“In bluing river water/ wash both hands,” begins the first poem, “Farming People,” in Over Autumn Rooftops by Hai Zi, a book of poems spanning his entire life. The book is organized chronologically. His early poems reveal a vibrant, descriptive language that radiates light through its diction, concrete images, and ideas. They reveal a somewhat naïve poet who is in the throes of life and landscape. The first line of the first poem of the book shows a theme that echoes throughout the book from early poems to later poems. However, the kind of washing changes; in the beginning the poems are more playful, but as they progress, there is more and more blood being washed from the hands and the poems venture into darkness both literally and figuratively.
Throughout the book, barley fields, wheat fields, water, earth, and nature from Hai Zi’s childhood recur, the speaker’s interaction with the fields; however, changes. As I was writing this annotation, I was trying to keep in mind the organic organization of the poems in the book - what journey the poet is taking the reader on and how his/her perceptions will change from the beginning to the end of the book, what kind of “growth” will occur in both the poet and the reader.
Hai Zi takes the reader on a journey of innocence and awe into the deep, dark, core of the earth and humanity. Both perspectives are real and full of strength, but as the yin-yang symbol suggests, we can’t escape the darkness that bleeds into the white light and the white light that bleeds into the darkness. These are inseparable truths. From “Poem Offered into the Dark Night,” Zi writes, “The sky has nothing/ why does it comfort me// desolate earth after bountiful harvest/ people take away the year’s yield/ take away the grain,/ ride away the horses/ those people left in the earth are buried deep…” There is abundance in nature and then the vastness of death when that is taken away; and what is left in the earth are the dead people.
In his poems, nature, for example peach blossoms, represent the beauty and brutality of human existence as sure as the cycles of nature.
on a cart golden in the light of dawn
blood-red, exploded open
bastard daughters of the sun
blood slowly flowing
like the inside of some revolutionary group
a machete, savage and desolate on the grasslands
In the book, the gradual development of perspective takes the reader deeper and deeper into a dark, painful realm where eventually Zi concludes in his poem “Wheat Fields and Poets,” “wheat fields/ others see you/ and think you warm and beautiful/ but I stand at the center of your painful interrogation/ burned by you/ I stand in the sun painful awns of wheat.” And in “Earth. Sadness. Death,” he writes, “…bundles of my bones form rooftops on the water, remnants of humanity.” There is a sense of huge hopelessness, this darkness that the poet himself could not escape from in life. Perhaps it is due to this overwhelming abyss that the poet died by throwing himself in front of an oncoming train.