A Distant Center

A Distant Center

by Ha Jin


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In the bold tradition of the “Misty Poets,” Ha Jin confronts China’s fraught political history while paying tribute to its rich culture and landscape. The poems of A Distant Center speak in a voice that is steady and direct, balancing contemplative longing with sober warnings from a writer who has confronted the traumas of censorship and state violence. With unadorned language and epigrammatic wit, Jin conjures scenes that encompass the personal, historical, romantic, and environmental, interrogating conceptions of foreignness and national identity as they appear and seep into everyday interactions and being. These are poems that offer solace in times of political reaction and uncertainty. Jin’s voice is wise, comforting, and imploring; his words are necessary and his lessons are invaluable. Question your place in the world—do not be complacent—look for strength and hope in every nook: “Keep in mind the meaning of / your existence: wherever you land, / your footprints will become milestones.”

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781556594625
Publisher: Copper Canyon Press
Publication date: 04/24/2018
Pages: 80
Product dimensions: 6.10(w) x 9.10(h) x 0.50(d)

About the Author

Ha Jin was born in Liaoning Province, China and grew up during the Cultural Revolution of the ’60s and ’70s while serving in the People’s Liberation Army. He left the army at age 19 to study English and earned an M.A. at Shandong University before traveling to the United States for his Ph.D. at Brandeis University. Electing to remain in the U.S. after the massacre of students at Tiananmen Square in 1989, Jin has since published eight novels, four short story collections, three poetry collections, and a book of essays on the language and literature of migration. He has twice received the PEN/Faulkner Award, for War Trash (2004) and for Waiting (1999), which also won the National Book Award. A leading voice in Asian-American literature and one of the so-called of “Misty Poets,” Jin now serves as Director of the Creative Writing Program at Boston University.


Boston, Massachusetts

Date of Birth:

February 21, 1956

Place of Birth:

Liaoning, China


B.A. in English, Heilongjiang University, 1981; Ph. D. in English, Brandeis University, 1993

Read an Excerpt

A Center

You must hold your quiet center,
where you do what only you can do.
If others call you a maniac or a fool,
just let them wag their tongues.
If some praise your perseverance,
don’t feel too happy about it—
only solitude is a lasting friend.
You must hold your distant center.
Don’t move even if earth and heaven quake.
If others think you are insignificant,
that’s because you haven’t held on long enough.
As long as you stay put year after year,
eventually you will find a world
begin to revolve around you.

If Eating Is a Culture

We eat mice.
Mice have nice glossy fur
and can give you a head of thick hair.
Even if you’re bald
they can restore your hair.

We eat cats.
Cats, quick by nature,
can make you smarter,
or at least livelier.

We eat frogs.
Frogs can swim and crow loudly.
They can make your voice resonant.
Even in the rainy season
you won’t develop rheumatism.

We eat foxes.
Foxes are cunning and swift
and can increase your agility
in dodging traps laid for you.

We eat tigers.
Tigers, powerful and fierce,
can strengthen your body
and enhance your potency.
They can help you conquer
and dominate anywhere.

We eat phoenixes and dragons
but cannot catch them throughout
heaven and earth and ocean.
So we eat snakes for dragons
and chickens for phoenixes
so that we can eat them up as well.


In those days weasels often hexed villagers,
bewitching young girls
and women of frail health.
Such a victim would rave in a weasel’s voice,
trembling and brandishing her arms.
Her family would rush out,
shouting and beating a basin
to scare away the weasel casting the spell.
Some carried brooms
to thrash the creature if they found it.
Once the rascal fled
the crazed person would return to calm.

Nowadays no one believes
that animals can hex humans.
Instead we send the possessed
to a shrink or hospital.
Sorcery is nothing but a superstition.
Yet if a voice cries out,
“Go chase the weasel away!”
I might hurry out to search through
haystacks, bushes, firewood
in hopes of finding a weasel
shrieking and rocking in spasms.

A 58-Year-Old Painter Leaving for America

Tomorrow you will leave Shanghai,
the city you used to love,
to look for another life far away.
“Probably another death,”
you often joke with a smile these days.

You have attempted death several times.
Expel it from your mind.
No matter how hard life is there
you must continue to live.
As long as you are alive
there will be miracles.

Indeed, you have no English
or youth for starting over,
only your painting brush and fortitude.
In that strange land
you must live, as always,
with stubbornness and care.

You must quit drinking and avoid
staying up all night.
Keep in mind the meaning of
your existence: wherever you land,
your footprints will become milestones.


I have seen the beauty of that cemetery,
where grassy slopes glow with sunshine
and the North Atlantic tides lap
at the pebbles and granite steps.
Tombstones spread from winding paths,
where Mexican workers trim flowers.
It’s so peaceful and sunny everywhere
and everything is neatly organized.
I can see why both of you want to go there
and even purchased lots for your families
who are yet to leave our motherland.

Knowing where to end can help
to curb your wandering heart
and stabilize this drifting life.
In fact, a fine cemetery is a village
or town of another kind, where
people can settle afterward.
I envy your clarity about your journey’s end,
but I’m still not sure where to go,
never attached to any place.
Even after this life, I might continue to roam.

Missed Time

My notebook has remained blank for months
thanks to the light you shower
around me. I have no use
for my pen, which lies
languorously without grief.

Nothing is better than to live
a storyless life that needs
no writing for meaning—
when I am gone, let others say
they lost a happy man,
though no one can tell how happy I was.

The One Following You

Because of you, that coastal city
has appeared on my map.
In my mind it’s no longer
a fishing village far away.

Every morning I wake
to follow you on the bus to work,
passing the bay enclosed in mist
and through a long tunnel into town.
We then walk along the street shaded by maples,
enter a gate to a schoolhouse
and finally stand before a room of children.
You open a textbook and read out with them
legends of triumph and updated fables.
You also draw on the chalkboard
a tomorrow that might be more colorful.

Whether you know it or not,
whether you like it or not,
you always bring along
an invisible guard.

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