A poet of non-poetic things, Sun Wenbo drops himself into the mine of his subject and then starts tapping on the walls around him to find a way to tunnel out. This is the tension that undergirds his work, whether the poet’s intellect will manage to make its way back to the surface. His lines are sinewy but vernacular, sometimes verging on chatty, with moments of startling grace. He has read and absorbed the greats of Chinese literary history, and he writes as much to Du Fu as to his contemporaneous readers. His oeuvre as a whole presents a poet passionately concerned with words above all, but also with history and politics, the metaphysical and social realms, philosophy, love and its failures. When judging their peers, Chinese writers tend to be concerned not only with a poet’s output, but with his or her attitude toward the work of poetry. Sun Wenbo ranks among the most focused and intent. He has a scholar’s force of concentration and a soldier’s determination.
Translating Sun Wenbo’s poetry can seem deceptively straightforward. Because his language can be casual, and his topics ordinary (even base), a translator can produce a reasonable likeness of the original by skimming the surface, never plumbing the material beneath. It’s sometimes easy to misinterpret or miss entirely the sudden shifts in tone, like at the end of “Elegy for a Poisoned Era,” where we are taken from the battlefield of the body to “clouds as white as blossoms.” The translator must keep both ears keenly attuned to these maneuvers and be able to change register with the agility of the original. She must also not flinch from constipation, nausea, blood, and flies, and perhaps even find something lovely in the humorously bucolic image of “bacterial farm fields and bacterial grazing lands and bacterial cities.” These three poems are but a small taste of a very large literary talent.
– Eleanor Goodman
The Butterfly Effect
With twists and turns, I talk butterflies into women, talk women into nymphs, talk nymphs into tigers, talk tigers into bureaucrats, talk bureaucrats into wrathful gods. Going a step further, what else can I say? I’d have to ask you. It wouldn’t do not to ask. I can also do the reverse, talk wrathful gods into bureaucrats, bureaucrats into tigers, tigers into nymphs, nymphs into women, women into butterflies. The natural order moves in cycles, we’re not only spinning inside language. One word trails another. Or you might say, no word stands on its own. Expanding on this, if the word war didn’t exist, there’d be no word for peace, no word for despotism, and no need for the word democracy. If you say the word man, the word woman has to follow. If you say the word good, the emergence of the word evil has more meaning. If you say virtuous, there has to be lascivious to counter it. I sometimes bring up lizards, which means we’re talking about flies, and if we’re talking about flies, we’re not just talking about nausea, rather, talking about nausea means we’re talking about the world we live in. For example, this poem here, although it started with the word butterflies, I know its final destination is the word politics. But when I take apart the word politics, thousands of other words might replace it: for example, haze, snow and ice, landslide— or, what can substitute in is a panda drinking tea, a crow singing opera.
Words aren’t enough. Beneath this secluded body, you never know what is hidden. Soul, that outmoded word, can’t be explained. And what will happen this winter—is it a sedan? Will it will slip in an instant on a snowy road, you can’t predict—but can you guess what will happen? You can’t turn these imaginings into a cavernous courtyard, or it will be a kind of distant religion; round pillars, stained glass windows, carved wooden beds; an ancient organ begins to ring out with the singing— is this too absurd? A secluded body is a solid fortress, a private nation with complex instincts and desires—to you, it’s a hell, to others it’s a heaven; these are the two extremes of fate— if you really want to go in, what you’ll likely see is a prison of thoughts, hiding the gallows and the torture rack— and what happens if you get lost in there? Such questions can be asked a thousand times. They can extend in other directions—like people endlessly discussing horoscopes, as though it has some connection to their souls—can you really understand the faint assemblages of light hung in the night? The matter moving there corresponds to movement through the channels of the body—to enter, is this not just wishful thinking, not just the empty aspirations of words? We should stop for a moment—ah, this secluded body, place words can’t reach... burial ground for words.
Elegy for a Poisoned Era
Straining isn’t a simple word. Straining is a tremendous force, created inside your body. But how can you face what other people say? Straining, from the lungs down to the anus, the pain appears and disappears. This is the dirtiest part of the body, the body’s waste. It’s too disturbing. Too hopeless. It makes standing impossible, sitting impossible. It’s impossible not to think about it, that a man’s body really doesn’t belong to him, it belongs to the nation of bacteria. Bacterial farm fields and bacterial grazing lands and bacterial cities. Now what will they do? Raise their own sheep, grow their own poppies? Or convene a plenary meeting of their own government. Anyway, anyway! It hurts you. It makes you think of hell. Secluded forests, cold gloomy rivers, scorching cities. Walking through them are your dead acquaintances. They become your body’s internal scenery. Is there really nothing else: a landscape of plastic, steel, glass? They are tempering you. Whether you’re awake or asleep, you see your body as a battlefield after battle, a scene of carnage. But you also see it’s getting worse, your soul is heading toward another landscape, a green meadow, a forest filled with the scent of flowers. Rivers, lakes, fish and fowl, maybe a sky like a bright mirror, clouds as white as blossoms. And the night comes on, the myriad stars glitter. So that’s why you have the feeling of rising rather than straining down. To scramble and clamber, is that the meaning of life? Such questions belong to time. Perhaps only when death arrives will an answer appear. But, when that happens, after it all, could there be another meaning?
Eleanor Goodman is a writer and a translator from Chinese. Her work appears in journals such as PN Review, Chutzpah, Pleiades, World Literature Today, Cha, and The Best American Poetry website. She is a Research Associate at the Fairbank Center for Chinese Studies at Harvard University, and this year she will be at Beijing University on a Fulbright Fellowship. She has held writing residencies at the Vermont Studio Center and the American Academy in Rome. Her book of translations, Something Crosses My Mind: Selected Poems of Wang Xiaoni, was the recipient of a 2013 PEN/Heim Translation Grant and is forthcoming from Zephyr Press.
Photograph by Zack Newick.