Reviews Lee Valley Poems by Yang Lian

Bloodaxe Books, 2009

Note the subtitle: A Project of Poems and Translation. This is no naturalised collection of poetry, slipping simply into pre-conceived notions of authorship and coherence. It is slippery, amorphous, liquid, the shifting work of a writer on the move, both literally and metaphorically evading the Chinese government who forced him into exile. Working with six British poets and three translators, Yang wades into the moving waters of what he calls “different locals,” the concentric rings of places and languages that he inhabits, strikingly attested in the poet’s desire to “drink in one gulp the absoluteness of beheaded flowers everywhere” (“What Water Confirms: 14”).

The poems have the strange familiarity – at once domestic [cut flowers] and violently anti-lyric – of beheaded flowers, not because they engage in the “absoluteness” of alterity, but because they resist it, shiftingly. Hackney may be “simply a group of images,” but so is China (“What Water Confirms: 13”); there’s no privileging of one culture or place over the other. Stoke Newington is both exotic and banal, made not only strange to a London reader, but also resonantly recognisable.

Similarly, the translations aim for a third way between the seamless classical mode of translation, in which the poem is naturalised into its target language, and modernist experiments (such as the Zukofskys’ translations of Catullus) with maintaining the distance of difference. There is the difference between translators, creating a sense of collaborative authorship and of the multiplicity of poetry. The translations feel like versions, deliberately unstable, provisional moves in a game of poem cards that could be transformed in the next go-round. It does, however, also create an unevenness that makes it difficult to adjudge individual poems; in some ways, the translations obscure the poems’ achievements, as the reader is constantly aware of the gaps, as well as links, in crossing the river of incomprehension from one language to another. There are also, within individual poems, felicities particular to the translators: W.N. Herbert’s experiments in his own work with flyting and kenning are audible in the delicious “led by a pitch-dark street / towards this stretch of marshland where feet sink in an inch / the banks overflow with green which knows winter’s weakness only too well,” in his translation of “Stroller” (the hard t and rolling r brought out by giving the title a Scottish accent). Squitching in mud and squinting at the pale sun, the alliteration is propulsive, physical, locating the poem (and the water it writes) in the body.

Like Herbert, Brian Holton, who translates the bulk of the poems, forgoes punctuation in favour of to Olson’s field composition and breath spacing to create contrapuntal phrases. These align the long sequence “What Water Confirms,” translated by Holton and Agnes Hung-Chong Chan, with the American modernist sequential poems of locality, Olson’s Maximus and William Carlos Williams’ Paterson. But Yang’s project is to subvert such indwelling and down-drilling locative. “What Water Confirms” is gaia, the complex and systemic interconnectedness of all locals at an astoundingly simple level. Water, language. “‘it flows through places under the ground,’” mapping onto human continuity and archaeological models of memory (“What Water Confirms: 20”). Water is what joins by disrupting, “fiercely smash[ing] into a human womb like numberless light years” (ibid.) (Yang’s attitude to women [as vessels], principally desiring, leaves something to be desired for this reader).

Water’s colourless, odourless eternal mutability make it the ideal subject for this multi-faceted and onflowing lyric; but it also acts as a useful disguise for water’s political exigency. Poem 22’s melancholy evocation of “twenty-four summers secret fragrance hidden in flesh” brings to mind Lou Ye’s controversial film Summer Palace, in which the young female protagonist enters a Keatsian reverie in an abandoned swimming pool as she recollects, intertwinedly, the week’s events of teaching her roommate to masturbate and attending the demonstration in Tiananmen Square. The bare swimming pool implies the pollution of the Yangtze river and its Three Gorges Dam, a project exposed in Still Life, a film by another (banned) Sixth Generation filmmaker, Jia Zhangke.

Yang’s sequence likewise intertwines the primal erotics of water and the melancholy of recall to comment on the coming water crisis (created by the Chinese government) and its real and metaphorical implications for notions of sustainability, limpidity, fluidity and interconnection. “no longer possible not to be obscure,” “What Water Confirms” stands in for the water it remembers (24). As Herbert translates in “Stroller,” Lee Valley Poems – as a project of poems and translations, that is, something akin to science or engineering, a grand design at blueprint stage, all nuts and bolts and shared labour – “arrives at the shared wetness of water and blood.”

Rating: ★★★★☆
Reviewed by Sophie Mayer