by John Kinsella
A few days ago I had the privilege of hearing the Chinese poet from Beijing, Xi Chuan, reading from his work and discussing it, along with his English-language translator Lucas Klein. What grabbed me even before the reading began was Xi Chuan’s statement that his poetry was not of a single ‘I’, but rather a cluster of I-s. I don’t think any poet is a single I, and I have often over the years argued against denoting a unified self. Ouyang Yu and I had read earlier in the day, and I feel certain both of us would resist any sense of an intact ‘I’ in what we do, aside from our use of ‘voice’, in who and what we are as poets.
What Xi Chuan outlined as his reason for stating this, his need for such a declaration, struck me as deeply relevant and vital. He discussed having a ‘hotel in [his] head’ which is inhabited or co-inhabited by a number of other voices which are not his own. This is not so much a conceptual statement of artistic practice as one of deep necessity. In that hotel, or maybe boarding house, are those who have been lost or extinguished, those whose voices were taken from them, who were forced into silence. His own voice has to accommodate the silenced — provide spaces for them to speak, and to write out of him.
It was clearly painful for Xi Chuan to discuss this, and what began as a kind of ironising (of all notions of innovation, of himself, of us all) quickly became a deeply-felt ‘confession’ of obligation and respect, of necessity. It was witness carried to the extent of giving away one’s sense of unified self (should even the idea exist) to a polyvalent (my interpolation) self. Not many selves, but many other selves.
His poetry is group portraiture and choir singing; it is the quintet; it is the private meeting in the public house of poetry. The complexities of an intertwining public and private become devastating as images and glimpses are sewn together from Xi Chuan’s own experience, what he knew of those who had been his friends or colleagues, what he imagines of them now, and what they ‘stand for’. Symbol streams through Xi Chuan’s poetry, which both reconstitutes the damaged and withers what flourishes out of toxicity. Wit through understatement and unexpected juxtaposition, allusions to beauty and hope, play against each other in what one might understand as a ‘dance’ of voices cross-speaking in the hotel of self. A lyrical-self is counterpointed with the other selves speaking in many voices in themselves: urban, rural, landscape, built-scape, intellectual, quotidian, and the contradictions that make up any viewpoint, any political, ethical or social stance. The poem ‘Notes on a Mosquito’ (to which I will return) is case in point.
From the angle of ‘polysituatedness’ as construct, Xi Chuan’s multiple accommodated selves, selves that aren’t split off from himself but have entered and contribute to his self, Xi Chuan’s poetry becomes about the place of setting, the place he himself occupies, yet also all the places the other ‘lost’ poets and friends fill or would have filled. His place is their place too — this is a polysituatedness of loss, of a tragic reconstitution as statement of persistence and survival. And this loss is concrete and irreconcilable. We read in Lucas Klein’s introduction to Xi Chuan’s Notes on the Mosquito: Selected Poems (New York: NDP, 2012): ‘The high-lyricism of Xi Chuan’s earliest poetry would not last. Because of the government’s suppression of the democracy and worker’s right movement in Tiananmen Square, in which Xi Chuan participated, 1989 was a hard year for China’s young intellectuals; it was an even harder year for Xi Chuan, as on March 26, Hai Zi committed suicide (he was twenty-five), and on May 31 their mutual friend and fellow Beijing University poet Luo Yihe died from a cerebral hemorrhage (age twenty-eight), days before PLA tanks rolled in on the demonstration of June 4.’
The eliding of deeply-felt personal loss with loss on a large, private-public scale wounds and opens the self. Either germs enter the wounds and cause gangrene and loss of mental limbs, or what those lost were enters and inhabits and builds in the host-self. I got the sense of Xi Chuan as a host-self poet.
In the prose poem ‘Notes on the Mosquito’ the play between life and death, killing the mosquito and becoming the mosquito and what it represents (to the killer), are woven together into a dystopic ‘welcoming’ mat of language and ‘this is who and what we make ourselves’. The stunning and vivid images that so took me during the reading, with their anaphoric departures and rhetorical threads (images as beads on a necklace came to mind at the time), are played with an irony drawing on an international awareness that irony works in different ways in different cultural spaces and places.
Xi Chuan, who talks of Yang Lian in his afterword, is like Yang Lian in his polymath elucidation of ‘classical’ Chinese in a cross-language cross-cultural and interhistorical contextualising. The mosquito as symbol of not only the ‘ordinary’ person, the ‘everyman’, the selves neglected by the acclaiming public, by the big public movements of history – is also, well, a mosquito. Thing-in-itself. Different. And difference and sameness are at the core of the ontology of this ‘meditation’ in irony both lachrymose and lambent. To quote from Lucas Klein’s translation (his translations of Xi Chuan’s poems are superb poems in their own right), we go from brutality to existential musing. From:
to, six stanzas later: ‘So what human form does the mosquito take after it dies? Someone buzzing and flitting in front of me, he must have been a mosquito in a previous life.’
In the crevices of history, mosquitoes are everywhere. They have witnessed and even participated in beheadings, human quarterings by cart-horse, busted embankments on the Yellow River, and the peddling of sons and daughters, yet not once do the twenty-five books of the dynastic histories mention the mosquito.
Xi Chuan is a master at tackling the ordinary lyrical observation and manifesting it through historical-cultural specifications of place. He takes an idea, or maybe a word itself, and lets it grow. Razor-sharp observation mixes with casual conversation, and while remaining understated, vast structures can build from fragments. Sensuality and decay, youth and ageing, comfort and pain, vie with each other in building the ‘shape of the poem’ itself. I think of Pound’s vase being cracked open to leave the shape of the poem that had been poured into it. The shape is conceptual, and often amorphous and beautifully contradictory. ‘Drizzle’ manifests:
it’s not fur—it’s mold—mold on stones mold on bread
it’s drizzle that makes clothes grow moldy the spirit grow moldy—
this is the decay drive
and later in ‘Drizzle’:
eighty days of drizzle—not too long
eighty days of drizzle enveloping 120, 000 square miles of land and
sea—not too broad
Place is in the poem, place/s are in us. Cycles that become moebius strips in which we question where we stand and who we are. There are many departures of self in the selves of Xi Chuan, and maybe, also, his translator and readers. As it is unpublished (but a video exists here), I cannot include a sample here of the poem ‘Bloom’, the tour de force with which Xi Chuan and Lucas Klein finished the reading, but maybe I can cite the final two lines in the English translation as the poem built and built and snowballed through the rhythms of being, wherein the many I-s in the hotel of Xi Chuan’s self bloomed in their variety, disturbance, strangeness contradictions and beauty:
just bloom like a fool
just bloom casually and carelessly come for all your marvelousness bloom