Mabel Lee (editor), Poems of Hong Ying, Zhai Yongming & Yang Lian (Vagabond Press 2014) – translated by Mabel Lee, Naikan Tao and Tony Prince
This is the second book I’ve read in Vagabond Press’s admirable Asia-Pacific Writing series, and like the first – Poems of Yi Sha, Shu Cai and Yang Xie, edited and translated by Ouyang Yu – it features work by three poets translated from Chinese.
Strikingly, neither Mabel Lee nor Ouyang Yu mentions any of the poets who appear in the other’s book. The only overlap between their respective histories is a mention of Bei Dao, whom Ouyang Yu says is now regarded as ‘uncool, pretentious, even boring’ and whom Mabel Lee honours as a key figure in the post-Mao era. Clearly the story of recent Chinese poetry can contain multitudes.
Mabel Lee’s poets are a generation older than Ouyang Yu’s. Where his introduction discusses the way his poets turned away from the revolutionary zeal and protective obscurity of their Mao-era predecessors, she takes us further back, to the surge of translation of European literature into Chinese at time of the May Fourth movement (1915–1921), then forward through the turbulent decades that followed, the repression of the Cultural Revolution, then the process that began in the late 1970s, of Chinese writing ‘extricating itself from decades of stringent political censorship’.
These three poets were part of that process. They all came of age during the Cultural Revolution and were publishing poetry by the early 1980s. Hong Ying (born in 1962) and Yang Lian (born in 1955) left China soon after the brutal crackdown in Tienanmen Square on 4 June 1989, now live in London and are translated into many Western languages. Zhai Yongming (also born in 1955) lives in Chengdu (where the pandas are) and is something of a celebrity there as an artist and owner of White Nights, a wine bar ‘that functions as a literary and arts salon’.
Hong Ying, Mabel Lee tells us, writes as a form of self-treatment for trauma, and much of her poetry has a dreamlike, painfully introspective feel, like this from ‘Whose Mother?’:
She is linked with all words of grief
In endless gloomy rain
She delivers good fortune to my hands
I see clearly
Black ants crawling all over the road
Dragging along a crowd of silent monks
In the early 1980s Zhai Yongming was thrust ‘into a role model position for other aspiring women poets’. Her poetry is much more outward looking than Hong Ying’s, dealing with social issues, including but not at all limited to issues concerning women. The book’s sole endnote explains that her poem ‘Lament for Scholars’ relates to an incident she witnessed during the Cultural Revolution, in which the renowned actor Feng Zhe was publicly humiliated, later to be ‘tormented to death’. This factual background enriches the poem hugely for the ignorant reader (that is, me) and makes me wish for more. For example, I’d love to know the story behind a sequence of poems about a six-month stay in a village, with lines like this in ‘The Second Month’:
Shouts are heard on Cold Food Day
And to comfort the dead the villagers practise self-restraint
As I search I always wear a faltering smile
My inner wound linked to their eyes in a straight line
How can I enter Jang’an Village?
Though every day there are corpses of drowned infants and of brides who have swallowed poison
Is this telling us about the brutal conditions of village life, or is the speaker projecting something of her own inner suffering onto the villagers? I know I could look it up somewhere, but a note would help with the immediacy of first reading.
Mabel Lee describes Yang Lian’s poetry as possessing an exuberant male sexuality. There’s no sex as such in these poems, but there is a wonderful swaggering energy that carries all before it. here are some lines, picked almost at random, from ‘Dance: Swimming Naked with Li Bai’:
A cup of wine moulds the shape of a throat
A deeply private action _exposed to the public eye
Shakes the body’s _ defects become blindingly beautiful
Once you’ve jumped into the sweet stench of that river you’re drenched
From being submerged in it for a thousand years
I struggled with this book, partly because of my lack of familiarity with cultural/historical contexts, partly because I was constantly aware of the translators’ struggle to do more than paraphrase (though none of it has the English-as-a-second-language feel,of Ouyang Yu’s translation). On the way to writing this post I did some haphazard research (ie, a quick trawl of my bookshelves): I read T S Eliot’s comments on Ezra Pound’s translations from Chinese, in which he writes of the need for a great poet to communicate the poetry of another culture; I reread J P Seaton’s introduction to The Shambhala Anthology of Chinese Poetry, which explains some of the complexity of translating from Chinese to English, and tells the history almost to the point where Mabel Lee’s introduction begins. I decided that my ignorance is profound, and that for me to really grasp the work of these poets would take serious commitment to study on my part, or a translator-poet of genius to hand me something on a platter. For now, I can be grateful for the glimpses I have gained from this little book, and hope to be able to build on them in time.
I’m probably pushing the boundaries to count this as part of my Australian Women Writers Challenge. But Mabel Lee is an Australian woman, and translation is a form of writing (the book doesn’t say it in so many words, but I think she translated Hong Ying and Yang Lian’s poems, while Naikan Tao and Tony Prince translated Zhai Yongming’s), not to mention her lucid introduction. Maybe I should count it as half a title, which means I’m up to 6.5 books. I don’t remember how many books I signed up for. Assuming it was 10 – the ‘Franklin’ level – I’m on track to have completed the challenge by the end of the year.