Sublimation, by Changming Yuan


     “The meaning of life, if any at all, is to create one out of it,” you texted Hua, your long lost but recently re-found soulmate currently living in Melbourne.     

      “Looks like you’ve created one, but how did you do that?” she typed back.

     As circumstances didn’t allow you two to video- or even audio-chat with each other online across the Pacific Ocean, you had to send her a long email to answer her question.

     It started out on the evening of August 2, 2004, the day before you returned to Vancouver after your first and only family tour to Banff. You were proposing at your dinner table to climb the hill behind the hotel to get a panoramic view of the landscape, but neither your wife nor your two sons showed any interest. To follow an ancient Chinese tradition popular among literary scholar-officials, you decided to go alone and “climb high to see afar.”

     At first, you enjoyed taking this solitary walk at twilight. However, when you were half way to the hilltop, you suddenly felt a strong impulse to yell as hard as possible, like the mad man in Edvard Munch’s famous painting. For God knows how long, you had been hoping to deflate all the negative feelings accumulated at the bottom of your heart over the past years, including disappointment, despondence, dissatisfaction, hopelessness, boredom, fatigue, exhaustion, nervousness, anxiety, stressfulness, shame, anger, fear, self-contempt, self-hatred, loss of direction as well as an ever-strong sense of deprivation of love and the loss of meaning, which had made your life so full of hardships, it was now only half-worth living. To you, this screaming was relaxing enough, though it was merely a momentary discharge. Without having done so, you knew that you would explode sooner or later, like the high tech bubble. Then, standing at a high point on the stiff slope, you turned around and didn’t see a single soul within sight. Accompanied by your own shadow only, you began to sing at the top of your hoarse voice, just as you had done during your first solo patrol as a forest ranger in Mayuhe thirty years before. While singing the old songs that you had loved to sing as a zhiqing 1., you became choked with emotions that presented a contrast to your adolescent sentiments. Back then, you were full of hope and energy, prepared to take any tests, endure any physical hardships, and make any sacrifice to secure a promising future. Whether it was a devil or a deity, you would readily stand up to take the challenge and fight with all your courage and strength should it block your way in any sense. You had strongly believed that you would have a great and bright future, so you felt uplifted and light-hearted even when you faced nothing less than a torture there as a pest controller.

     But at this antlike moment, after all that you had gone through, despite all the achievements you had made in the past, you found yourself lowered lamentably to a petty, poor and powerless money-making machine, running endlessly without any lubricant or maintenance. Aged forty-seven, your heart had long since become overfilled with every kind of negative feeling. Such striking psychological contrast was so bitterly ironical that the more you sang the songs like a braying donkey, the harder you found it to hold back your emotions. Then and there, you broke down finally, shivering with sorrow, anxiety and despondency, deeply worried that your life would soon come to a meaningless end before you could find meaning in it. For the first time in your entire life, you were so overwhelmed with fear and self-pity you could not stop crying until you totally collapsed. But in so doing, you somehow got a refreshing sense of relief. Perhaps you had just gone through a process of Aristotelian catharsis, like those who were watching a heart-wrenching tragedy? Probably. You knew that you were the most serious and most sympathetic audience of your own tragedy, so you were naturally most touched.

     As you climbed to the hilltop, you found yourself standing in the heart of a copse of tall pines, a scene so strangely familiar or familiarly strange, which made you feel as if you’d returned to Mayuhe as a ranger patrolling alone. Quite lost between memory and reality, you felt an increasingly stronger urge to write something. With neither a pen nor any paper in hand, you desperately looked around and luckily found a broken pencil beside a rock as well as a faded piece of poster in a ditch. As it was getting darker, you squatted down against a tree and began to compose your first poem in Canada. Probably because you thought of the title “The Lonely Climber” first in English, you used English rather than your mother tongue as your chosen language of expression. By the time you finished coughing out what was gnawing at your heart, it had already begun to rain. So, you quickly put your poem in your pocket and ran down all the way to your hotel.

      You had not the slightest idea if you were going to scribble more pieces in English after this incident, nor did you feel like going on to pursue your forlorn dream to become a serious poetry author. However, you knew that this improvisational work had a special significance to you, not because it marked something unique in your career as a student and teacher of English as a second language, but because it documented your most intensive feeling at a most unforgettable moment in your entire life. In the following week after your return to Vancouver, you turned out several more pieces, not as an exercise for the improvement of your writing skills, but as a way to blow off some steam. As you continued tutoring around all over the city, you came to see poetry writing as an unfailing method for getting some peace of the mind. This became clearer after you did some reading about Buddhism and Daoism with a view to obtaining spiritual support that you had been looking for in recent years. However, you realized that the prose work by Lin Qingxian, a renowned writer from Taiwan, was much more readable and intriguing than any other Chinese books you could borrow from a library. In particular, you found the Chan element in his writing not only spiritually soothing but literately entertaining.

     Meanwhile, you thought of John Keats’s sonnet “On First Looking into Chapman’s Homer,” a poem you had taught at the U of S, and got a more sympathetic understanding of how the young English poet felt about the spiritual pleasure that he experienced in reading the great epic for the first time. Of course, Lin’s prose sketches were incomparable to Homer’s epic in a literary sense, but you did find the Chan element in Lin’s writing as inspiring to you as the poetic elements in Chapman’s translation work to Keats. With this new discovery, you began to see poetry not merely as a reading material of general interest, but as your personal salvation, your soulmate or your most helpful psychological therapy. Whenever you felt your soul wandering lonely as a cloud in the wasteland or lost in nowhere between misery and darkness, you turned to poetry, where you could find light, warmth, peace as well as a cozy dwelling place for your inner self, whether you were engaged in writing or reading it.

     By the end of the year, you had written as many as several dozen poems, ranging thematically from philosophical musings over your own life experiences to the most ancient myths in Chinese history. On Christmas day, you decided to take a few hours off to do something about your poetic work. After selecting those you considered best written and printing out twenty copies of them, you mailed them out without letting anybody know it, just as you had done in Mayuhe as a teenager. Several months later, you received a rejection slip, and then more, and more, but this did not really discourage you. Instead, you felt quite encouraged because you got some responses at least. Given your early shameful experience with Chinese editors, you found that though standardized, a rejection in print was much more comforting than total indifference.

     As you doodled more and more poems in English, you kept refining and sending them out secretly whenever you had time, until sometime in May you finally received your very first acceptance letter in your whole life. It just so happened that on your wife’s birthday, your contributor’s copy arrived with a ten-dollar cheque from Byline, a small US-based literary press. When you took your wife and children to Number 9, your family’s favourite restaurant, to celebrate her anniversary as usual, you presented the magazine with the cheque to her as a birthday present.

     “What a nice surprise!” Your wife was beside herself with joy, eagerly opening the magazine to read your first creative work ever published:

South China Cicada

no human ear has ever heard of you
     cloistering yourself deep in the soil
          silently sucking all sounds from roots
     for more than thirteen years in a row
     until high up on a summer painted twig
you slough off your earthly self
          pouring all your being in a single song   
          before the sun sets for the yellow leaf

     “So, that’s how you’ve become ‘the most published poet from contemporary China in the English speaking world’?” Hua texted you as soon as she finished reading the long email on her WeChat.
      “Nay, I never call myself a poet,” you typed her back. “But this is how I’ve created a meaning for myself out of the meaninglessness of my life.”


Author’s note: This story is devoted to Helen Hengxiang Liao (廖蘅湘).

1. Educated youth during the Cultural Revolution.

Copyright ©2023, by Changming Yuan. All Rights Reserved.

Yuan Changming edits Poetry Pacific with Allen Yuan in Vancouver. Credits include  2 Pushcart nominations for fiction and 12 for poetry as well as appearances in 2019 literary outlets worldwide. A poetry judge at Canada’s 2021 National Magazine Awards, Yuan began writing and publishing fiction in 2022.  

Sublimation, by Changming Yuan
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