Yingelishi by Jonathan Stalling (companion website). Counterpath. 104pp., $15.95
Grotto Heaven by Jonathan Stalling. Chax Press. 80pp, $16.00
Jonathan Stalling is a man of eclectic talents: as a poet, a translator of modern Chinese poetry, an editor at two literary journals, and a professor of English literature, his primary interests lie in the interstices between languages, and between language and meaning. His work offers a definitive answer to those critics who worry that when it comes to contemporary poetry, there is nothing new under the sun. Grotto Heaven and Yingelishi are fascinating poetic-linguistic experiments better described as interlingual than bilingual. Stalling calls his work “Sinophonic,” defined as a “fusion of the two primary languages of globalization—English and Chinese,” and he plays complexly with the interactions between these two languages, and with the meanings that are created in the tensions and resonances that occur there. In manipulating these spaces with techniques such as transliteration, translation, decoding and recoding, he manages to build a new tonal universe.
The framing conceit of Yingelish is that of an English phrasebook for Chinese speakers. Embedded in that frame is a simple narrative that sketches out the story of a foreigner on his or her first visit to the United States. Most pages follow a similar format, and are both part of a book-length poem and a small standalone poem in itself:
I don’t feel well
‘ai dong te fei ‘ou wai ‘ou
Suffering from the cold
a flying sea gull
an outside lover
Stalling’s process is something like a mathematical function, taking a phrase and sending it through several permutations. He starts by translating a simple Chinese phrase into English. He then ‘translates’ the English into pinyin (a system of Romanization of Chinese characters developed in the 1950s) to approximate the pronunciation of the English to a Chinese speaker. Because there are a relatively limited number of sounds in Chinese, any given set of pinyin offers a wide range of possible corresponding Chinese characters. He then assigns the pinyin back to characters of his choosing, and these new characters are then translated into English. The process can be thought of as a poetic version of the game “telephone,” where a message is passed from person to person, undergoing changes until it hardly resembles the original. The resonances that develop between the two languages—tonally, sonically, emotionally, semantically—are often fascinating, as in the example above, which takes a common phrase and turns it into a vivid metaphor for physical and emotional discomfort.
More importantly, I take Stalling’s project to be an attempt to legitimate both the movement between and among languages, and also the blurring of lines between them. To the ear of a native speaker of English who has also lived in China, the pinyin versions of English phrases are hauntingly familiar. Suddenly the ‘mistakes’ of the Chinese speaker of English are revealed as simple transpositions of sound from native tongue into foreign tongue. From another angle, Stalling is moving into the imagination of a Chinese speaker. What student, in the beginning stages of language acquisition, hasn’t made an analogy between a familiar sound and an unfamiliar one in an attempt to acclimate the ear to a new sonic reality? Having said that, Stalling is most interested in a process of de-acclimatization, of making strange. What does English become if it is exposed to a process of deformation through the sieve of a different phonetic system?
Still, Stalling carefully avoids polemics in the poems themselves, and the resulting ‘retranslation’ back into English is often beautiful and evocative. With all the possible choices fanning out before him, Stalling often finds surprising combinations, with the English and Chinese echoing and complimenting each other. Take for example how one of the simplest Chinese phrases morphs into something new:
how do you do
hao du you du
Even a solitary wolf howl,
ferries you across
The howl leaves a sonic impression because it has a function—carrying someone across a natural or emotional landscape. In most cases, Stalling’s technique produces such evocative imagistic phrases. Occasionally, it leads to something that carries a whiff of old-fashioned orientalism (“Oracle scatters jade-like thoughts”), but this is the exception rather than the rule. And one can argue, as Stalling perhaps would, that given the techniques involved here, the text should be rescued from accusations of fetishizing the Other. After all, the book does nothing if not display Stalling’s deep engagement with and understanding of the Chinese language and culture. Stalling is also a scholar of Chinese literature, and understands better than most that a lot of classical Chinese poetry does in fact involve a lot of talk of oracles and jade.
There is also jade to be found in Grotto Heaven, which is closer to a standard book of poetry than Yingelishi. The first poem (or as Stalling has it, “sequence”) is identical, although framed differently. Both books begin:
Close your eyes
kē loszī yose‘éyo‘āisī
Jade dew appears as mournful memories
In a dark room
yǐng ‘èg a ‘ég a dark r
Narrow shadows controlled answer as a forest
The rest of the pieces in Grotto Heaven follow more familiar poetic tropes, with forays into concrete poetry (the section “Star Charts”), more traditional lyrics (“Lodge”), and play with graphics (“Internal Exercises”). The overall sense of the book is of a restless intellect and intensely curious and open sensibility. Take, for example, the second section of Inner Exercises (内练习), which refers to the Chinese spiritual martial art called qigong.
This landing for me is reminiscent of W.C. Williams’ white chickens, whose presence both seems intuitive and surprising. We expect chickens where we encounter wheelbarrows, and similarly here, pheasants beside a lake, and the more ominous fanning out of oil like an oil slick, seem to fit together perfectly while still opening the reader’s eyes. What complicates this is “your spine,” which brings the poem into an intimate realm and offers other interpretations. This is, after all, a poem about ‘internal exercises.’
Each section that follows also opens with the phrase brings the poem and this serves as kind of underpinning to Stalling’ larger aesthetic objective. He shifts the weight of each line onto the next visually through the slide of connective lines. He also shifts the weight of language from direct meaning to evocative meaning; this is what poetry does, but it takes on special significance when two very different languages are involved. The weight carried by one language is shifted onto another; the weight of expectation that we have of any given phrase is shifted off onto other modes of communication—visual, sonic, representative.
Other parts of the book are more traditional, as in the poem e onto the next visually through the slide of
Beneath the hidden mirror of the lake
pale fish, skin of milk,
a film and circulatory iron
skin over eyes leaves
dark doesn’t land upon things
isn’t a thing after all
break dawn’s focus and flow in
spill in another measure.
darkness just isn’t there.
Here, as elsewhere, Stalling proves his mettle as a poet, as in the sound play in “pale fish, skin of milk / a film,” and the many possibilities that flow out from “break dawn’s focus and flow in . . .” His line breaks and spaces add to the rhythm of the words, giving the relatively simple vocabulary space to breathe and gain resonance.
A sense of possibility and play is essential in these two books, in their experimentation and fearlessness that can make even the awkward moments appealing. Stalling’s website also offers recordings Yingelishi being sung by an amazing traditional Chinese vocalist Miao Yichen. This brings in the performative aspect of play, demonstrating how much the project is aural rather than written. Each section of the main part of the book (save one, a ‘translation’ of English numbers which is at turns straightforward, funny, and poignant) is set to a well-known traditional tune, a practice that goes back to the beginnings of Chinese poetry. The result are strange, haunting songs that blur the boundaries between languages, and between unintelligibility and clarity. For those who are bilingual, there are moments of clear English and moments of clear Chinese. But the majority of the sounds—if one is not following along with the text—are clearly language but not language, a kind of slippage between known and unknown. Most of all, they engage the senses completely, without falling into any particular category, not English as we know it, not music as we know it, not poetry as we know it. Here Stalling succeeds admirably in getting the listener/reader to disconnect sound from meaning and reconnect them in a new way. Both Grotto Heaven and Yingelishi richly reward the reader who lets herself be seduced and enter into this new foreignness.
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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