Poetry is a never-ending lesson in precision. The distillation of thirst, the evocation of experience, the cauterization of an open wound. Between the poets of the world and their various works there is a common acknowledgement of restraint—there is only so much we can do with words, and only so much words can mean. Claude Lévi-Strauss originated the term “floating signifier” to describe language that has only vague or contextual denotation, and in our contact with literature we gradually come to understand that such abstraction is the enemy of poetry. So we step gingerly around the words we know contain too much to unpack. Words like “hurt,” or “death,” or “love.”
Floating signifiers are especially insecure in translation, in which one often has to choose between music and intention, double meanings or single ones, visual effect or faithful retellings. They present a particular dilemma because a floating signifier in one language may not be one in the other. The Chinese language, painting with a full palette of the pictorial, the symbolic, the historical, and the literal, has a tangibility that does not lapse into the vague as easily as English does. Ernest Fenollosa, in his (flawed but admirable) studies, characterized Chinese characters as a medium for poetry. It is not that Chinese is inherently more possessive of the elusive idea of poetics, but rather that the facets of Chinese language that enchanted Fenollosa with their invocation of poetry are also what result in headaches for translators. We do not count our losses in translation. Instead, we admire the growth a poem may undergo as it leaves its writer’s hand and wanders onto the page, how it may cross oceans and national borders, how it lives, how it is alive, the way we know language to be.
In Yu Yoyo’s “Letter of Regret”—a freeform consisting of five stanzas, the longest measuring a brief seven lines—the word “love” appears six times. There is something stubborn about its emergence and re-emergence, dressed in multiplicity, as action and act and emotion and procedure. The poem, published in its entirety below, does not stop to consider how loaded such language is, how dangerously conceptual, but merely stifles that risk with a bold ignorance.
In Henry Zhang’s English version of the poem, “love” is applied much less liberally, turning up only four times. There is no retracing the tangled process of translation, but one may guess that it has something to do with how “love” weighs lighter in the Chinese language, which has ceded less value to the word in its public consciousness. Or perhaps it is that Chinese words may be constructed and deconstructed much more freely than English ones (the word 爱情 holds a distinctly more impassioned nuance than the simple 爱, yet both are translated equally as “love”). Or even that the sonic value of 爱 (ai) is measurably softer than the consonant strike of “love.” Yet the poem in both forms resonates in its unabashed use of a word that evokes nothing if used without consideration. Yu Yoyo’s work seems to say that there is no substitute for “love,” so why pretend?
So it is that a word such as “love”, that has been tamed and broken, that has been the subject of failed restoration time and time again, may be revived into new dawn. “Love,” so easily lifeless on the page, is surrounded by water that drinks itself full, by milk-white linens, by a fountain pen dug into the ground, and as such is coaxed into reality, taking on the form of that ineffable thing we identify immediately, on contact, as love.
Letter of Regret
I wrote so much love
love would make me
two cities, each ignoring the other
and diminish into nothing
neither mountain passes, single-beamed bridges
well water, or river water
need keep apace
of the times
I’ve fallen in love with an enemy
with the murderer
I’ve stuck a pen in a field
using language and crops
to make huge, sky-large love
sometimes I’m so tired
panting, too I cry
from solitude I try to excavate
but what I pull off are hairs from the haunches
of an animal
How to displace living matter into print? How is it then, for a reader, pulled back into the living? There is a well-known Chinese chengyu (four-character idiom), “栩栩如生,” which describes an image realistic to the point that it takes flight from the page, leaving behind its previous existence. It is difficult to achieve this same realism with poetry, and poets often make up for the lack of visual reality in sonic resonance. Floating signifiers counteract the image but may take on an imaginary life in sound. Through literary instances of repetition, emphasis, or rhythm, the poet may morph the visual of the language into the music of the language, which may then exit the page into life. Poetry embraces the colloquial to allow the entry of a human voice. In the following Yu Yoyo poem, we witness the same metamorphosis. “Hurt,” another overloaded word, lapses into a question: “Will It Hurt”?
Will It Hurt
will it hurt
when flowers are washed of color
will it hurt
when clouds rub the moon a black-eye will it hurt
when language contaminates love
will it hurt
when I’m osteoporotic
and look back at myself now
Here sound is intimate and unavoidable. The simple, seemingly weightless refrain of “will it hurt” is not transformed through the act of translation, but announces its simplicity and resonance through its common utility in both Chinese and English. The pure “will it hurt” of a child. The bitter “will it hurt” of adulthood. The strange “will it hurt” asked by someone who knows better than to ask.
In Chinese, the direct translation of “会不会疼” is “Will it or will it not hurt,” and in such a reiteration we find something solemn. An escalating demand, an urgency. Within this distance between the two languages are chances for even the floating signifiers to gasp for air, to stretch their limbs, to speak in a voice we know, a voice we answer to, a chorus of voices.
Yu Yoyo’s poems almost come close to being cursory— when we are within them, we are held by language that is often supposedly too typical for poetry. Yet, we are also unseated and kept apace by the lucid and the unexpected. What we thought was human becomes animal. In the two poems above, as well as the five others included in Volume 4 of Spittoon Literary Magazine, a dream is slept once, then again. A bed warps from wood, to field, to glass. A woman washes her feet. Somebody doesn’t have a bottle opener. Alongside these vivid images the undercurrent of life runs, and with it all the unquantifiable, infinite, absolute things to which we give inadequate names. We know hurt, we know love, and we know how poetry can transform the two into an infinite wildness.
Yu Yoyo was born in Sichuan in 1990 and currently lives in Chengdu. She started writing poetry in 2004, and has published the collections 7 Years and I Am Bait. In 2017, she won the Henry Luce Translation Fellowship, adding to previous accomplishments such as receiving Selected Poetry’s Pioneer Poet Award and being named Star Poetry’s Poet of the Year (2012). Her work has been translated into English, Korean, Russian, French, Japanese, and Swedish. She is also the founder of the University Students’ Poetry Web.
Find other posts featuring work by Chinese-language writers on the Asymptote blog: