from Notes on the Mosquito

Xi Chuan

Beast

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!

We call the tiger tiger, we call the donkey donkey. But the beast, what can you call it? Without a name, its flesh and shadow are a blur, and you can barely call it, can barely be sure of its location in broad daylight or divine its destiny. It should be given a name like "grief" or "embarrassment," should be given a pool to drink from, should be given shelter from the storm. A beast with no name is a fright.

A song-thrush does away with the king's foot soldiers.

It knows temptation, but not by a palace, not by a woman, and not by a copious candlelit gala. It comes toward us, so is there something about our bodies that makes it drool? Does it want to slurp up the emptiness off our bodies? What kind of temptation is this! Sideways through the passageway of shadows, colliding head-on with the flash of a knife, the slightest hurt teaches it to moan—moaning, existence, who knows what stuff belief is made of; but once it settles down, you hear the sound of sesame at the jointing stage, you catch the scent of the rambler rose.

The great wild goose that clears a thousand mountains, too shy to talk about itself.

This metaphorical beast walks down the slope, plucks flowers, sees its reflection by the riverside, and wonders inside who it could be; it swims across the river, climbs ashore, and gazes back at the mist on the river, with nothing to discover or understand; it rushes into the city, chases girls, finds a piece of meat, and passes the night beneath the eaves, dreaming of a village and a companion; sleepwalking for fifty miles, knowing no fear, waking in the light of a new dawn, it finds itself returning to the location it had set out from: that same thick bed of leaves, the same bed of leaves still hiding that dagger—what's going to happen?

Pigeon in the sand, you are enlightened by the sheen of blood.

Oh, the age of flight is near!

1992





The Distance

for Akhmatova

there is a snowfield in a dream
there is a white birch in the snowfield
there is a small house that will resound in prayer
there is a shingle that will fall off the north star

in the distance

there is a crowd of commoners as purple as red cabbage
there is a pot of boiled water that was lapped up by animals
there is a wooden chair caught in recollection
there is a desklamp whose illumination represents me

in the distance

words I can't read written on glass
soybeans and sorghum grow on a blank page
a face that makes me put down my pen
when I pick it up again the ink's frozen solid

in the distance

roving clouds of December rise off tree limbs
the train of my soul stops in the cold
on a cold road I see me walking
at a girl's door I cough three times

1994





Poison

What is poisonous is beautiful and dangerous. This sentence could be reversed, so that what is beautiful and dangerous is poisonous. Medusa is a product of such beliefs. In general what is poisonous is not in and of itself a sin: nightshade, the oleander, the cobra, and so on, are all components of nature; but their toxin has been extracted by the apothecary, and so some will succeed with subterfuge while others meet untimely death. But let us speak not of poison's practical applications—it divides poisoner from victim, the one in front from the one behind the curtain; likewise it binds politics and fairy tale, granting death by poison an aesthetic significance. The symbol for poison is the skull; in it is the potential to change both environment and human psychology: a room in which poison has been placed is no ordinary room, and anyone concealing poison is either a demon or an accomplice to one. As for suicide by poison, I'll say nothing. All the explanation I can offer is that before taking poison the suicide splits in two. He poisons himself. Thus every suicide by poison, too, involves the element of subterfuge.

1992

translated from the Chinese by Lucas Klein



Read the original in Chinese, Simplified

Read the translation in Chinese, Traditional

Xi Chuan (penname of Liu Jun 刘军) was born in Jiangsu in 1963 but grew up in Beijing, where he still lives. One of contemporary China's most celebrated poets, having won the Lu Xun Prize for Literature (2001) and the Zhuang Zhongwen Prize (2003), he is also one of its most hyphenated littérateurs—teacher-essayist-translator-editor-poet—and has been described by American writer Eliot Weinberger as a "polymath, equally at home discussing the latest American poetry or Shang Dynasty numismatics." A graduate of the English dept. of Beijing University, where his thesis was on Ezra Pound's Chinese translations, he is currently employed at the Central Academy for Fine Arts in Beijing, where he was hired as an English instructor, then taught Western literature in Chinese translation, and now teaches pre-modern Chinese literature. He has taught at New York University (2007) and University of Victoria (2009), and is currently translating the work of Gary Snyder into Chinese.

Lucas Klein is a writer, translator, and editor whose work has appeared in Jacket, Rain Taxi, CLEAR, and PMLA, and from Fordham, Black Widow, and New Directions. Assistant Professor at the University of Hong Kong, his translation of poetry by Xi Chuan (西川) won the 2013 Lucien Stryk Prize and was shortlisted for the Best Translated Book Award in poetry. October Dedications, his translations of seminal contemporary poet Mang Ke (芒克) are forthcoming from Zephyr and Chinese University Press, and he is at work translating Tang dynasty poet Li Shangyin (李商隱).