Tiananmen by James Fenton

Do you think the music in this video version of Fenton’s poem, Tiananmen, is appropriate?

by James Fenton

Is broad and clean
And you can’t tell
Where the dead have been
And you can’t tell
What happened then
And you can’t speak
Of Tianamen.

You must not speak.
You must not think.
You must not dip
Your brush in ink.
You must not say
What happened then,
What happened there.
What happened there
In Tiananmen.

The cruel men
Are old and deaf
Ready to kill
But short of breath
And they will die
Like other men
And they’ll lie in state
In Tianamen.

They lie in state.
They lie in style.
Another lie’s
Thrown on the pile,
Thrown on the pile
By the cruel men
To cleanse the blood
From Tianamen.

Truth is a secret.
Keep it dark.
Keep it dark.
In our heart of hearts.
Keep it dark
Till you know when
Truth may return
To Tiananmen.

Is broad and clean
And you can’t tell
Where the dead have been
And you can’t tell
When they’ll come again.
They’ll come again
To Tiananmen.

Hong Kong, 15 June 1989

The following is one person’s annotation of the poem Tiananmen. I recommend you read it as just that – one person’s interpretation of the poem.

James Fenton, a British poet, wrote this poem in Hong Kong in 15 June 1989, a reaction to the massacre in Tiananmen Square the previous month. He included it in his collection Out of Danger, which then won the Whitbread Poetry Prize in 1994.

In the first stanza someone is talking about Tianamen in a broad sweep of vowels: “broad”, “clean”. However the speaker adds an aside, about how one cannot realize there were deaths in Tianamen nor the incidents that occurred there. Then he tells you not to even speak about this Chinese square. With “speak”, we have here an anticipation of what you can’t talk about, later, after this stanza, where similar mute consonants are used to enforce this prohibition.

Practically all the words in this stanza – and in the rest of all the following ones – are monosyllabic, except for the words, “Tianamen” and “happened”. These have three and two syllables, but they only possess one beat, if you don’t place any stress on “men”, not even a secondary one.

Now, imagine that this is a direct translation from the Chinese. And, Chinese characters are all, as far as I know, monosyllabic. The speaker does not use stress nor non-stress, as an English speaker does, upon any word, syllable, or character, in the case of the Chinese language; he uses pitch. So, since you cannot utilise pitch in English to differetiate meanings, you can try and give a beat to every word. This way, you would make the lines sound like some Red government slogan, propaganda, edict or pronouncement.

The lines in the second stanza are just those. Some Red official is telling you what you must not do. The words at the end of the lines all have mute consonants, k and p, and they all end-stop. These consonants either close the glottis or the mouth when spoken. It is like the official putting up his hand to keep you from speaking, thinking, dipping the ink.

But, after the first enjambement at “say”, a weak one, the rest of the end-stop words following then lose such consonants. Instead these end of line words have initial S and TH sounds. The official is shushing you, and using the tip of his tongue, repeating “there”, as if he’s pointing the places to you. The last line in this stanza have M and N sounds, the tip of tongue placed behind the front teeth.

The first two lines of the third stanza hark back to the two very first lines of this poem, in syntax: subject, verb, and two complements; and in having broad vowels. But the broad vowel scheme stops at “kill”, where it signal the next line having breathy sounds in “short” and “breath”, because the line following this tells you these men “will die”. “kill” and “will” rhyme, to make this connection. The second last line is also like the second last line of the first stanza, where we saw that “speak” prefigures some prohibition. Here, “lie” prepares you for more “lies”.

In the fourth stanza “lie” has a double entendre: as a laying down and as an untruth. Everything is alie, lie, lie. “Thrown on the pile”, repeated, makes you remember “What happened there”, also repeated. “Thrown” and “there” have the similar TH sound, thus making the connection. The repeat of “pile” works like that of “lie”: there are piles and piles of bodies, there and there. All those “lies” cover the “piles” of bodies, to attempt to wash away the “blood” spilled in Tianamen.

In this penultimate stanza the S and TH sounds are utilized again, to contrast truth and the hiding of it. The next two lines use mute consonants in “Keep” and “dark”, to enforce this. In the repeated “hearts”, breathy sounds are used again, like in “short of breath”, earlier. Like in the second stanza, the mute consonants of k give way to softer sounds, of Ns, Ms and TH; because things will change when truth is known.

The last stanza repeats the scheme of the first stanza, with the first half repeated exactly. “When they’ll come again” looks different to “What happened then”, but their sounds are actually quite similar: “What” and “When”; “they’ll come” and “happened”; and the assonance in “again” and “then”. The last line changes “Of” to “To”, an apt resting place to end the poem.

Source: Blog post by Leon Wing

One of the comments following the poem in Leon’s blog post is very interesting:

I was so excited when you posted this poem as I hadn’t read it before…I am behind in all my poetic reading – it jostles a special nerve in me because I was in Tiananmen Square at the time that White Statue of liberty went up, just before the tanks went in. This poem is of course still relevant today, as the authorities constantly deny any of this happened, and some chinese students of today don’t believe it was any big deal.



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