Crossing the River by Feeling the Stones: A Brief Review of Bei Dao in Translation
By Canaan Morse, published
Endure: Poems by Bei Dao. Trans. Clayton Eshleman and Lucas Klein. Boston: Black Widow Press. 2011. 131 pages, CN/EN duotext. ISBN: 978-0-9842640-8-7
When reading a well-known poet for the first time, it’s natural to distrust one’s ear—to hold the poet’s reputation in the periphery of one’s mental sight and weigh one’s own judgments against it. This even more so for poetry in translation, as one assumes a great distance between the accessible translation and (often) inaccessible original, which converses with such a different audience. Such considerations make it easy to play down genuine impressions of the text and be timid where one should be bold.
Before Endure, I was only peripherally familiar with Bei Dao’s poetry, though working in the circles I do had exposed me to plenty of opinions. I knew he was both loved and hated by Chinese colleagues and frequently lionized by the Western academic press. Reviews, essays and conversation concerning his work which I dug up for research tended to be written by people with advanced degrees for readers with same; that is, they discussed Bei Dao’s work at such an abstract level and were so afraid of making straightforward critical statements that they were unhelpful. Stephen Owen’s now somewhat dated piece from 1990, “The Anxiety of Global Influence: What is World Poetry?,” was somewhat better, though he spent more time talking around Bei Dao’s poetry than about it. I suppose one can expect some of that from Harvard professors.
Unfortunately, after close reading I discovered it was possible that I really am not smart enough for Bei Dao’s poems. As Endure translator Lucas Klein once so gently remarked in a much earlier review of three works by Bei Dao in translation, “One has to be patient with Bei Dao’s poetry.” That’s fine; we find patience crucial to the learned enjoyment of Robert Lowell, Borges, William Carlos Williams, Wallace Stevens. Work that is intricate, many-layered, certainly abstract—not Hallmark poetry—takes patience to be understood. Yet the difference between that sort of poetry and Bei Dao’s is that the former invites patience, while the latter demands it. Let’s look at two examples, the first taken from Bei Dao’s “A New Century”:
the golden bomb explodes
we are willing to turn into victims
and to display our wounds to others
it is history that prevents us from flying
birds that prevent us from walking
legs that prevent us from dreaming
we who give birth to ourselves
who are birth
I know it is only a selection; copyright considerations have kept me from presenting the whole thing, apologies. What is most striking about this selection is its high degree of inaccessibility. We have an utterly generalized narration, cryptic patterns of reasoning (particularly in the final five lines) and obscure metaphors constructed with affected language. Thus, the eye attacking the poem bounces off it at least once before finding something to hold on to. Eventually, in this case, coherent messages do emerge—this is one of the clearer poems in the collection—but let’s look at another one:
the exile’s window is aligned with
wings the sea’s depths sent soaring
winter music sailing in
like a fading flag
is yesterday’s wind, is love
Notice the twice-nested metaphor in the last three lines of the second passage. Winter music (is like) a fading flag (is) yesterday’s wind (is) love. All metaphors are demanding, but this one worse than most. Think of it: even the most straightforward simile requires a reader to re-define both objects in his head and grasp a (dis)connect before he can proceed. Here, Bei Dao asks the reader to do this three times for one statement. Winter music, which sails in like a fading flag (okay), is yesterday’s wind (okay, pretty heavy connotation, but we can do this)…is love? The narrating poet anchors the whole ragged streamer to one of the most tiresome words in any language.
I dare to make these criticisms because I know Bei Dao capable of another level of poetry entirely. While reading Stephen Owen, I came across this quoted passage:
It was a wind within a wind, drawing
A restless response from the land,
I whispered, and the snowflake
drifted from my hand down the abyss
This quatrain is some strong stuff, clear and hauntingly prophetic. Further savoring reveals also possibilities of deep allegory, but not before the words first wake a dormant sensibility in the heart and convince or threaten the reader, even before she has had time to analyze, that some part of the statement is true.
If this kind of poetry defined Endure, I would be singing a different tune. Unfortunately, the most representative work looks more like this:
Night squatting in a terra-cotta jug
overflowed cool clear
water, the source of our love
memory like a scar
my entire life is under your feet
this drifting dune
congeals in your hand
becomes a dazzling diamond
(“Daydream,” Canto 15)
Amazingly, the poet has managed to fit “memory,” “scar” and “love” into successive lines. I’m pretty sure I heard Dire Straits cover this tune in the eighties.
The following excerpt is by far my favorite, from the same poem’s sixth canto:
in some shop
a bill, a razor
and a pack of extra-strength bug killer
One result of the poet’s incessant jumping around (i.e., making cognitive or emotional leaps like the ones above), both in “Daydream” and throughout the book, is that he stretches language beyond the bounds of significance, like butter over too much bread. A reader may wish for a lasting impression of the poetry, yet is forced to leave off worrying about what words like “love” signify in context because the narrator uses them independently of their more commonplace meanings while providing no referent by which to understand them anew. The nested metaphor quoted above is a perfect example, in which every demand on interpretation dilutes the power of the language.
Subject matter within the poems is similarly diverse and non-cohesive, though a handful of common images appear: fresh falling snow, flowing air or water, love (oog), shadows, mirrors. We see in some of the clearer poems attempts to comprehend the contrast between unceasing natural change, of which humanity is a part, and the artificial construct called history (“Background,” “Nightwatch”). That particular theme often borrows the language of protest (as in “Nightwatch”), but those references are rare and therefore stand out (like the phrase “fire-red decade” in “The Bright Mirror,” probably a reference to the Cultural Revolution). There are also a handful of more allusive images to be found: one of Bei Dao’s favorites, the bright mirror, has deep connotations within Buddhist poetry, while the title “Questioning Heaven” reverses the two characters that title the famous classical ode “Heaven • Question.” Similar themes and images do bind the poems together on an abstract level by echoing one another; yet it isn’t much to work with, certainly not enough to define a dominant thematic structure within the poetry.
Three or four poems stand a head or head and shoulders above the rest. “Nightwatch,” “Questioning Heaven” and “At Sky’s Edge” all offer strains of suggestion, images linked provocatively at their borders, to a hungry reader. “Sower” seems to present a very Chinese political allegory, a peasant versus an obscure intellectual overseer, within a fairly simple narrative form. “The Old Place” uses fantasy the way it should be used—to elucidate real contradiction. “Loyalty” contains the most strikingly beautiful imagery of any poem in the book, and is the only piece I’d consider memorizing.
Objections to the poetry aside, there is a lot to like about [i]Endure[/i] as a translation. Clayton Eshleman and Lucas Klein have struck that fine balance between what is there in Chinese and what can be in English that only comes through painstaking attention to detail and poetic deliberation. Line lengths have been very carefully controlled. Of course, one expects to find divergences from the original text at those spots where literal reproduction just doesn’t work, but Klein and Eshlemen have been able to step beyond that where possible. Let’s take two examples:
Moonlight frailer than slumber
river water passes through our bedroom
where does the furniture pull ashore?
not only the chronicles
but the consensus of
a criminal atmosphere
move us closer to the rain forest
oh weeping line of defense
Notice a clear pattern of statement-restatement with variation-conclusion in the Chinese, downbeated by a consistent end rhyme on the syllable ending –ian (known as the 言前辙 in northern Mandarin). That effect, so obvious in the original, is imitated in the translation using alliteration and consonance (see multiple “c’s” and “s’s”). A good compromise. Now look at three lines from “Untitled (In father’s level imagination…)”:
In father’s level imagination
the persistent cries of children
finally strike against a mountain
Here, the shady end rhyme here has been reproduced with a shady slant rhyme, while the cadence of the original three lines has been replicated also. Take it from a translator: that’s much harder than it looks.
I recall a long-time Paper Republican once declaring to me in a thread that if I wanted to judge a poem in translation fairly, I ought not to read the original. Yet a close reading here of both sides of the duotext has convinced me the opposite is the case; that is, one should read translation alongside original wherever possible, as it allows one to understand original and translation as an artistic whole. Given that compromise is an unavoidable necessity, the translating poets have produced English versions that I, speaking as a bilingual reviewer, can accept as united with the originals. That’s a statement I obviously wouldn’t dare were I only reading in English.
Before picking up Endure I wasn’t sure why Bei Dao was so famous. Now, having gone through the book two or three times, I’m still not. Of course, it’s possible that the problem lies with me as a reader; but good poetry should reward patient attention, not frustrate it, even if it does frustrate the ear. What pleases about the book is its craftsmanship, the skill with which Bei Dao’s work is translated and presented. Klein and Eshleman both state that the purpose of the effort was to present Bei Dao in more accurate English than he had been used to, and in this respect they have made a remarkable success.