Due to popular demand, and as a concession to common sense, we've decided to put poems here on our website — one poet per week.
This week's poet is Xi Chuan, whom translator Lucas Klein, in his introduction to Notes on the Mosquito, describes thusly: "Xi Chuan (pronounced Sshee Chwahn, not to be confused with Sichuan, the province) has not only become one of contemporary China’s most celebrated poets, he is also one of its most hyphenated litterateurs: teacher-essayisttranslator-editor-poet. Eliot Weinberger has described him as a 'polymath, equally at home discussing the latest American poetry as Shang Dynasty numismatics.'"
One of the most fascinating aspects of Xi Chuan's body of work is the very clear distinction between the poems he wrote from 1985-1987, and the poems he's written since 1990. Klein explains:
Xi Chuan in his early writing reflected a belief in an international poésie pure. His poems often demonstrate the exposed structures and urban timelessness of International Style architecture, or else an abstracted landscape that is clearly China yet, at the same time, not. The landscape exists inside a poetics of mythic power.
The high-lyricism of Xi Chuan’s earliest poetry would not last. Because of the government’s suppression of the democracy and workers’ rights movement in Tiananmen Square, in which Xi Chuan participated, 1989 was a hard year for China’s young intellectuals; it was an even harder year for Xi Chuan, as on March 26, [his dear friend and fellow poet] Hai Zi committed suicide (he was twenty-five), and on May 31 their mutual friend and fellow Beijing University poet Luo Yihe died from a cerebral hemorrhage (age twenty-eight), days before PLA tanks rolled in on the demonstrators on June 4.
Xi Chuan barely wrote for two years. Nothing in this book is from 1989, and only one poem is from 1990. By 1991, his style was shifting: a haunting memory replaces Xi Chuan’s earlier timelessness in "Twilight," pushing the modernist lyric beyond its upper limits the way "plains push out from the edge of the city / mountains lift up at the edge of the plains" ('Three Chapters on Dusk'), and 'Bats in the Sunset' raises the question of whether the bat—a sign of good luck, since it is a Chinese homonym for 'fortune' — should be defined by its Chinese associations or its Western ones, via Goya’s El sueño de la razón produce monstros.
When Salute was published in 1992, it was evident that Xi Chuan’s poetry had undergone a radical transformation. His self-contained lyric opened into expansive prose poems that often reflexively observed their own poetic method… including their representation and construction of poetry, metaphor, and language. Rather than undercutting lyricism à la Han Dong, Xi Chuan’s prose poetry allowed him to reevaluate it and examine, rather than take for granted, the interplay between Chinese tradition and a modernity of Western origin.
Below are three poems: one from that first period, and two from the latter.
"The City I Live In"
The city I live in is made of building blocks
with straight streets and smooth public squares,
and row-houses low but meticulously ordered
The city I live in has no people
wind blows through windows a frail, naïve whistle
the rising and setting sun compelling seasons to revolve
there is only dust in the city I live in
If I died, if color and light died,
no hand would come knock down this city
it will exist forever
because in the city I live in there are no people
The beast, I see it. The beast, fur thick and stiff, teeth sharp, eyes nearly lifeless. The beast, gasping for breath, growling ill fortune, and from its feet, no sound. The beast, with no sense of humor, like a man straining to hide his poverty, like a man ruined by his mission, with no cradle to provide memories, no destination to locate yearning, not enough lies to plead for itself. It smacks a tree trunk and gathers infants; it is alive, like a cliff, and dead, like an avalanche.
A crow amongst scarecrows searches for a partner.
The beast, it despises my hairstyle, despises my scent, despises my repentance and reserve. In a word, it despises that I deck out happiness in baubles and jewels. It squeezes its way into my room, orders me to stand in the corner, and with no word of explanation collapses in my chair, shatters my mirror, shreds up my curtains and all that belongs to my spiritual defense. I beseech it: “Don’t take my teacup when I’m thirsty!” Right there it digs up a spring, which I suppose must be some kind of response.
One ton of parrots, one ton of parrots’ nonsense!
from "On My Meaningless Life"
88. In a crowd of people some people are not people, just as in a flock of eagles some eagles are not eagles; some eagles are forced to wander through alleyways, some people are forced to fly in the sky.
89. I fall asleep as soon as it gets dark, I get up as soon as it’s light out. I always dream of a doctor with a fever and a mail carrier with a toothache, and then I meet them; so in order to meet myself I must dream of myself, but dreaming of oneself is so embarrassing.
90. Once I had a dream in which a blind man asked about someone. I replied that I had heard of but didn’t know this person. When I awoke, I howled in shock: it was me that the blind man had been looking for!
91. Only when a nail pierced through my hand did my hand reveal the truth; only when black smoke choked me to tears could I feel my existence. Riding sidesaddle on a white horse ten fairies tore up my heart.
92. For this I have changed my name, concealed my identity, wandered lonely as a cloud, resigned myself to fate.
June 2013 News from New Directions
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ND editor Michael Barron interviewed Elaine Lustig for Bomb's blog. Read it here.
May 2013 News from New Directions
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Rebecca Ariel Porte, in a beautiful essay written for the Los Angeles Review of Books, dicusses Susan Howe's Sorting Facts: Nineteen Ways of Looking at Marker, addressing Chris Marker's films, as well. Definitely worth a read — here.
Writing for Bookslut, Christopher Merkel reviews the 65th anniversary edition of the classic modernist text. Read it here.