“Dazzling songs hanging in the void”: Yang Lian’s Yi

Jeffrey Twitchell-Waas

Yang Lian. Yi. Bi-lingual edition trans. Mabel Lee. Los Angeles: Green Integer, 2002.

A few years ago, in response to the first complete translation into Chinese of Pound’s Pisan Cantos, Yang Lian suggested that it was only in Chinese that Pound’s poem finally found its full realization, that confined to Western language and phonetic script Pound was hampered from achieving the timelessness to which he or at least his poem aspired. Yang initiates this provocative claim by dissenting from the specific rendering of one of Pound’s lines, so it is not a matter of this particular translation improving the original but the idea of the transmigration of the Cantos into the specific poetic characteristics of Chinese that fulfills the realization of Pound’s poem, that is, its impulse toward spatial form, abstraction and the suspension of time. This claim has a number of interesting implications given the special place of China and Chinese in Pound’s poem, not least that it appears to contradict a number of Pound’s own assumptions about the Chinese written language as a medium for poetry. If we turn this argument around on Yang’s own epic effort in Yi (pronounced “ee”), this might suggest that the transmigration of Yang’s poem into English is inevitably a descent into time and its entanglement in the specificities of the present. Indeed, one can be assured that Western readers and reviewers of Yi have already found it impossible to resist the habit of instantly contextualizing the poem in terms of the Cultural Revolution, dissident and exile literature, or this or that (Western) modernist style or movement. Indeed, the blurb on the back cover makes the obligatory mention that Yang’s “work was banned in China in 1983, and he has since lived in exile,” although this is both biographically and bibliographically more obfuscating than not. Unless we are talking in existential terms, Yang was in no sense an exile until the traumatic events of June 1989, at which time he happened to be in New Zealand, and despite intermittent campaigns against liberalization throughout the 1980s that targeted many poets, Yang published a number of volumes in mainland China throughout the decade and, after a hiatus of some years following 1989, had his collected works published in Shanghai in 1998. However, my point is not that such contextualization is mere error, since I am simply reiterating a platitude about the inevitable fate of any translation. Yet it is worth resisting the urge to too hastily assimilate the translation to our desirable ideas of the other. The fate of Yi’s descent into time will be determined by its translation’s readers, and this translation is bound to pose some difficulties for its intended English language readership.

Yang Lian initially came to public attention in China as one of the young poets who first challenged the strictures of Maoist literature at the very end of the 1970s and became known as the Menglong (Misty or Obscure) poets. In 1983 Yang published a well-known manifesto entitled “Tradition and Us,” which in the midst of the new mania for all things Western advocated the recovery of Chinese works, which until recently had been almost as taboo as foreign bourgeois texts. Yang’s call was not a reaction against modernism but an insistence that the past cannot be simply cut off, as Maoism tended to insist, but must be brought into the contemporary. Tradition, properly speaking, exists in the present as a creative, even radical transformation of what has been inherited; otherwise we are merely talking about the “past.” In the 1980s Yang was often identified with the so-called “roots seeking” literature (xungen wenxue) that tended to explore archaic, often non-Han indigenous traditions, sometimes as alternatives to the thoroughly desacralized existence of contemporary China and sometimes as explorations into the repressed roots of cultural violence and cruelty. Much of Yang’s poetry of the early 1980s uses mythological materials from the more exotic frontiers of the Chinese empire as vehicles for expressing the release of the psychological and emotional repressions of contemporary China. However, while Yi and his subsequent work are profoundly mythopoetic, they are not primarily concerned with either a nostalgia for past roots nor with the condemnation of contemporary China, except by implication, but with reenacting tradition in terms of the self so that specific traditional materials are thoroughly subsumed into his own, highly modernist poetic language.

Yi was written over roughly a five year period in the latter half of the 1980s, when Yang was in his early 30s, and represents an effort to culminate his early work and lay the foundation for his subsequent writing. Strictly speaking the title of Yang’s poem is , constructed on the model of archaic characters, combining the sun and the human with a line connecting and interpenetrating both—an ideograph meant to capture the essence of the poem’s mythopoetic perspective: visually and spatially expressing the permeable intersection of the cosmic and the human, the social and the individual in which, in contrast with China’s past (and perhaps present as well), neither is subordinated to the other and each is understood as interdependent. However, this title, whose meaning and pronunciation would not be immediately evident to a Chinese reader, also indicates the writerly and spatial character of the poem. The pronunciation Yang has given his title homophonically suggests the meanings of “one,” “poetry” and “change.” The latter links to the Book of Changes (I Ching or, in pinyin romanization, Yi Jing), which proposes much of the elaborate structure of the poem. As Yang explains in an essay appended to this translation, he is not interested in the Yi Jing as a divinatory machine, but instead sees the archaic text as poetic prior to any conception of poetry as such. The Yi Jing is the symbolic expression of primitive Chinese’s perception of their world in terms of the basic elements of their reality and its fundamental nature as transformation, but is not an abstract theory of nature or change. For the purposes of Yi, Yang has adopted some of the numerical structural principles from the Yi Jing while pointing out that these numbers are arbitrary. Suggested by the hexagrams, Yi has 64 sections or poems of 2-4 pages each that are divided into four books, each associated with a dominate element (air, earth, water and fire) which are split into two aspects or manifestations suggested by the trigrams: heaven and wind, earth and mountains, water and marsh, thunder and fire, with each poem standing under the title of one or the other of these aspects. Each of the four books arranges the sequencing of the poems into different symmetrical patterns. Across the work as a whole there are seven different styles of lyric poetry and three different styles of prose poems, and often within individual poems there is a juxtaposition of multiple levels of voicing indicated by different indentations of lines. For the intrepid, Yang offers further structural details, as well as notes on mythological and historical allusions, none of which is likely to give much guidance through the thicket of the actual words.

While it is probably inevitable that Western readers will be enticed by the idea of Yi as a reworking of the Yi Jing, I suspect this is more than likely a red herring. Yang’s own understanding of the classic has little in relation to the various aesthetic and philosophical uses Westerners have seen in the Yi Jing, and, as mentioned, he is not interested in its occult interpretations. Nevertheless, what Yi does take from the Yi Jing is a venerable mythopoetic perception of the cosmos that embodies the very struggle to enact that perception of a nature that is transformation and therefore must always be re-realized in the present instance. Furthermore, for Yang the Yi Jing along with other ancient works, particularly the shamanistic influenced poetry of Qu Yuan and the Songs of the South (Chuci), offer what the Chinese poetic tradition supposedly lacks, works on an epic scale, which however avoid the Western obsession with heroism and historical careers for the endeavor to express an enlarged human existence, the self in the cosmos. These works also stand behind Yi in the sense that whatever poetry is it manifests an archaic power and the full force of the tradition that invades the poet and pervades his or its language. The Yi Jing is a dynamic formal perception to which Yi stands as an analogous work attempting to recreate such immediacy of perception in the present.

The reader needs to maintain perspective and recognize that while Yi’s intricate structure is of interest, it functions primarily as scaffolding within which the poet works and does not offer a key to the meaning of the poem. Any effort to read a given poem according to its titular element will inevitably frustrate. There may be a general dominant mood or lyric-prose style associated with a given element, but this can only be recognized within the resonating contexts of the poem as a whole and not according to predetermined ideas about that element. Yang does suggest something of a narrative development among and sometimes within his four books, which he tells us treat in turn the human confrontation with nature, history, the self and finally achieving transcendence. Yet the poem begins and ends with the same phrase, suggesting a circular structure, although actually I believe it would be more correct to understand the four books as simultaneously framing or interpenetrating each other rather than in terms of sequential progression. Whatever Yang means by “transcendence,” the fact that the fourth book is entitled “The Descent” might give us some hint that English readers of this translation need to purge themselves of Christian eschatological thought habits.

Yi shifts rapidly, often violently between the self and the outside, blurring the divide and dissolving the solidity of the real: “The essence of my being is blown into ripples / Whipped up into mountains / Great rocks tremble like new-born flesh” (“Heaven 8” 81). We move within a sentence or line between extremes of both space and time, between the familiar and strange, with a persistent self-consciousness of all this as writing itself enacting the interpenetration of self and cosmos. Rarely if ever is this viewed from a perch sufficiently transcendent to be perceived as a matter of blissful flux; indeed transformations in Yi are usually violent, both imagistically and linguistically, and death and decay appear everywhere. The literal and metaphoric collapse into each other as the poet attempts to bring bodily reality and his writing to a point of convergence in the teeth of an acute awareness that there may be little else beyond the blank of his page.

So, what can be touched is only the blood of a small woman, and what can be heard are only the incomprehensible sounds of death in slumber. The sounds of an ideographic script course through the delicate veins of a mosquito and on its face is enacted the agony of transmigration. Changing again and again are settings of the pure white of hospital rooms or the rich red amber, settings of beds or dried blades of grass, the exhilaration of drinking a drop of blood ten thousand years ago and the mystical urge of this moment wildly to commit suicide, are glaringly real for all of you. As in an unborn poem, two pre-selected words separately whirl and dance with a compounded loneliness, carefully avoiding words about the myriad things, using pores, feelers, hairs and lips—tremblingly groping for—this ephemeral instant, this cruelly neglected instant, this instant of perfection in the eyes of living beings and of poetry: the mosquito in this rock and the woman in this lie. The flux of changing light in the afternoon. This world of living corpses. (“Thunder 2” 277)

The poet or poem as mosquito: transmitter of tradition or parasite, agent of change or entombed in amber?

Circling back to where I began, Yang persistently speaks of poetry as timeless and illusory—“illusionary space writing” he calls it. The abstracting tendencies of Chinese poetic writing cancel time and referential specificity, creating a dynamic space in which the poet or reader must exist or experience, a structure that consciousness, thought, feeling fills and activates. At a deep level, tradition is these structures of feeling and thought embedded in the language. These are illusory in the sense of distancing from the specificity of our immediate circumstance or reality and in turn reflect back on the illusory aspect of that “reality.” One can understand Yang’s insistence on this abstract or transcendent aspect of the poetic structure as a reaction to the obsessively politicalized discourse, poetic and otherwise, within which he grew up, yet he insists that these characteristics are embedded in the nature of the written Chinese language itself and foregrounded in its long poetic tradition. Yang points out that classical Chinese poems, particularly the lushi (regulated verse: 8 line poems of 5 or 7 characters per line with an intricate set of formal rules), are complex structures of parallelisms and antitheses that must be read from the middle outwards or vice versa rather than linearly—an effect frequently ignored in translations. The image of the poem as concentric circles is one Yang evokes often here and elsewhere: “a concentric circle deepening in layers and radiating outwards in layers, my ghosts live everywhere, become each word—everywhere here is the center of disaster” (“Thunder 8” 335). Yang is more interested in textures of resonance and dissonance than linear development. He is equally intrigued by classical Chinese poetry’s elision of pronouns and lack of tense, number and definite articles—again, few translators can resist importing these deictic elements. Whereas classical Chinese has appealed to Western modernists because of its supposed pellucid concreteness, Yang emphasizes its comparative abstraction, its lack of specific situatedness or speaker so that the perception described is generalized and remains open to multiple perspectives. The idea of Chinese classical verse as restrained intimacy is largely a brilliant invention of Pound, which subsequent translators have found irresistible. Again, whereas Westerners have been fascinated by the gestural immediacy of the Chinese characters, Yang points out the disconnection between a non-phonetic script and the vernacular, which is especially pronounced in the case of classical Chinese. By and large, translations of classical Chinese poetry into English ought to be understood as more a specific genre of creative writing than a plausible simulation of the originals—they are an idea of China within our own language.

In any case, Yang is intensely interested in what he sees as Chinese language’s abstract and spatial character. From the discrete character that however simple or complex fills a precisely equivalent square of space to individual lines to their juxtaposition into poems to the elaborate arrangement of a sequence such as Yi, each represents a complete structure or complex which Yang often compares to a room, and for Yang rooms are always haunted. The ghosts of the dead and of language fill the poem and the poet—this is the tradition that cannot be evaded, not just of past works but of memory generally. To deny these ghosts is to fall into illusion. It is these voices that speak through the poem. While on the one hand the poet is constantly striving to realize the self, the self is the space or room of these swarming ghosts. Yang prefers to understand his task within this impossible dynamic: the realization of the self as giving voice to the swarm of repressed voices that demand recognition the moment the poem begins to write:

Watch this mouth It is proof of murder
Soft flesh of hot plaster Crumbling jaws My experience
Tongue page by page opened
Polished Like a carefully worded epitaph
Head topples
Drops into me making me into someone else
(“Water 2” 199)

On the one hand, Yang’s poetry is written in the consciousness that his language is given, carrying the full weight of history and society so that it is the language that writes the poem. On the other hand, the given manifestation of the poem can only happen within the individual poet or reader, language and tradition only exist within the space of the self. The poem creates a spatial structure within which the ghosts of language and history are given free play rather than kept at bay, which simultaneously is a realization of selfhood. When speaking of his poetry writing, Yang constantly points out this fundamentally paradoxical nature: history and language can only speak through the self while the self speaks only to fall back into language and history, poetry pushes beyond the boundaries of language only to immediately fall back:

And I have indeed long since departed from myself, the name I remove is simply another word which is written into forgetting by those who continue to write it. People deluded by this land, die in the cold tempest of words and lines. Masks prattle endlessly, world conceived on a page of white paper can be fatal. (“Thunder 6” 317)

For all the elaborate symmetrical structures of Yi, the content of the poem must engage or enact this illusory and transformational reality if it is to be something more than an impenetrable torrent of predominately bleak images.

The following is roughly the first half of “Heaven 3” and to the degree that any given passage can, it evidences many characteristic features of Yi as a whole:

Throne: Spilling forth from light, honoring only the encroachment of this land
Throne: Spilling forth from clear-sounding bronzes, startling words inherited
by the prophets
Looking as far as the eye can see are mountains like an altar
The day the mouth opens
Smoke of wolf dung curls up
Splashing out from floral sleeves as a vast expanse of disease
spreading among the stars
Language of the dead, invaded my lips not inoculated against rot
A fleshy human vegetable
Sprouting hedonistic grasses, drinking to the moon of the first and
fifteenth day
Surge of feverish trembling, only subterfuge for sleeping in the open
on eternally dark nights
Eulogies blush, fashionable lies
Throne: Spilling forth from the sealed silence of bone marrow
A more feeble world cowers to quietly listen
In an instant, a deathly voice
I am the prophet I do not know, I am my own testament
I speak words of the epitaph of I who have died (32-33)

Here there is the insistent and abrupt movement between the cosmic and the particular, the outside and the subjective in an effort to simultaneously affirm and unravel the interconnectedness of the whole. Dark and violent imagery predominate with decay and death omnipresent, only occasionally and ambivalently off-set by hints of rebirth and light. Each line stands as an individual unit or space, while the use of anaphora and other repetitions emphasize the spatial and concentric construction of the poems. In this particular series of Heaven poems, the spatialization is emphasized by the use of three different indentations of lines, which Yang tells us are meant to indicate on the one hand “nature’s transcendence and its revelations to mankind” and on the other “. . . mankind’s suffering from the oppression and restrictions imposed by nature,” with the medial indented lines “harmonizing” these antithetical perspectives in “the perception of man’s perpetual contradictions” (348). One notes that it is in the medially indented lines where the “I” appears as the intersecting space of the positive and negative perceptions or experiences of nature or the outside. Throughout there are incorporated reflections on the language and poem itself, its inhabitation by ghosts and its perpetual passing away. The formal and heightened register of the voice, although particularly emphatic in a Heaven poem, is generally characteristic of Yi, and Yang certainly has a high modernist sense of the poet as taking on the task of cultural redemption. In some of the prose poems that are satiric, Yang adopts a more vernacular voice and content, but predominately the perspective is mythopoetic and explicitly contemporary imagery is scarce.

The inescapable presence of deathliness in Yi and Yang’s subsequent work is unflinching and likely to pose difficulties for some readers. While death takes on full mythopoetic dimensions, and therefore implies rebirth, the dark and negative side of the matter is far more present than the fleeting glimpses of light: “The inconstancy of life and death, gouges out blood and flesh lodged within the body. What issues from the desolate hand is limitless” (“Wind 8” 87). The truth of history and the human condition the poet feels obliged to speak is the pervasiveness of death and illusion—but not disillusion. Both structurally and philosophically, Yang rejects evolutionary progressivism, and in this respect he holds closer to a traditional Chinese perspective wherein harmony and balance necessarily involve change, destruction and mortality; transformation is not teleological but a matter of dynamic balance—either the “myriad things” keep in motion or they are not. The intellectual strands that feed into Yang’s understanding of death can be traced to both Asian traditions of the illusionary nature of phenomenal existence and to an early interest in Nietzsche and existentialism, whose appeal to young writers struggling out of the Cultural Revolution is hardly surprising. It is possible to peel back a number of layers of deathliness and illusion relevant to Yang’s poem: from the deracinated spiritlessness of the society he grew up in with its ceaseless revisions of one illusory dogma after another, which in his opinion has hardly improved with the more recent rise of the cult of money, to the transitoriness of mundane existence and the endless displacement of the self. Implicated in all this is the previously mentioned mask-like character of language: “The instant I open my mouth, disintegration starts” (“Thunder 2” 275). The poet’s task is first of all to unflinchingly expose these levels of illusion with an illusionary medium. This is not, however, a poem of melancholic self-reflection, and the very energy, the creation and recreation of the poem asserts itself as an enactment of the poet’s and humanity’s transformational powers, the shedding of old skins for new possibilities.

For all the ambition, structural complexity and verbal density of Yi, Yang would want to insist that essentially the poem is not difficult to understand, which is simultaneously disingenuous and true. The poem offers a rich and varied verbal texture that should be engaged and enjoyed as such; not a grim spiritual journey but a pleasurable poetic body. The poem’s timelessness, which equally can be conceived as a receptivity to all times, is this necessary-impossible impulse to evade the manifold ideological or critical structures that would entrap it and its desire to hold itself open to the reader. If there is an esoteric aspect to the poem, it is not some withheld knowledge but a lure toward the unpredictable: “Forever excavating the darkness behind the eyes” (“Thunder 7” 321).

In response to his insistent categorization by Westerners as a poet of exile and dissent, Yang Lian points out that exile and dissent are simply the condition of poetry, irregardless of the poet’s specific status in time. The Chinese poetic tradition offers plenty of support for such a view going back at least to one of Yang’s favorite sources, Qu Yuan, 3rd century B.C. poet of shamanistic dream flights and political exile, whose death is still commemorated annually with dragon boat races. On his own shifting sense of poetic mortality, Yang says that so far he has changed from being a poet of China to a poet writing in Chinese to a poet writing in Yanglish, “a designation which reveals that my poems are foreign even to Chinese speakers; they cannot be ‘translated’ into common, everyday Chinese” (Blissful Ghost 9). From this perspective, translation is an inevitable extension and transformation of Yang’s poem, which should encounter its Western readers as an unsettling combination of the seemingly familiar and the estranging. If reading this translation gives us a sense of unease, makes us uncertain whether we can trust the images, discourse, indeed, the translation itself, this strikes me as to the good and fulfills an often expressed aspiration of poetry these days, which arguably is more effectively achieved in translations, if read as such. Somewhat oddly, this edition gives the “original” Chinese en face as a reminder of the gap, but is also of interest given the significance of the visual and spatial aspects of the layout, which cannot be so neatly replicated in alphabetic scripts. For whatever reasons, the Chinese text here is printed in classical fashion—top to bottom, right to left and using complex rather than simplified characters—which has been long abandoned on the mainland where books are printed in Western layout. The original publication of Yi in Taiwan probably used the older layout and characters, although this is not the case in Yang’s 1998 collected works. Whether Yang, his translator or publisher is mainly responsible for the layout in this edition I do not know, but in any case we might take this as another instance of the poem’s ambiguous descent into time—on the one hand, gesturing toward its timeless affiliation with the classical tradition, while on the other indicating a linguistic politics very much of our time.

Bibliographical Note. Yang Lian’s poetry and prose through 2002 have been collected in three substantial volumes published by the Shanghai Wenyi Press, 1998 and 2003. Yang’s poetry has been extensively but by no means comprehensively translated into English. Most of the available anthologies of early Menglong poetry should be treated with caution with the exception of Mists: New Poets from China, which is reproduced from the invaluable journal of translations from Chinese into English, Renditions 19/20 (1983). Significant selections of Yang’s poetry from the early 1980s, as well as “Tradition and Us,” can be found in this volume and Renditions 23 (1985). Virtually all the poetry written from the mid-1980s up to the mid-1990s is available in the volumes Yi; Masks and Crocodile, trans. Mabel Lee (Wild Peony, 1990); Non-Person Singular, trans. Brian Holton (Wellsweep Press, 1994); and Where the Sea Stands Still, trans. Brian Holton (Bloodaxe Books, 1999). Notes of a Blissful Ghost, trans. Brian Holton (Renditions, 2002) is a selection from the Wellsweep and Bloodaxe volumes, with the addition of the title sequence written 1999-2000. A translation by Brian Holton of the volume Concentric Circles written in the mid-1990s is reportedly in process. Yang’s considerable body of prose writing, which ranges from poet’s prose to critical commentary, provides a varied and invaluable commentary on his poetics, but unfortunately has thus far been only translated into English in scattered bits. Selections from Ghostspeak can be found in Renditions 46 (1996). The most useful statement on poetics thus far translated, if you can find it, is “Illusionary Space Writing” in Breaking the Barriers: Chinese Literature Facing the World. Ed. Wan Zhi. Stockholm: Olof Palme International Center, 1997. The remarks in response to Pound’s Cantos can be found in Paideuma 30.3 (2001), or Painted Bride Quarterly 65 (2001): http://www.pbq.rutgers.edu/issues/65/65_toc.htm. For further information and many on-line translations, see the excellent New Zealand Electronic Poetry Center page at http://www.nzepc.auckland.ac.nz/authors/yang/.