The Dog Years of Reeducation: Poems By Jianqing Zheng

The Dog Years of Reeducation: Poems
By Jianqing Zheng
Madville Press
Paperback, 84 pages

Delta poet’s new collection builds bridge to days of Chinese cultural revolution

By C. T. Salazar
Special to the Mississippi Clarion Ledger

“Those years are like / a yellowed book / of memories with dog-ears / unable to smooth back” are some of the introductory lines in Jianqing “John” Zheng’s newest collection of poems, “The Dog Years of Reeducation”. Immediately we are brought into a deep reflection of “those years”—a history the collection’s speaker shares with the poet that spans the book. While these events can seem like a lifetime ago, Zheng’s vividness and lyrical magic bring us fully within the world he remembers—a reeducation farm in rural China during the Cultural Revolution.

Jianqing Zheng is the author of “A Way of Looking” and two previous chapbooks, editor of “Conversations with Dana Gioia”, “Sonia Sanchez’s Poetic Spirit Through Haiku”, and five other books. He received the 2019 Gerald Cable Book Prize and two literary arts fellowships from the Mississippi Arts Commission, among other awards and honors. He is a professor of English at Mississippi Valley State University, where he serves as the editor of the Journal of Ethnic American Literatureand Valley Voices and is the former editor of Poetry South. A reeducated youth in the Chinese Cultural Revolution, Zheng has lived in Mississippi since 1991.

Zheng’s poetic style is a masterclass in the poem’s heavy-lifting. Equally comfortable in both the narrative and lyrical modes of the poem, Zheng often gives us the best of both. “Morning Chat” begins:

            At fish-belly dawn, we

            walk barefoot to the paddies.

            Yi keeps yawning and complaining,

            “Why get up so early to plant

            rice seedlings? The sun is still in bed!”

In this poem we have the speaker and other young people working a farm for the first time, strangers to their environment, and maybe by consequence strange to themselves. Through the collection we fall in love with these actors—Yi, Pigsy, Pearl, and our speaker, while also falling in love with the lush description of the world the speaker describes: “The sun is peeping / through a persimmon tree.”

This lyric ability isn’t just about what it can give us in terms of beauty—we also get the visceral. Reading the last lines of this poem, for instance, I became acutely aware of my legs and feet: 

            We roll up our pants and step

            into the paddies to feed leeches.

One thing Zheng does so well is connect readers to the place. Not only do we feel like we’re taking part in the camaraderie between Yi, Pigsy, and Pearl, we observe the incredible clarity and details of the place until we feel like part of it:

            Now on the wind,

            thousands of gray horses

            roll away the fevered air.

            Green peppers, eggplants,

            bok choy and pole beans

            pallet the beds in sparkles.

                                    (from “After Rain).

But more than all of this, we connect with the speaker. His new life on the farm, his new expectations, his heart missing his loved ones: “This morning when I open / the envelope, your picture // slides out into my cold hand: / your eyes glisten // like sunshine on the iced / pond of my heart.” 

Jianqing Zheng’s “The Dog Years of Reeducation”gives us so much more than a history we need—Zheng’s collection gives us an experience. An experience full of the contradictions of human being: doubt, uncertainty, beauty, love, and will.

I’m sure readers will find their own lines in the collection that stay with them. One of the many I return to is the ending haiku in the haibun (a poem consisting of a paragraph followed by a haiku) “The Coming of Spring”: “weary night / stars breaking out / in a loud yawn”. 

C.T. Salazar is a Latinx poet and librarian from Mississippi. His debut collection “Headless John the Baptist Hitchhiking”(Acre Books) was named a 2023 finalist for the Theodore Roethke Memorial Award in poetry.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s