Li Li

I take a breath and think of my father. "He lies on his sickbed
attached to oxygen, all skin and bones, he needs help to use the
This is how a relative described it a few days ago on the phone
I can't know what my father is thinking
but I trust that he's watching himself swim. He once crossed the Yangtze
I lightly paddle with both arms. My father
will never enjoy this simple motion again: head
launching into water, coming up, launching in again, coming up again
I dive toward the bottom, touching the shadows that dance into cuttlefish
The scene of a summer bath grabs me: my father's right arm
like a crane on a dock by the Huangpu River
lightly hoisting the eight-year-old me. He was younger then than I am now
Suddenly I'm stung by something, I struggle
upward. Like someone drowning. The waves all around me
become his muscles, then in a flash become bubbles again
I'm gasping, not knowing now if it's me or my father swimming hard

translated from the Chinese by Eleanor Goodman

Read the original in Chinese, Simplified

Read translator’s note

Li Li was born in Shanghai in 1961. He moved to Sweden in 1988 to study contemporary Swedish literature at Stockholm University. In 1989, he published a book of poems in Swedish called Visions in Water, and subsequently published Escape (1994), Return (1995), You Are My Home (1999), and Origin (2007), among other poetry collections. He has won many poetry awards, including the 2008 Sweden Daily's Award for Literature and the inaugural Clock Kingdom Award. In addition to introducing Chinese poetry to Swedish readers, he has also translated Tomas Tranströmer's complete works into Chinese.

Eleanor Goodman is a writer and a translator of Chinese literature. She is a Research Associate at the Fairbank Center at Harvard University, and spent a year at Peking University on a Fulbright Fellowship. She has been an artist in residence at the American Academy in Rome and was awarded a Henry Luce Translation Fellowship from the Vermont Studio Center. Her book of translations, Something Crosses My Mind: Selected Poems of Wang Xiaoni (Zephyr Press, 2014) was the recipient of a 2013 PEN/Heim Translation Grant and was shortlisted for the Griffin Prize. Her first book of poems, Nine Dragon Island, will be published this year.

This poem is from the recent work of the poet and translator Li Li, who is famous in China but lamentably little-known in the United States. In his latest poems, he tackles the private pain of his father's death, and embarks on a more generalized exploration of animal and human suffering. His work is characterized by a strong Buddhist bent, which emerges in many of the revelatory moments in his poems. Part of the reason Li's work is so compelling is that he has a wide range of reference and experience with the outside world. Li recently moved back to China after living in Sweden for over twenty years. Li was studying in Sweden in 1989 and like many others decided not to return home after the events in Tiananmen that summer. While abroad, he worked as a translator (both from and into Swedish), and also wrote his own original poetry in Swedish. The influence of this mixing of cultures and languages is seen throughout his work, in the richness and strangeness of some of his imagery, and in the cold and austere stance of many of his most affecting poems. His is a truly unique voice, not only in the realm of Chinese poetry, but in the poetry that has entered the global consciousness. He also offers a rare window on Chinese culture: the observations of a man returned from self-exile, who has the perspective of both an insider and an outsider. His poetry is full of the tensions of that dynamics of alienation/attraction. Translating his work can be challenging. His language, especially the syntax, carries a trace of foreignness, and in some cases is charmingly old-fashioned. In "Bubbles," the main challenge was to capture the plainness of the diction and the colloquial feeling while preparing for moments of startling beauty, like shadows in the water that "dance into cuttlefish."