In her poetry collection, Ten Thousand Waves, Wang Ping revisits some of the same topics she has explored in her soothing, strong voice for many years. In this collection, however, she brings readers the harshness of it all. While her previous poems may have driven home their point, the ones pooled together in Waves have drove the stake through the heart deeper than ever before. This third collection has proven to be even more of a political statement than her others, considering that her title poem takes up the bulk of this text and tells the stories of those who died in a recent industrial work-related tragedy in China. Her activism, shown through her moving words, makes for a powerful combination that both teaches and reminds readers about a world that cannot be made beautiful through verse, only through action.
In regards to her writing style, Ping’s years of living through the Chinese Cultural Revolution are long since over, but her memories, and her subsequent ability to reflect on those days has only grown stronger with time. Her poetry, since the publication of her first collection, The Magic Whip, has changed only somewhat substantially. Her writing style, though still stark and poignant, has developed a more modern aspect that was not as visible in her older pieces. A piece titled “The Last Son of China” may have been the turnaround from more traditional to more experimental, considering that the format of that poem was something never before seen in Ping’s work:
“………………….. hello hello hello … Weiwei … where have you been? … I see you in dreams … bleeding … in the darkness of the sun … 81 spots in the flame … each a nightmare one cannot wake up from … Weiwei … the last son …”
This poem is included in the second part of Waves, placed after a list of quotes from migrant workers, company representatives, and anonymous factory workers stationed in China. Wei Wei’s history is complex, but he is infamous for his work linked to the social injutsicies in China. To place this broken, experimental poem after something as concrete as direct quotes from those Wei Wei wishes to liberate is powerful. It creates a real-world connection that the reader can be shocked and interested by; that, and it also artistically makes sense. Wei Wei’s art is so often only seen as art, just as poems are often only seen as poems – contained entities, only existing to entertain. “The Last Son of China” is a transcript, an unanswered phone call, a voice given to those who know and want to publicize all that Wei Wei’s art is about. Ping’s use of an experimental style in this piece only works to highlight this, creating an almost conversation-like experience.
This unconventional style is seen in traces in Waves, particularly in the poem “Dust Angels.” Again, someone – or many someones – are pleading to the reader. These pieces seem to have a new “voice” – unlike Ping’s previous lilt, this voice in her poetry is much sharper, much more angled; there is a razor edge to the writing, and the subject matter of these particular pieces is not sliced to ribbons but made all the more deadly when combined with this stylistic choice. Her poems are longer, too, more prosaic in nature – the continuing tale that travels through pieces like “Soltice in Lhasa” and “Luosang’s Dream” illustrate her attempts to add the natural flow of her poetry to prose that so oft covers many of the same issues her poems have already covered. These prose pieces do not do Ping credit as a poet. Too sharp and stilted, the subtly of her poetry is gone when she instead clearly illustrates the social issues in the form of personal stories. While her poems captivate, her prose lacks in its structure, content, and general feel.
A prose piece that saved Ping from the poor nature of her long-form style was “In Search of Chinese Poets.” A list of last names of presumed Chinese poets (Ping makes no move as to say whether they are real or fictitious, but going by her tendency to use the names of real people she knew or once knew or knew of, it may be safe to assume they are all very real indeed) is followed by brief explanation as to where they are now. Now being the 21st century, of course. One that is particularly striking in its starkly non-poetic nature is this: “Dachun – Plunged into the sea.” In four simple words, Ping is able to convey the stark reality of many writers in two ways: one in the literal reading of this sentence, that they commit suicide; and in the other, through a Chinese saying that means to give up one’s profession. Did this poet, Dachun, end his own life, or simply give up on crafting the word? The rest of the listed poets have more pliable explanations for their disappearance, with a few more being listed as plunging into the sea – the sea, like Ping’s poetry in this case, is both volatile and a welcoming release. The poets, like herself, must have sought it either literally or figuratively as a way to rid themselves of the often cruel awareness that comes with being a poet. Like Ping, these Chinese poets need to “plunge into the sea” in order to either escape their craft or to perhaps escape the social stigma that surrounds being the traditional idea of “the voice of the people.”
Speaking of voices, none are more powerful than in the most anticipated poem in this collection. Frankly, the title poem deserves an entire review unto itself: “Ten Thousand Waves” can ultimately be called Ping’s most moving and most impactful piece. Based off a 2004 tragedy that resulted in the deaths of twenty-one immigrant workers off of a coast in England. There deaths, notes Ping, took place on the eve of the Lantern Festival (a traditional celebration held amongst family and friends that heralds the end of the Chinese New Year, and the beginning of the next). The voices of these workers have been gathered here, in this poem, in order to tell the last fleeting moments of their stories. Here is where Ping’s prowess as a Chinese poet is made apparent; the poems themselves, twenty-one in total, of course, have a repetitive nature – a choice of technique that becomes apparent in the final poem within the poem, “Chorus From All Ghosts.” Most, if not all of the poems, end with the name of the sea in which their speaker drowned – the North Wales Sea. It is more than a reminder of what killed them – it is a poetic choice meant to convey a traditional Western form of poetry: the choral poem. In ancient Greek literature, the chorus of the dead was often a calling to the living, a plea to remember them and to honour their deaths.
There seems to be a marked similarity to the voices, though individualized, and the pleas of the men Odysseus encounters after crossing the river Styx in Homer’s The Odyssey. Though this may be a worn-out poetry trope, Ping does it a newfound justice by combining traditional Eastern poetic methods with such a Western form. In “Zhou Xun Chao, Dong Xi Wu” a pictorial arrangement of characters presents a cross to the reader – a common symbol of death. To those who can read the language, it is a reminder of the tragedy and assuredly shares words to convey as much; to those who can’t, the image represents the same meaning.
Though experimental at points, most of the twenty-one poems in this piece carry traditional methods. There are couplets, there is free verse, and there is even a brief piece of prose-poetry. Ping pulls out all of her stylistic abilities in order to create a highly varied but externally singular poem. It is the “Chorus From All Ghosts” that brings the poem together. The final lines “our eyes on the North Star / Our spirits churning for the sea” are poignant. The North Star, being a point of reference in ancient (and modern) seafaring travel, suggests that souls of the lost may just be attempting to head home to the sea in which they belong – not the coast of England, but the coast of China, a place where their families may recognize them in the waves. This ending is as poetic as the entire set of poems collected together on one titular piece, and functions as both haunting and hopeful.
Ping outdoes herself in this collection. Even when she seems to be singing the same choral song, she brings forth new ways to present the social and cultural issues she focuses on in each of her collections. Her words in this collection are particularly moving, as if she has reached a new peak in her poetic career. Wang Ping has always created a moving portrait, a choir piece, a work of art that seems to encapsulate the most complex in the simplest of ways – but never before has her work seemed so human, so full of the people begging to be heard. Ten thousand waves lapping against a shore sound an awful lot like whispered voices when all else is quiet.