourth Day of Spring,” Miller recommends, a la Robinson Crusoe, a “relative happiness,” proclaiming:

I am a man who pisses largely and frequently, which they say is a sign of great mental activity. . .  One likes to piss in sunlight, among human beings who watch and smile down at you. . . To relieve a full bladder is one of the great human joys. (32)

It’s the Rabelaisian deluge, however, that not only marks a piss circle round a harassed poet, but also, indiscriminately, and comically flushes out the city:

[Gargantua] so bitterly all-to-bepissed them, that he drowned two hundred and sixty thousand, four hundred and eighteen, besides the women and little children. Some, nevertheless, of the company escaped this piss-flood by mere speed of foot, who, when they were at the higher end of the university, sweating, coughing, spitting, and out of breath, they began to swear and curse, some in good hot earnest, and others in jest. (Rabelais, Five Books, Book I.89)

Lao Yang’s verses vary in structure, ensuring rhythm and consistency of movement and tone as well as the propulsive benefit of sudden variation. One brief stanza suggests some Johnsonian apothegm, such as this one from The Rambler 21: “labour and care are rewarded with success, success produces confidence, confidence relaxes industry.” But Johnson’s tidy neoclassical anadiplosis becomes Lao Yang’s event horizon:

Children walk toward dust
Dust moves in the direction of dozers
Dozers enter the gloomy door
The gloomy door
Encloses the darkness

For Lao Yang, hope lies in time, patience, devotion and the eternal lotus. In one poem, composed during a visit to the USA, he summons the lonely prophetic voice of a west Texas farmer:

The ruins are solemn and endless
Buddha is without limits
Civilization and its funerals
I have no choice but to sow seeds in rubble

But this sowing, this meager replanting, promising a painful harvest, is the rebel’s last chance for vindication:

Yes    I’ve cultivated my life into a bundle of thorns
Stop laughing    Look at the world
Thorn prick, you are my final kindness

A “thorn prick” to make the lifeblood flow again. Whereas William Blake saw a world in a grain of sand, a heaven in a wildflower, and eternity in an hour, through the prismatic drop of pee Lao Yang sees the assurance of invincible rebirth in a “rendezvous of laughter.”

Translators Joshua Edwards and Lynn Xu deserve high praise for their beautiful and consistently clear, eminently readable, exciting and pleasant renderings of these lines from the Chinese, published in a handsome facing-page translation paperback by Circumference Books.

Brendan Rileys translations include Hypothermia by Álvaro Enrigue; Caterva by Juan Filloy; The Great Latin American Novel by Carlos Fuentes; and Antagony by Luis Goytisolo. His book reviews have appeared in Asymptote, Latin American Literature Today, Los Angeles Review of Books, The Review of Contemporary Fiction, and Three Percent.