There was a sense of disquiet in the visual productions Brian Guo showcased at a recent exhibition at Keystone Academy. Almost all of his works were inspired by classic literary works and paired with captions written so pensively that they led lookers further into imagination or illumination.
For much of his childhood years, Brian studied visual arts so that this almost became his field of study in university. But it was only two years ago when his trajectory veered off to the realm of literary creation. Since then, his talent in writing has progressed explosively.
Now, Brian is set to leave Keystone for Dartmouth College in New Hampshire to further his burgeoning talent—and to take on a shining path in the midst of his struggles.
With the bus used by Alexander Supertramp standing still among the woods, the mighty Mount Kilimanjaro and the Egyptian pyramid stand as each other’s reflection, revealing some profound unity between this civilization we have and the wild, lonesome world. The serpent runs through the entire fate of the human race.
“I Have Not Lived Much”
How dimly fortunate have we been,
Blindfolded and swaying upstream,
Sitting, downcast, in a chair that flies
Across landscapes and docile rivers of time;
With fragmented proofs,
Of elapsing days
Flitting through the calm surface
Of the slightly flaming lake.
The gossamer secretly forming
Coiling over the languid torso.
And in our heads,
With haphazard flowers the weeds mature,
Thrusting their lullaby into our minds.
Until a faint, distant star
Returns from a thousand fathoms of forgetfulness,
Knocking on our doors.
Brian wrote the poem “The Unfathomable” (the first two stanzas shown above) in March 2021, when he faced intriguing thoughts and “fatalistic views” on the human race, faith, and choices. Then, he mused upon how religious works and science fiction could unravel the mysteries of “a giant power… [or] some sort of a deity … [or] some higher laws” in the universe.
“I have not really lived much,” he says bluntly of writing about his experiences. “I do not even know who I am now because the world is still new in front of my eyes.”
More than eight years ago, Brian arrived in Beijing with hesitations as he could not keep count of the times he had changed schools and the houses their had family moved to—from Chicago, where he was born, then to Xuzhou, and later, to Shanghai.
Now, the capital has become his home for the longest time, and yet he still does not feel a sense of belonging to or yearning for anywhere.
If there was a relatively regular activity Brian did throughout those years, it was painting; his father even felt Brian had such a deep interest in it that he encouraged him to join art programs. On some occasions, however, Mr. Guo noticed how his son pored over books for a long time.
As Brian started his ninth-grade year at Keystone (he entered as a Grade 7 student in 2015), his interest in literary creation also sprang up. He contributed pieces for the Keystone Poetry Club despite lacking a background in poetry writing. The group later came up with Whisper from the Stone, a collection he saw as an affirmation that students could be published.
But it was the emergence of a full-fledged literary society on campus that helped change Brian’s path.
In early 2019, the Keystone Office of Marketing and Communications launched a Keystone Activities Program (KAP) club named Literature Playhouse and sought middle and high school students eager to go on a “wonderful adventure into the forest of literature” by delving into classic literary works. Brian was accepted as a member.
At Literature Playhouse, Brian found a “high sense of identity and participation” and “a direction amid the chaos” surrounding him. He was very participative in club activities, often taking notes during discussions, asking reflective questions, and sharing admirable “homework” or critical reviews of literary texts.
The club’s organizer, Keystone Marketing and Communications Director Sabrina Liu, knew that Brian “has already stepped into the realm of literature” even before joining Literature Playhouse. She sensed how “he might have begun looking at the world with doubts and hope” and how his perceptiveness may have played a role in developing his literary talent.
“In his literary creations, he expresses the weakness and complexity of human nature, and the subtlety and obscurity of human emotions,” Ms. Liu says. “They have allowed him to find proof and resonance when he is at a loss and strengthened his desire to continue exploring literature.”
In just two years, Brian became one of the club’s fastest-growing talents. Ms. Liu has seen the meteoric rise of his ability: for her, Brian is a philosophical writer, daring to experiment with language while seeking answers to life’s questions and confusions.
“Literature Playhouse’s impact on Brian is that it just accelerated his growth,” she adds. “But with that kind of talent, what are the possibilities that await him?”
“I Live the Same Life”
And ruefully, we account for our losses,
Each end in the maze we never reached,
Each dying unsure memory
Of a lurking insect in a weedy nook.
We, rummaging with our burdened limps,
While the crows of dawn fly warbling above,
And the dunes appear,
The mountains surfaced,
While we, stooping like a fragile statue,
Sleep etherized through the change of things.
“Wake up from your dreams,” Brian says, “I live the same life as everyone else does for most of the time. And I’m not that kind of person that exists only in fiction, like those passionate about their dreams and nothing else.”
When Brian reads or writes, he does it with pure curiosity. He often seeks explanations to concepts he comes across randomly through books—and sometimes, he finds pleasant surprises.
Sometime in 2019, Brian encountered James Joyce’s Ulysses, a modernist novel that utilized experimental narrative techniques and thematic content from different eras, making it one of the most important literary works in recent literature in English. Joyce’s masterpiece was such a formidable read that Brian almost gave up on reading it.
“He even asked, ‘Why would anyone write this kind of thing?’” his good friend Aurora Yu shares. “But every time he found out something in the text, his eyes would shine. But for me, I cannot really stand it.”
Aurora is among many others who have found the novel to be incredibly challenging, but Brian sees it as his comfort zone. Upon finishing Ulysses, he regarded Joyce as “an impressive writer, in both form and theme, who overturned literary traditions and made his hometown Dublin come alive under his pen.”
Analyzing such texts has given Brian deeper understanding of literary creation and the relationship between writers, and he often shares these insights in class discussions. His high school English teacher and Extended Essay (EE) supervisor Marcella Cooper is impressed with his “sensitivity to the nuances within literature.”
One particular text he found interesting to read but tough to analyze was T.S. Eliot’sThe Waste Land. He used his essay to deconstruct Eliot’s commentary on modern society—how its dilemmas were “caused by spiritual emptiness and bewilderment” and how it could pursue salvation.
Further into his analysis, Brian felt Eliot’s vision for salvation was unrealistic. However, Mrs. Cooper felt the piece prompted Brian to “address a broad range of literary themes and concepts, such as existentialism.”
“When someone is so invested in their love of literature like Brian is, one of the best ways to support them is to allow them room to explore,” she adds. “Questioning him further, pushing him to more deeply explore the intertextuality within and between texts allows Brian the space to shine but also to grow.”
“It Could Be the Way I Think about the Future”
Alas, with too many images we will not possess,
Before we could glimpse its shape,
Or in ephemeral attempt
To imprint it on the boulders
That would last a short span beyond our flesh.
Yet we witness the waters have risen
Soaking into every rotten board
In the shelter of reality we herein built.
We could not descry it, as it overwhelms,
Silent as a swift storm,
As we flounder
In the maelstrom of the undulating, stormy ocean
That forms, for our long overdue senses,
Too suddenly and too randomly…
“Some of the views I convey might be interpreted as pessimistic; they could be just as calm. Some would say it is indolent in one way or another. But that isn’t the way I live my life. It could be the way I think about the future, but it doesn’t have to be. It could be just some sort of ideologies or emotion that I came across.”
Brian had already decided on taking Visual Arts as one of his high-level Diploma Programme courses when he discovered his interest in literary creation. To him, his course choices were a “worthy attempt,” although some “were mistakes that I had to experience.”
At the recent Grade 12 IB DP Arts Show titled “Life Outside the Box”, Brian displayed eight visual productions he created over two years. Almost all of his works alluded to or combined classic literary works. His Visual Arts teacher Bolsyn Urmuzov found pleasure in reading his artwork analyses and critiques through the masterful use of metaphors and subtle epithets.
His painting “Hail Captain Ahab” references the protagonist of the same name in Moby-Dick; or, The Whale, and attempts to connect the fanatical whaler to his life-long foe, Moby Dick. Brian previously analyzed excerpts of the novel in his English class with Mrs. Cooper.
Fathoms deep under the sea, with his ambitions and illusions resting in the profundity of the maelstroms, captain Ahab dreams of the wolves. Those shadows of wilderness flitting across his mind, alluding to him certain universality that bonds him together with his life-long foe, Moby Dick.
In their discussion on a scene about a meal being partaken of by two significant characters, Brian dismissed the scene as being a “redundant chapter” but listened to the interpretations of his classmates—that the food could establish cultural relevance and relationship.
Brian attempted to reveal a “profound unity” between human civilization and the wild in his mixed-media production “Into the Mountain”. Here, the juxtaposed Mount Kilimanjaro and an Egyptian pyramid are split by the bus used by itinerant hiker Alexander Supertramp (the subject of the non-fiction book Into the Wild he studied in his English class). The serpent described by Paul Celan in his poem Death Fugue rattles behind the bus and “runs through the entire fate of the human race.”
In “Wolf’s Lair”, Brian depicted a pack of wolves howling behind the trunk of the Goethe Oak in the Buchenwald concentration camp. He wrote a related prose piece titled “An Ordinary May Morning” where he “desire[d] to perform an examination on our civilization” and “rethink on our arts.”
Brian composed that prose and other pieces of poetry under a pre-university virtual course on creative writing offered by Emerson College in the summer of 2020. The five-week session exposed him to more literary and artistic methods.
“I Listen More When I Write”
In the unfathomable flows of time,
One morning, after all,
When we wake up to a grotesque sight
Of such strange and appalling void,
We would have once again recollected
That we slept through too much.
That we lost too much,
That we, for once,
Would be doomed to discover with grief,
The true faces
Of the wild, howling gale that carried us there.
“It’s hard to be fair to yourself when you look at your past,” Brian says of the part of his life he wants to remember in the future. “In one way or another, if I lose emotion and aesthetics, it’s not writing anymore; it’s not literature anymore. And if you stay silent, sometimes your heart opens up and everything around you can enlighten you a little bit more every day.”
The year 2019 led Brian to a clear direction for his university studies—a sudden reversal to the same student who had hardly given attention to college applications a year before.
Mr. Guo noticed the positive change in Brian’s mindset after he became part of Keystone’s Literature Playhouse in February and joined a tour of visiting liberal arts college representatives and alumni in Jiangsu Province later in the year. He reminded Brian that “it is never too late” to pursue his interest.
Also during that period, Brian strove hard for his IB studies, receiving high scores in almost every DP course, including a perfect 7 in his two language courses (standard-level English A and high-level Chinese language and literature). Mr. Guo, at the same time, remained in close contact with the Keystone Office of College Counselling and paid close attention to the progress of his son’s application.
Brian applied for a number of highly selective institutions in the United States, including Yale University, Northwestern University, and the University of Chicago where his father had studied before.
In December 2020, Brian received an admission letter from Dartmouth College, one of the Ivy League schools. He was among the 571 students who were offered early admission.
Although Dartmouth attracted a record number of 28,000 applicants for the next academic year, its acceptance rate stood at 6.17 percent, the lowest in 40 years.
Brian is attracted by Dartmouth’s “unutterable charisma”—its stunning environment that resembles “the world I long for but refuse to live in.” In addition, Dartmouth offers the 13-week Dublin Foreign Study Program where enrolled students will participate in lectures on Irish literature and reading groups on Ulysses. Such a thought of walking into Joyce’s Dublin makes Brian look forward to his college life as an English major student.
“This is a school that truly understands and cherishes literary traditions and cultural values,” he says. “And after learning such a course, every student can find their own place in the future and find the unique narrative of their city.”
When Brian looks back on his years at Keystone, he ponders over how much he has changed drastically. Now, he is curious about living in another environment and experiencing new insights.
“I listen more when I am writing,” he says, “and I think that’s the only way I can live with myself. You can never know everything in the world, but you can always know more. If you are capable of listening to those voices in your life—I think that’s enjoyable and that’s the nature of humility I want to maintain as I write.
Let there be light, he said:
Wander along, there’ll be light, for you need no wings.
“Oh flightless bird, walk into that gentle night
With your splendid childishness.”
Yet, is that true? I suspected in unease.
As I flew across the seas,
I glanced among the promising cloud,
How my resting soul once opened up its eyes.
Noah’s dove, messenger, poet among poets.
You see, we all climb a mountain in our dreamy seas.
Therefore, I don’t intend to belittle myself, I dare not speak.
When we stood in silence and see,
The shadows vanish by our sides into the glow of day;
Among the restless muttering sites fell all the forgetful snowflakes.
So I might say, none of these I’ve been through,
But only feeling it along the edges,
In our brain it glowed into fiery points, and became savagely still,
Along the edges, we glanced at this harsh winter.
Therefore, we’re mere ants crawling among the foggy cracks,
Climbing up dunes and reason that we’ve seen the stars.
—excerpt from “The Mountain”