The Jan 2011 Asymptote Book Review

Brandon Holmquest

Time of Sky and Castles in the Air
by Ayane Kawata
translated from Japanese by Sawako Nakayasu
Litmus Press

Another quality effort from award-winning translator Sawako Nakayasu, this edition collects two separate books, published in 1969 and 1991 respectively, by Japanese poet Ayane Kawata. As Nakayasu details in her afterword, Kawata was born in China, has lived much of her life in Europe, and is generally a non-participant in Japanese poetic life, publishing regularly but otherwise making almost no public appearances. As such, the work is idiosyncratic, a thing which can be seen especially in this selection from Kawata's early and later career.

Time of Sky contains 90 numbered, very short poems, most of them between three and five lines, arranged two per page. This formal structure enforces a condition of de-emphasis on the individual poem, and this condition is in large part the book's content. The little poems all join up together, and become very big and very eloquent indeed. Castles in the Air is made of short prose pieces with titles like "Rock Particle" or "With an Infant". The texts present themselves as simple descriptions of dreams which, being dreams, are anything but simple. Kawata has a firm grasp of what it is that makes dream logic so illogical, and her flowing recreations of the way that logic holds together, despite contradictions and nonsenses that are often apparent even to the dreamer, make the poems a genuine pleasure.

by Guillevic
translated from French by Richard Sieburth
Ugly Duckling Presse

On every page, there's a shape. A simple one, strictly Euclidean. Below that is the name of the shape and below that a poem which is somehow related to that shape, either as a response, a contemplation, a monologue in the shape's voice, and so on. It's such a simple idea that it seems impossible that no one thought it up sooner, as though it must have been a regular practice among the students of Pythagoras or something. But no, Eugene Guillevic thought it up in the 60s.

It's an astonishing trick, lending itself especially well to a children's literature style of aesopism and anthropomorphism. Little fables, more or less, every single poem. Did you ever think you would read a poem about a circle that was kind of sad? There are two in this book.

Sieburth's versions of the poems are very lively and sound very spoken. His touch is very deft, you never really have the sense that he's used any but the right word. He hits what certainly seem like all the right notes as the book goes along, and therefore it doesn't matter so much if he's hit the same notes as Guillevic. Sieburth suggests in his afterword that he's been somewhat liberal with the originals, in the interest of finding an appropriate voice for the whole book. Well, he found the voice, and it works very well.

The afterword is worth mention on its own, unusually candid, informal and informative. In it, Sieburth situates himself and the work of translation in its specific historical context, the late 1960s, when he first discovered the book. He talks about Denise Levertov's translations of Guillevic, other poets that he was reading in those days such as Oppen and Creeley, his own work on the project. It makes the entire thing seem rather personal and increases the translator's visibility in a way that works to the benefit of everyone involved.

Flash Cards
by Yu Jian
translated from Chinese by Wang Ping and Ron Padgett
Zephyr Press

Ron Padgett describes his collaboration with co-translator Wang Ping: "From time to time she emailed me a rough draft from the Chinese and I tarted it up." A typically droll comment which is also no doubt literally true. This book feels like a case of the right people for the right project. The affinity between Padgett and Yu Jian is explained in a charmingly off-handed manner in Padgett's introduction, but let us not overlook Wang Ping who, if she was sending Padgett versions that only needed tarting up, did a great deal of the heavy lifting.

The result is a book of short poems which are also, frankly, weird. They are not dissimilar to Ron Padgett's own poems. There is a straight-faced humor which turns into straight-faced weirdness in Yu Jian's work which is also found in Padgett, for example. But the effect in Yu Jian is rather more unsettling than Padgett tends to be, the scenes verge on dream/nightmare more frequently. There is also, at bottom, a description of a place and society that is unmistakably Chinese, which forms the basis for the distortions of place, time, and identity that occur in the poems. There is humor but it can quickly turn hollow and poignant. In some poems the reader turns around to find that everyone has disappeared. A little old woman turns into a wolf. The relative brevity of the form, flash cards, enforces a conciseness of narrative and image that produces some lovely effects.

An introductory essay by Simon Patton situates Yu Jian's poetry in its context, and is especially informative on the subjects of his poetics and personal development as a writer. Patton makes explicit links to Eliot's The Waste Land in describing Yu Jian's attempts to describe the destruction of both high and low Chinese culture during and after Mao's Cultural Revolution. A persuasive case is made for Yu Jian's status a poet working primarily with the theme of darkness and then Patton points out, "All too often in these poems, true darkness is the dazzling neon lighting of the contemporary world."

Over Autumn Rooftops
by Hai Zi
translated from Chinese by Dan Murphy
Host Publications

The poems in this book, most of them written in the six years prior to the author's 1989 suicide, are intensely beautiful. Hai Zi was a peasant's son who did well on the university exams and wound up an intellectual. He was also intensely mentally ill toward the end of his life. He has, in the years since his death, come to be seen as an increasingly important figure inside China and it is very easy to see why. All you have to do is open this book to any random page to find something truly special, such as this stanza from a poem called "Village of Nine Poems":

the beauty of autumn nights
makes my former affections difficult to forget
I sit on the slightly warmed earth
accompanied by grain and water
nine old poems from the past
like nine beautiful villages under autumn skies
making my former affections difficult to forget

Dan Murphy has done a wonderful job here, not only translating but in editing the selection as well as writing a useful introduction. The voice is sure and firm and versatile. It is readily apparent that Murphy has spent a long time with these poems, as he himself says. There is a restraint to the lines, a sort of grudging minimalism, against which the content seems to strain, as though more would be said if it were possible. The real beauty comes when that straining succeeds, not in breaking free of the restraint, but of forcing itself through the restrictions, giving a nearly baroque quality to the resulting images.

Zhuangzi wants to work his way into
the wild beasts staring at the moon
bones inch by inch
above and below the navel
grow like tree branches

To read this book, if you are unfamiliar with Hai Zi, is literally to discover a major poet for the first time. You simply have to stop and let everything settle before you can proceed.