The Orange Tree
by Dong Li
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Pub Date 31 Mar 2023 | Archive Date 15 Mar 2023
Dong Li’s The Orange Tree is a collection of narrative poems that braids forgotten legends, personal sorrows, and political upheavals into a cinematic account of Chinese history as experienced by one family. Amid chaos and catastrophe, the child narrator examines a yellowed family photo to find resemblances and learns a new language, inventing compound words to conjure and connect family stories. These invented words and the calligraphy of untranslated Chinese characters appear in lists separating the book’s narrative sections.
Li’s lyrical and experimental collection transcends the individual, placing generations of family members and anonymous others together in a single moment that surpasses chronological time. Weaving through stories of people with little means, between wars and celebrations, over bridges and walls, and between trees and gardens, Li’s poems offer intimate perspectives on times that resonate with our own. The result is an unflinching meditation on family history, collective trauma, and imaginative recovery.
The Orange Tree is the recipient of the inaugural Phoenix Emerging Poet Book Prize for 2023.
“The Orange Tree is a remarkable, powerful book of innovative lyric that recaptures the horrors of contemporary Chinese history by use of personal and collective memory—along with the memory of rivers, blossoms, fruit, and flesh. Li seeks and invents a language of grief that meanders, exquisitely and unflinchingly, across family lineage, historical violence, and trauma as he channels the lives of those who have met unspeakable atrocities. Li, a multilingual, transnational poet and translator, is a time traveler of our endlessly violent world.” -- Don Mee Choi, author of DMZ Colony, winner of the National Book Award
“The Orange Tree is a polyphonic, kinetic, book-length poem that is at once lyrical, historical, and deeply personal. With his dynamic leaps, Li takes us down the long river of modern Chinese history as it shapes the lives of one family and his imagination. His elegant phrases and crystal images probe the traumatic space between self and world. An inventive first book with fresh music.” -- Peter Balakian, author of Ozone Journal, winner of the Pulitzer Prize
“The Orange Tree is a sui generis book of exigent, raw, brutal, and intimate poems. We’ll forget neither their rhythms nor their effects, the tense, staccato sentencing, the Chinese waymarks, the vertical typography, or the evocative, metaphorical kennings. Li braids fragmented histories, fable, biography, and dream into a startlingly potent art. His formally restless lines suddenly waylay us, penetrating so deeply we hesitate to look up. And as we discover, their gravity holds us back from casually moving on.” -- Forrest Gander, author of Be With, winner of the Pulitzer Prize
“Is poetry possible after the particular atrocities of World War II? This book inverts Adorno’s well-known question and asks instead, ‘Is war possible after such poetry?’ The answer is ominous—where we are now, our reading of the world affirms that daily. The other thing that recommends Li’s book is the language. On the page is the physical act of Chinese being converted to English and vice versa—a conversion, more than a translation, it is electrifying.” -- Wong May, author of Picasso’s Tears: Poems 1978–2013, winner of the Windham-Campbell Prize
Average rating from 18 members
I’ve always considered myself someone who just doesn’t get poetry. I try and try and try but it either goes over my head or I just end up not liking it. That’s not the case with “ The Orange Tree”. I both understood and enjoyed it. What a unique way to tell a story. This could very well be the next big book in Poetry. 5 stars.
Thank you to NetGalley and the University of Chicago Press for providing an arc in exchange for an honest review.
The Orange Tree releases March 31, 2023
”And no one ever picked oranges again.
Still the orange tree bore fruit.
Winter comes and goes.
Oranges fall and grow.”
This is a collection of poetic prose that is introspective of Chinese history. The writing style is very unique and full of passion. I loved the addition of beautiful Chinese calligraphy throughout.
I found the section titled “The Army Dreamer” difficult to read in terms of the content, but my favourite of them was “The Orange Tree”.
There are some heavy topics mentioned including suicide, rape, and other graphic and violent events.
Looking forward to seeing how this delivers in a physical reading format.
I’d recommend this to readers who enjoy Ocean Vuong’s work!
I usually don't read poetry but this intrigued me as I am interested in Chinese history. This volume is beautifully written and while it's hard to read at times, it is quite enlightening for the Western audience. My favorite poem was The Orange Tree although all were excellent. I'm glad that I had the chance to read this collection.
Dong Li’s The Orange Tree: an outstanding case of prose-verse fusion
Extraordinarily raw and personal, The Orange Tree is a testament to Dong Li’s originative mastery of poetry, to the extent of successfully transforming it into a new form that maintains intact its essential features, while providing a remarkable reading experience.
The content of this work is equally as fascinating. Topics such as family, pain, history, misfortune and community amalgamate to what I believe to be the core of this cluster of verses: the search for identity in a disrupted past.
Despite its crudeness, this work has been a rather pleasant read as it has unquestionably marked a watershed in the contemporary lyrical sphere.
I don't think I can even put in to words what an incredibly stunning, daring, and devastating collection this is from Dong Li. Every single poem struck a nerve, and I appreciated the context given in Srikanth Reddy's forward for what was to come.
I would definitely recommend reading these poems one at a time; they require all of your focus (I mean that in the best way), and you'll want to sit with each one for a while after finishing.
The Orange Tree is a poetry collection by author Dong Li that serves as an ode to family and the nationalism that underpins it.
In the first poem, Li contemplates the Chinese ideal of women embodying water and men embodying fire, two contrasting earth elements that somehow go together and rely on each other for balance. He subtly discusses how these perceptions of femininity and masculinity are ironic, being that when a man, after facing disaster, seeks comfort from the fury of the world, it is a woman that will "hold his cold body to her warm body." Using these ideas of contrast, Li also elaborates on the cultural and war histories of China that came about when China’s spring and autumn clashed, bringing the Great Wall down into rubble and many of the citizens with it. He believes, though, that it is the Chinese’ resilience that makes them a nation and a community like no other. Simply put, "the Chinese choose to live," as death is something one has to seek for themselves.
In the story, Li describes how the orange tree and its symbolism came to be. A gift from his great-grandpa to his grandma, the orange tree traveled with the Li family everywhere they fled after the Japanese invasion of China. It was only when they were able to find refuge that the orange tree was allowed to bloom. And with the changing of the tides of war and the tick of the death toll, the orange tree continued to bear beautiful fruit, serving as a symbol for unification and perseverance within the family.
This is when the narrator begins to shift his symbolic focus from the orange tree to the river, snaking throughout the town and breathing life into a city ravaged by violence. With the flourishing of the river, new memories flooded Li's mind, taking the place of rusted ones. He used a lovely phrase to describe his home's revitalization: the river was a "wake of skin // shield of blood // gushing // to sterilize // hill country.” When bodies fall, the river picks them up and washes them away without a trace, cleansing the city with its hands of persistence and revivification.
The next section is one in which Li tells the story of a young girl leaving her home in a manner comparable to that of a flying animal. Hoping to leave the community where women and men were raped and left for dead, this girl, holding tightly to her lilac, must face isolation and the unforgiving snow to begin a new life for herself.
He concludes the novel with a section devoted to imaging death as something as beautiful as the fire and water, the orange tree, the river, and the lilac, symbols of persistence and renaissance despite trial and tribulation. He begs readers to consider death as something more beautiful, contrary to what he himself did at the beginning of the novel, as that is the only way to find freedom and beauty in unpleasant memories.
All in all, The Orange Tree is a beautiful collection of prose and poetry in which Li displays and reasons with the ideas of loss and chaos. Only rarely in the story is there a moment of stillness or peace. With every line, Dong is pivoting into a new thought that was developed by the line before that. Furthermore, Dong is able to showcase how death, nostalgia, and change all work hand in hand in a way that makes loss and the peace it inevitably brought to his life his greatest memory of his childhood.
Thank you to Netgalley and University of Chicago Press for the advance copy of "The Orange Tree" in exchange for an honest review.
I enjoyed every poem in this collection, all were beautiful reflections on humanity, loss, and survival. The poems look back to the chaos of the past and find moments of stillness and beauty. Having at least a general knowledge of Chinese history will help you understand some of the context but I think even someone who doesn't can still enjoy these poems, because they are rooted in the experiences of normal people living through these difficult historical eras and events.
Trigger Warning: This collection touches on heavy topics like suicide, rape, and has instances of graphic violence.
I enjoyed reading the short book of poetry that deals with Chinese history and the personal life of the poet.
It's a book that should be read many times, as there are nuances to catch, and history to ponder over.
I liked the way the poet melds the old with the new, people from the ancient times with events and people from the present and the near past.
His repetition of certain lines in reference to different personalities in history, from abbots and emperors to Tang dynasty poets, carry the depth of history and its poignancy:
"... (abbott hanshan), (tang dynasty poet zhang ji) has been dead for a long time."
I will be returning to the poet's words again and again.
The Orange Tree was a powerful book of poetry that takes you across time and place through the ravages of wartime China, what it means to grow up in such an environment and its long-lasting effects even over generations. Some of the language and descriptions are beautiful, raw, and heartbreaking; some of the images are compelling, gruesome and vibrant - there are many contrasts as you read one piece to the next. This might be the kind of book where the printed version might be better as it was hard for me to tell if my electronic/Kindle version had formatting issues (spacing) or if this was the same in the hard copy. This certainly wasn't an easy read and I think, as a reader, you need to be ready for content that is brutal and devastating, but it's definitely an important and poignant perspective that needs to be shared, understood and remembered.
Many thanks to NetGalley and the University of Chicago Press for the e-ARC.
A beautiful collection. I don't think I've read a collection like this before; what an exciting combination of themes and weaving of narratives. It's always so difficult to talk about poetry and why it's good because it's so subjective, but this many should experience it. The portrayal of family and history is decadent, sorrowful, and enlightening in the grasp of Li. I really can't say much more than, see for yourself.
Thank you to Netgalley and the University of Chicago Press for the advance copy of "The Orange Tree" in exchange for an honest review.