Poetry Picks: 'All' by Bei Dao

Image credit to Sharon McCutcheon
Original script of "All"

Back before my time at Anythink, I was a real nerd. After spending a single hour trying my best not to over-celebrate the fact that I was touching books Benjamin Franklin had set the type for, I realized I needed a job handling this kind of material. And I wanted it right then. And after walking next door to the actual Special Collections department at the University of Iowa Libraries, that's exactly the kind of job I got. The next two years of my life were spent getting to know the texts we kept behind a vault, or on specially ventilated spaces. That's where I met Notes from the City of the Sun. That's where I met this poem. 

There are several other translations of this poem out there that I've looked at, but Bonnie McDougall's seems to capture the elements of this poem that most resonate with me as a reader. Bei Dao is a Chinese poet – born in 1949 and still very much alive. He has an extensive collection of his own work to boast. When I pulled this book off the shelf, I had no idea of this.  

 "All" captured me with its poignancy. I'm drawn to moments in absolutes. And I am drawn to short-spoken epiphanies. What I like most is that its absolutes are not on a specific items of popular culture – they are universal human experiences. For instance, "all language is repetition" is logical. We repeat 26 characters in our own alphabet to create text messages, emails, the blog post I've written for you right here. 

"All love is in the heart" – simple enough. Although I personally say my heart runs on four legs and barks, but that's an entirely different subject to tackle.  

But there are the moments – bigger moments – that really strike me. I remember studying World War I awhile back and the art that grew from its destruction. I am brought to this particular painting by George Grosz. It's the last breath before a blast.  

"All explosions have a momentary quiet." 

Its last line, though, is what leaves my mood somber and sullen-struck. 

"All deaths have a lingering echo." 

Immediately, I remember my great-aunts. I remember my grandfathers. My uncle. My dad's best friend. My beloved family dog. Death is the ultimate absolute; and in this instance, even though the immediate pain of mourning has passed, the memories of those loved ones linger.  

I may have met Bei Dao's words over a decade ago, but they leave me humble. "All" is one of those writings that I can return to for both comfort and epiphany. 

Notes from the City of the Sun is available through Prospector. "All" has an online study guide available through Hoopla. Below is a recording of me reading this particular piece.


by Bei Dao

All is fate

All is cloud

All is a beginning without an end

All is a search that dies at birth

All joy lacks smiles

All sorrow lacks tears

All language is repetition

All contact a first encounter

All love is in the heart

All past is in a dream

All hope carries annotations

All faith carries groans

All explosions have a momentary quiet

All deaths have a lingering echo