Midnight's Gate: Essays - reviewed by Patrick Kowalchuk

"Midnight's Gate: Essays"By Bei Dao New Directions 255 pgs.


If Italo Calvino did not say, "Beware of saying to them that sometimes cities follow one another on the same site and under the same name, born and dying without knowing one another, without communicating among themselves," Bei Dao would have.

The poets who live in exile, who float from city to city, whose only true country is the country in their hearts, who traverse the man-made borders of men as frequently as they cross the eternal borders of life and death, write the most potent and powerful poems of our time. Descendants of the original visionaries who built the civilizations that begot them, they are today's seers who not only play the roles of keepers of the ancient wisdom, spirit, and hope, but also leave for the ones who succeed them, pieces to form the vision of the world that is possible, the world to come.

Old Snow, Forms of Distance, Unlock, At the Sky's Edge ... the title of Bei Dao's most recent book of essays, Midnight's Gate, as well as what lies behind Midnight's Gate live up to the heart of his work: the poetry. Here he takes the role of a casual and at times masterful storyteller as Bei Dao: exile, wanderer of nations, true inhabitant of the world, shows us a spectrum of cities: Ramallah, Beijing, Paris, Prague, New York, Aarhus; and introduces us to an array of people: the eccentric Jiakai, a defiant Jose Saramago, the hospitable Poul Borum, passionate and profound Uncle Liu, a stately Arafat, and a man nicknamed Mustard, among others.

Knowledge of death is the only key that can open midnight's gate.

The title essay begins with the above line. Within Bei Dao's journeys from east to west, past to present, there is a cool darkness felt in all of the pieces that make up this book, and that darkness is death. Uncle Liu rescues a girl during a Japanese bombing raid and moments after they swear their love to each other she dies before his eyes when another bomb falls as she goes to check on her father. In Vienna, Bei Dao and a friend visit the graves of "Beethoven, Mozart, and Schubert, listening carefully to the music of silence. The cemetery is a culture unto itself, a meeting place of history, religion, architecture, and language." His friend Poul Borum dies without a greeting or a goodbye. In Palestine, he witnesses the darkness of the cycle of human vengeance, where victims of the past are today's tyrants. "And the writer is the traveler who passes through this darkness," he says.

How else have poets, and human beings, for that matter, throughout the ages coped with the dark knowledge of death but with alcohol? Whether he is in Denmark, New York, Paris, Inner Mongolia, or California Bei Dao drinks, and it is in intoxication and drunkenness where the poet ascends and descends to heaven and hell, where Bei Dao and his companions find immortality and tell immortal stories, where the light of humor burns away pain and sorrow.

Wine is just as much of a character throughout these essays as the people are, and creates a balance between the thousand chambers of suffering and the thousand chambers of joy.

As a concrete mixer and iron worker, Bei Dao in his reading would forget about work, which probably contributed to him never attaining the status of shifu (master or teacher). His shifu, Yan Shifu would say something like: "Reading books ... hmpf ... What's the fucking use of reading books? Don't take the time to learn a skill, then you may as well go drink the northwest wind ... " But in fact, Bei Dao has reached the heights of shifu: a master of language, which is clear in his poetry and in Midnight's Gate.  A woman pointed out to him that when he speaks English, he makes no clear distinction between "word" and "world." Of course he says in defense: "word and world are in fact the same thing." Only a master can say that.