Henry W. Leung reviews Bai Hua's Wind Says

Translated from the Chinese by Fiona Sze-Lorrain (Zephyr Press, 2012)

Wind Says, a polyphonic composition that includes translated poems on facing pages with the original Chinese, excerpts twenty-five years of Bai Hua's work. Also included in this volume are an interview from 2010 between the poet and his translator, and an exceptional translator's 'prelude' written as a zuihitsu of cuts and observations across time, honoring the tone and promise of Bai's work even as it reveals the brightness of Fiona Sze-Lorrain's own engagement with his work as a poet herself. The title of the book succinctly characterizes Bai's style—restless, murmuring, with an impressionistic brevity of image—and also displays Sze-Lorrain's translating prowess. The title is just as metrically and syntactically immediate as the original Chinese, precisely because the absence of a preceding article—"Wind Says"—makes it ungrammatical while still sounding idiomatically acute.

In her prelude, Sze-Lorrain remarks that in Bai's poems, "[n]arrative and lyric blend at odds when something else is at stake. I ask who the hero is." Who is the hero, indeed? This is a pertinent question when considering that Bai Hua was one of the central emergent figures in the post-Misty generation of poets in 1980s China. The hero of his poems, if there is one, sounds, unsurprisingly, like an everyman standing apart from political history. (The speaker reminds me at times of the Czech poet Pavel Šrut's everyman, a 'Novak' finding poetry in the banal during the Soviet occupation.) And what are the stakes? With all its natural, though not necessarily pastoral, imagery, Bai's poetic project can be read as an elevation of the everyday into mystery, into some manner of cosmology. Take, for instance, these lines from "Sea Summer," which opens the book:

What tigerful summer should it beFiery hair awakened by a gazeSwift and seasoned, the sea howlsholds flowers from down deepwelcomes a running Arabian youth
We're thus introduced to the poems by a grand, folkloric sweep. Though abstract and unsubtle adjectives infect some of his earlier work, Bai's poems are at their best when, as in this collection, the images speak atmospherically. The coinage of 'tigerful' is precise enough to make a startling observation about the natural without being pointedly novel, just as "holds flowers from down deep" and the "running Arabian youth" are wonderfully striking in their suggestion of a logic of images specific to Bai's poetic system.

The poems' sense of history is atemporal, which is to say that Bai scales geographies and eras to various effect. "In the Qing Dynasty," for instance, takes its title from a refrain exploring patterns, phases, and feelings—a seasonal rather than historical approach to the period of the Qing. In "Impermanence (II)," we see a common theme in which history's magisteria are eddied until they're level with the timelessly commonplace: "my faint body hair is evolving / those lowly or lofty men will die someday . . . // Memory— / It slides away in a torrent." There is a distrust of ideology and institution in these poems, and the speaker often pulls us back to the present moment in a rebirth, a leveling out. In "Book," he notes: "All archetypes actually begin on the same day."

This leveling out in the poems is also achieved when their subjects engage with wonder and humility—but not sentimentality. I'm thinking of the ending of "A View of Jiangnan," which ends marvelously thus:

Which sadness is sadness?O, thin, tired manLook, a spring river is flowing east
And this line from "Fading, Fading": "a tiny insect sees your finger as a vast landscape." This haiku-like technique flips perspective and scale. In his later poems especially, Bai undercuts what seems like a line of idyllic wisdom with something more poetically engaging because of its banality: "He laughs, Is anonymity equality? / I don't understand what this means" (from "Curtain Call") and "Who cares / After reading the second page / I look to the lamp and feel joy" (from "Summer Lyric").

I find myself most inclined toward Bai's recent work, after his poetic silence of ten years, which seems to have resulted in a more concise, though fragmented, syntax. Beginning especially with the "Hand Notes on Mountain and Water" section in Wind Says, his poems become more staccato, numbered, and jagged, pinballing from image to image—freeing up the range of movement. One of my favorite lines is section 4 in "Hand Notes," which reads in its entirety: "He has a dawn-like spirit, but his punctuality expresses his sadness." And the poem ends with a rhyme of action that would not be so poignant or direct without the sharp cuts of white space around each line:

26He smashes ants with a hammer.
That maid picks up and walks away with two pieces of dog shit.That old man rubs two peaches like rubbing two testicles.
These are uninflected juxtapositions of images. They don't require explanation or rhetoric; the images spin a vitality out of their own mysteries.

Sometimes I wonder if certain lines that fall flat—such as "infinitely, infinitely . . ." in "Character Sketches," a line so poor compared to its succeeding line with the same function, "fiddling with an eternal bell on a bike"—are flaws of the original, or of the translation, or simply of the incapacity of English to carry abstractions the way Chinese can. On the translation itself, I must note some occasional awkwardness that is misdirecting more than productive—"Opposite windows open" is a mistranslation of what would mean "the windows opposite"; "The third story (can't help but) begin(s) from romance" is an overcomplication of the original parenthetical; and so on—but overall the translation is admirable. Sometimes Sze-Lorrain even improves on the original, as in the exquisite cadence of "who blows now / who is fire / who is the convulsing arm of a new flower" in "Beauty." And by no means can I fault a translator who can bring us this couplet from "Fish":

Born as metaphor to clarify a fact:the throat where ambiguous pain begins
Wind Says is a document of nearly three decades of evolving work, yet it comes to us new and whole through Sze-Lorrain's singular translations. The inclusion of critical prose and the original text makes this book an important lens focused on one poetic journey in China's recent decades.