Notes on the Mosquito by Xi Chuan (trans. Lucas Klein). New Directions. 255 pp., $18.95
In the fourteen-page Author’s Afterward to his Selected Poems, Xi Chuan references or quotes from Tolstoy, Yang Lian, the Zhuangzi, the Indian social theorist Ashis Nandy, Eileen Chang, Leo Strauss, C.T. Hsia, Jonathan Spence, Milan Kundera, Li Bai, Czeslaw Milosz, the 20th-century sociologist Fei Xiaotong, ancient philosopher Han Feizi, Mao Zedong, Foucault, Tang dynasty literati Han Yu, and Goethe. This is not a poet who can be accused of parochialism. Yet Xi Chuan wears his erudition lightly, at least in the context of his verse. This is not to say that the poems do not give a sense of a formidable intellect behind them—they do—but what is striking in the poems is less Xi Chuan’s breadth of reference than his sense of humor, his humanity, and his attention to the smallest details of ordinary life, ranging from bodily functions to rats to the way drizzle soaks through socks.
Xi Chuan was born in 1963, just after the mass starvation of the Great Leap Forward, and was a small child during Mao’s Cultural Revolution. Lucky and talented enough to be one of the few children able to go to school at the time, he later went on to major in English at Beijing University. As translator Lucas Klein explains in his exemplary Translator’s Introduction, in the spring of 1989 Xi Chuan lost two close poet friends, Hai Zi and Luo Yihe, both of whom were also Beijing University students. Following on the heels of that trauma were the events in Tiananmen, which Xi Chuan participated in and suffered from. The pain of his friends’ deaths and the disillusionment he experienced after the government crackdown discouraged him from writing for nearly two years. When he resumed, his style had changed considerably from the Imagist Western-influenced Obscure Poetry exemplified by poets such as Bei Dao, Duo Duo, and Yang Lian. He moved toward a more philosophical and less lyrical prose poetry that contrasts with his earlier shorter, often nature-inspired work. His most recent poems play with ideas of paradox, inheritance, and the past, present, and future of civilization.
These are large themes, and Xi Chuan knows how to write large poems to encompass them. “Six Dynasties Ghosts” begins:
In the Six Dynasties (265-588 ce), ghosts outnumbered people. Humans would dream of evil spirits at night and meet them during the day, the way mice can never escape humans. Life in the Six Dynasties was bizarre: according to The Chronicle of the Netherworld, ghosts had chest hair, armpit hair, and pubic hair. People would fight over food with ghosts. Ghosts would come to blows with ghosts.
In this stanza, we find several of Xi Chuan’s recurring obsessions: history and references to famous historical works; the relationship of humans to the natural world, not in the sense of lovely mountain vistas, but in the sense of the nasty, inescapable symbiotic struggle between humans and their parasite and vermin brothers; and lastly, the ‘unmentionable’ aspects of the human (here ghostly) body. In a Xi Chuan poem, people vomit and piss and fart. He is not so much interested in the shock value, but in the grounding effect these facts have in literary works. The combination of high and low, of erudition and crassness, brings the reader, body and brain both, to the page. In this poem the ghosts are as much people as the people are, still intimately connected to their human pasts through the physicality of their armpit and pubic hair. Ghosts move through these poems just as they do contemporary China, understated, even buried under, but not forgotten. Many of these images are objets trouvé, found in the books of others. Xi Chuan is a world-class noticer, and in particular, he has an eye for the unnerving, the strange, the disingenuous, and the amusing.
In the Six Dynasties, swans were kindhearted, and would pursue a person for five or six miles, just to give back a shoe.
But in the Six Dynasties, the tigers were the contrarians, waiting for men to take a piss outdoors so they could bite off their dicks.
Humor is essential to Xi Chuan’s work, despite the fact that the topics it addresses are often painful. Here is the short poem “The Hospital”:
a dead gray rain falls on the hospital
the nurse’s youth dissolved by hydrochloric acid
some ascend to heaven, some go under the earth
invisible people check up on sickrooms, those of uncertain identity
loiter in the shadows of the hospital’s entryway
I was there, right there, reading Afanti stories
to a dying man (he’d cough ever so often
and sometimes drift to sleep); I was there, right there
trying to get a dying man to laugh
Afanti is a character in traditional Uyghur folk stories, the Uyghurs being a Turkic-speaking people who live mainly in Xinjiang, an enormous mostly desert province in the far west of China. Here Xi Chuan’s juxtaposition of the cute and folksy with the “dead gray rain” and the frightening “hydrochloric acid” demonstrates the need to balance the dark with the light, horror with humor. It is a defense against despair, if nothing else.
But it is something else. When Xi Chuan writes about the lives of the laobaixing, those left behind in the breathless economic advances of the last decade, many of whom live in dense communities of urban poverty, it is this sense of the absurdity of the ordinary that opens the poem up, and makes it genuine and affecting. In “The Neighbors,” he addresses this urban humanscape directly.
My neighbors. I’ve never invited them over for dinner, never borrowed money from them. I promise myself that, if I have a daughter, I will never let her marry any of them, since they’re like family. . . .
But I admit, I don’t care about their spiritual questions, or whether they have any spiritual questions.
My neighbors are eavesdroppers, snickerers, moral monitors. Monitoring the morality of my neighbors I’ve happened upon nobility, but they let me in on rumors to let me in on the zeitgeist.
The zeitgeist emboldened Old Zhang, who rented his apartment to three girls. The three girls wear heavy makeup, the three girls have stomach-aches, the three girls sleep during the day, wash their faces in the evening, and stand on the street at night. . . .
Rats, surrounding my bed at midnight, call me in unison: “Hello, old neighbor!” I tell them all to get lost. Under my roof you play by my rules.
My roof leaks, so all my neighbors’ roofs must leak; power’s out at home, so the power must be out in my neighbors’ homes.
Much is made of the dialectic of Chinese Collectivism versus American Individualism, often premised on the claim that Chinese and Americans think differently about these issues. Yet here we get a view of the individual within the modern collective, that is to say, the cramped, thin-walled, over-stuffed apartment building that is now a ubiquitous sight in the major cities in China. The rats are as much neighbors, and about as neighborly, as the other human inhabitants. The speaker would not let his daughter marry one of his neighbors because they are “like family,” not so much because it would feel incestuous, but because like family, his neighbors annoy him too much to further cement the already suffocating bond. The building gossips are just part of the scene, like the prostitutes, like the power outages. Hanging over the poem, however, is the memory of public shamings and family members turning each other in for anti-revolutionary statements and neighborhood watches that wielded tremendous power over ordinary people. These are the historical remnants that many of the poems in this collection grapple with. Xi Chuan’s approach is often indirect, but he never flinches from his task. He ends this poem with a zinger rather than a moralistic scolding:
For seven days straight I holed up at home without speaking, or humming, or farting, and the woman next door opened the door and came in, just to see if anything was wrong with my life.
I am thrilled to notice that the Chinese original on the opposing page has a typo in the last sentence. Thrilled because it is a rare book today that is printed in full bilingual edition. Notes on the Mosquito is a thick, handsome volume, which befits the quality of its contents. Readers of Chinese will be able to appreciate the poems in the original while marveling at the deftness with which Klein renders them into English. His translation is consistently intelligent, and admirably captures the full range of feeling in Xi Chuan’s poetry. Translation always involves tradeoffs between trying to mimic the unfamiliar and trying to domesticate the foreign, and in general, Klein finds a balance between the two, allowing for a fair degree of strangeness while not sacrificing readability. On a few occasions, he introduces an ungainliness into the English that is not there in Chinese. These moments, such as when ‘Marxist’ is translated as “Dialectical Materialist,” slow the reader down unnecessarily. Marxism is already a rare enough term in English-language poetry to capture the heaviness of the original line. In another case, in the poem “Twilight,” Klein uses “deceased” as a noun instead of the simpler and more vernacular ‘the dead.’ In Chinese, often all that is necessary to turn a verb into a noun (like turning ‘to view’ into ‘a viewer’) is a simple particle. This grammatical trick is not as available in English, and in this poem, where the speaker is addressing the dead, any choice in English is going to be awkward. The tone of the original is fairly casual, and Klein’s “deceased” gives it a more formal cast, as in the lines: “oh deceased, appear now / all of the living have shut their mouths / where are you, deceased?” These lines sound forced, rather than conveying the mournful if eccentric tone of the original. It is in these difficult moments where the ear of the translator must come into play.
But Klein’s ear rarely fails him. He captures both the music and slightly anachronistic feel of the original Chinese in the early poem “In the Mountains”: “Dusk congeals over the hungry cliff / excess dusk presses onto my tent / sunlight walks by on stones.” Xi Chuan abandoned this youthful style, and Klein—a scholar of contemporary and Tang dynasty literature—not only keenly identifies this and other more subtle shifts, but also manages to convey the changes convincingly, allowing the reader to come away with a sense of the arc of Xi Chuan’s artistic development. He comes up with lines that resound beautifully: “look to life’s last station / when the long-deceased song passes on again and red Persian asters / assemble in the distance like a chorus of birds.” The sound play of “life’s last station” and “song passes on” moving to “Persian asters” to “birds” builds a lovely alliterative scene that in sheer beauty momentarily surpasses the music of the original. So much is sacrificed in translation that a translator must identify and seize these fortuities wherever he can, and time and again Klein does exactly that. Xi Chuan’s verse could not have been better served in English.
Eleanor Goodman writes fiction, poetry, and essays, and translates contemporary Chinese literature. Her work has appeared widely in publications such as PN Review, Fiction, Pathlight, The Guardian, Pleiades, Acumen, Perihelion, New Delta Review, The Los Angeles Review, and on The Best American Poetry website.
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