Over the course of this week, we will be highlighting all 6 BTBA Poetry Finalists one by one, building up to next Friday’s announcement of the winners. All of these are written by the BTBA poetry judges under the rubric of “Why This Book Should Win.” You can find the whole series by clicking here. Stay tuned for more information about the May 3rd ceremony.
Notes on the Mosquito by Xi Chuan, translated from the Chinese by Lucas Klein, and published by New Directions.
Jennifer Kronovet is the author of the poetry collection Awayward, which was selected by Jean Valentine for the A. Poulin, Jr. Poetry Prize. She is the co-founder of Circumference: Poetry in Translation.
When I had the chance to meet the Chinese poet Xi Chuan at a conference on translation in Beijing, I asked him about the choice to write prose poems. Prose poems make up approximately half of Notes on the Mosquito, his selected work translated by Lucas Klein. He responded that years ago, an artist asked if he would write a poem in relation to a photograph of someone washing with a plastic wash basin. He told this artist that he did not know how to write about plastic basins, only wooden ones. Prose was a way for Xi Chuan’s poems to step outside of the imagery and language of traditional Chinese poetry and reenter with a different idiom and perspective. Xi Chuan’s prose poems are nodes of intense and felt thinking in relation to China’s present, expressed in a voice that is starkly contemporary and layered with history. Form and voice in Xi Chuan’s work feel like rooms where impossible thinking explains everything. In one poem he writes:
In a crowd of people some people are not people, just as in a flock of eagles some eagles are not eagles; some eagles are forced to wander through alleyways, some people are forced to fly in the sky.
As much as Xi Chuan’s prose poems step outside of classical poetry to look back in, his lineated verse voraciously considers beyond the borders of China to expand a framework tied to the history of Chinese poetry, reframing the frame and what is beyond it. In a poem that reflects on turning thirty, Xi Chuan writes:
in my first decade
the moon revealed its silent craters
while under the moon, in the town I lived in
a clatter of exorcismal gongs and shouts in the street
my limping uncle swore in the courtyard
careless I met with a white rooster’s kiss
and a girl pulled down her pants in front of me…
hail bounced in exhaustion on the road to the commune
I entered an immaculate school and studied revolution
Here, lyrical observations on symbols of the natural world intermix with the surreal, the political, and the daily. In another poem, Xi Chuan writes:
even the moonlight is polluted blurring our shadows
even the mountaintops grow like fissures brewing
even the Tang Dynasty fell in the end
even the dumpsters have people living in them . . .
This is a poem of nihilistic momentum. Past dynasties can illustrate a mindset and so can polluted skies and ancient mountains—all re-envisioned in Xi Chuan’s verse.
So many of us are curious about how China sees itself, and so is Xi Chuan. Throughout the book, he reflects on, interrogates, builds up, tears apart, repaints and enacts what modern China means. This is, of course, a huge topic, and one feels the kinetic struggle in language to figure China’s dichotomies; the reader participates in the erratic dance between country and self, between an interior dialogue and a public setting forth. The poems are neither distanced considerations nor fleeting impressions. Rather, we see a mind using everything at hand—from ancient history to the senses, from the philosophers to the annoyance of neighbors, and sometimes what comes through most is this sense of urgency. Here, urgency feels like action against a fixed and false sense of the present. Thinking is political and personal, predetermined and endlessly open. Xi Chuan writes:
Trees eavesdrop on trees, birds eavesdrop on birds; when a viper stiffens and attacks a passing human it becomes human . . . The truth cannot be public, echoless thoughts are hard to sing.
This is not nature poetry and yet it is. It is not political and is. It is impersonal and personal and cold and emotional. It is foreign and very near.
Lucas Klein, brings the poems into an English that feels lively and forceful, apparent in both the lineated and the prose poems, all of which sound intriguingly new and yet spoken by a familiar friend. He has not made these poems American, but rather allowed us to hear Xi Chuan’s poetics and ideas in an American idiom, in an English that is alive with personality. Klein’s knowledge of Chinese culture and history allows references to appear without explanation or odd framing. Rather, he translates the impulse of the poems so that we might eavesdrop on one of the more important conversations about national identity happening in poetry.
The reviews are one of the standard features in every issue of Quarterly Conversation. and there’s a ton of great pieces in this new issue. These are just a few of the highlights.
Self-Control, Sæterbakken’s follow-up to Siamese, centers around Andreas Feldt, a middle-aged man who, filled with an intense and unknowable sense of desperation, is driven to test the validity of his existence and its influence on others around him. The novel opens with Feldt sharing a meal with one of his two estranged daughters. During this encounter, without “the slightest notion of an appropriate thing to say,” Feldt inexplicably claims that he is divorcing his wife. This lie seemingly has no effect upon the daughter, but it has a profound impact on Andreas. Confused and disoriented by his own lie, as well as by his daughter’s indifference to the news, Feldt wanders back out into the world, engaging in a series of encounters with acquaintances, family members, and strangers in which he aggressively tries to exercise influence, if not control, over the lives of others—and over his own life.
At the heart of Self-Control is Feldt’s pervasive repression. We never learn precisely what he is repressing, but its traumatic nature is betrayed by his preoccupation with a missing girl whose disappearance is continually mentioned in the headlines. Feldt clearly identifies with her disappearance—perhaps with her invisibility, perhaps merely with the tragedy of her likely fate—and in fact it is the only conduit through which he seems able to experience his world. Toward everything else he is stubbornly reticent.
Feldt’s outbursts, then, are unpredictable, violent and ultimately impotent, serving only to make him increasingly aware of his own powerlessness. There are only two options Feldt seems to recognize: he can either fully identify with intolerable despair, the cause of which he refuses to locate, or he can resign himself to invisibility. The novel’s big reveal—the only piece of information that matters, in a way, to the novel and its narrator—is withheld until its final words, but the revelation does not provide clarity or resolution; quite to the contrary, the book’s ending complicates Feldt’s choice, along with all that we have come to understand about him.
In stylistic counterpoint to Siamese, the prose in Self-Control is intentionally flat, featureless. The novel is essentially unquotable, its slow narrative an often painfully meticulous depiction of the very smallest operations of Feldt’s consciousness, most of which he’s unwilling to acknowledge, and of the suffering he experiences in avoiding pain. Like a Cassavetes film, Self-Control unfolds scene by scene with characters trying desperately to express forces inside them that they cannot account for, or, in Feldt’s case, even acknowledge. Sæterbakken’s ambiguous characters change with every page; they refuse easy patterns of behavior that would make them too recognizable, too untrue. They are often repugnant, but Sæterbakken saw such honesty as part of the duty of art and literature.
And one of my personal favorite reviews, Madeleine LaRue on Mikhail Shishkin’s Maidenhair, translated from the Russian by Marian Schwartz:
Although Shishkin’s prodigious talent has been recognized for many years in his native Russia, as well as in Germany and France, until now English readers have only had access to “The Half-Belt Overcoat.” That story, translated by Leo Shtutin, appeared in the Read Russia! anthology published earlier this year, and was, to my mind, easily the best in the collection. Maidenhair more than lives up to its promise; beautifully translated by Marian Schwartz, it is a fierce book from a sharp and generous mind.
There are, roughly, three narrative lines which structure the novel: in one, a nameless interpreter (Shishkin’s alter-ego), who works with asylum seekers in Switzerland, writes letters to his absent son, “Nebuchadnezzasaurus.” In another, two voices of unknown or unstable identity engage in a series of questions and answers. In the last, a Russian singer named Bella Dmitrievna records her life, and most of the twentieth century, in diaries which the interpreter will eventually read when he attempts to write her biography. With these three strands, Maidenhair weaves its tangled braid, although contained within it are also a dizzying array of historical digressions, philosophical preoccupations, parables, letters, jokes, and literary allusions.
I hesitate to describe the book as “universal” lest this imply that its themes, or its treatment of them, are banal; they are not. On the contrary, they are wonderfully inventive. So when I say that Maidenhair is universal, I mean that it wants to constitute a universe — or perhaps a map of the universe that is the same size as the universe itself. [. . .]
Shishkin has been described as the heir apparent of the great Russian novelists, and indeed, there are times when he seems to have taken the best from each of them. From Tolstoy he has inherited a sense for the epic; from Dostoevsky, spiritual acuity and a social conscience. He takes Nabokov’s remarkable linguistic flexibility but none of his arrogance; like Chekhov, he looks on humanity with humor and compassion. Shishkin’s Baroque turns of phrases seem written out of necessity and joy rather than pretention; he respects his readers, he delights in language, and he does not need to show off.
In the fourteen-page Author’s Afterward to his Selected Poems, Xi Chuan references or quotes from Tolstoy, Yang Lian, the Zhuangzi, the Indian social theorist Ashis Nandy, Eileen Chang, Leo Strauss, C.T. Hsia, Jonathan Spence, Milan Kundera, Li Bai, Czeslaw Milosz, the 20th-century sociologist Fei Xiaotong, ancient philosopher Han Feizi, Mao Zedong, Foucault, Tang dynasty literati Han Yu, and Goethe. This is not a poet who can be accused of parochialism. Yet Xi Chuan wears his erudition lightly, at least in the context of his verse. This is not to say that the poems do not give a sense of a formidable intellect behind them—they do—but what is striking in the poems is less Xi Chuan’s breadth of reference than his sense of humor, his humanity, and his attention to the smallest details of ordinary life, ranging from bodily functions to rats to the way drizzle soaks through socks.
Xi Chuan was born in 1963, just after the mass starvation of the Great Leap Forward, and was a small child during Mao’s Cultural Revolution. Lucky and talented enough to be one of the few children able to go to school at the time, he later went on to major in English at Beijing University. As translator Lucas Klein explains in his exemplary Translator’s Introduction, in the spring of 1989 Xi Chuan lost two close poet friends, Hai Zi and Luo Yihe, both of whom were also Beijing University students. Following on the heels of that trauma were the events in Tiananmen, which Xi Chuan participated in and suffered from. The pain of his friends’ deaths and the disillusionment he experienced after the government crackdown discouraged him from writing for nearly two years. When he resumed, his style had changed considerably from the Imagist Western-influenced Obscure Poetry exemplified by poets such as Bei Dao, Duo Duo, and Yang Lian. He moved toward a more philosophical and less lyrical prose poetry that contrasts with his earlier shorter, often nature-inspired work. His most recent poems play with ideas of paradox, inheritance, and the past, present, and future of civilization.
These are large themes, and Xi Chuan knows how to write large poems to encompass them. [. . .]
But Klein’s ear rarely fails him. He captures both the music and slightly anachronistic feel of the original Chinese in the early poem “In the Mountains”: “Dusk congeals over the hungry cliff / excess dusk presses onto my tent / sunlight walks by on stones.” Xi Chuan abandoned this youthful style, and Klein—a scholar of contemporary and Tang dynasty literature—not only keenly identifies this and other more subtle shifts, but also manages to convey the changes convincingly, allowing the reader to come away with a sense of the arc of Xi Chuan’s artistic development. He comes up with lines that resound beautifully: “look to life’s last station / when the long-deceased song passes on again and red Persian asters / assemble in the distance like a chorus of birds.” The sound play of “life’s last station” and “song passes on” moving to “Persian asters” to “birds” builds a lovely alliterative scene that in sheer beauty momentarily surpasses the music of the original. So much is sacrificed in translation that a translator must identify and seize these fortuities wherever he can, and time and again Klein does exactly that. Xi Chuan’s verse could not have been better served in English.
The announcement on October 11 that Chinese writer Mo Yan had won the 2012 Nobel Prize for Literature was met with delight in some quarters and despair in others. The hand-wringers have focused on Mo Yan’s politics—or rather their perception of Mo Yan’s lack of political consciousness—and talk about this has dominated editorial pages in the West, rather than talk about his art. In recent weeks, the 2009 Nobel Literature Prize winner, Romanian author Herta Mueller, characterized Mo Yan as a Communist Party hack and called the award “a catastrophe.”
Mo Yan’s politics are somewhat oblique, by design, and a read of his most recently translated novel, Pow!, shows that comments like Mueller’s are wide of the mark. Shot through with politics and history and translated by the masterful Howard Goldblatt, Pow! adds to the growing list of Mo Yan’s rollicking and ribald novels available in English—all translated by Goldblatt, who has championed Mo Yan’s work for decades and continues to do the author great justice in his earthy and vivid translations. [. . .]
Part fable, part fictionalized autobiography, Pow! is told from the point of view of the not altogether reliable Luo Xiaotong and hinges on the transformation of his home village from a farming community to Slaughterhouse Village. There’s more money in meat than in crops, and the entire village has found new prosperity as a center for the killing and butchering of animals from the surrounding countryside. The narrator’s father, Luo Tong, is as famed for his ability to judge the weight of livestock just by looking at them as he is for his incorruptibility—he refuses any and all gifts from livestock sellers, even something as trifling as a cigarette. He shows less self-control in sexual matters, however, and a good portion of the novel details the privations suffered by the narrator after his father runs off with another woman, the sexually supercharged Aunty Wild Mule, a favorite consort of village headman, Lao Lan. Luo Tong and Lao Lan’s rivalry over Aunty Wild Mule is an ongoing source of conflict in the novel. [. . .]
If this book isn’t a social and political critique, I don’t know what is. The narrator is a child in a man’s body, sexually frustrated, powerless, and poor. Who’s on top in this society? Corrupt village heads and Party officials with their Audi A6s and Remy Martin cognac. The peasants get rich feeding the unseemly appetites of China’s new urban bourgeoisie with bogus and sometimes toxic products, while the countryside itself turns into an abattoir. This is the Reform Era and these are the Party bosses who have guided it. In case we miss the point, the narrator states: “Ugly, snot-nosed, grime-covered children, who are kicked about like mangy dogs” are more likely than attractive and happy children to grow up to be “thugs, armed robbers, high officials or senior military officers.” If China’s leaders and low-lifes are drawn from the same pool, what hope is there?
And what of Xiaotong, the common man? He’s impotent. Pow! reaches its climax in a fantasy act of vengeance in which Xiaotong fires 41 shells at Lao Lan. Xiaotong lays waste to the village and slaughterhouse, but after each salvo Lao Lan emerges, Rasputin-like, virtually unscathed, until the very end. Lao Lan is a scion of the gentry who ran the village in dynastic times, and the narrator stresses this continuity. If Lao Lan exemplifies official corruption (and hence much of what’s wrong with the Chinese Communist Party), then official corruption will be hard to eradicate, at least not without destroying much of the country with it. It’s not clear from this book whether Mo Yan thinks that would be such a great loss.
The books of the Argentine writer Sergio Chejfec defy easy classification, but we can say that he writes for walkers: those for whom each step signifies something both taken/found and lost/forgotten. He writes about wanderers: those for whom destinations are rarely known, where every recognized face and remembered story proves too heavy with significance, slipping the grip of its proper naming. This is especially true of his recently translated novel, The Planets. Originally published in Spanish in 1999, Chejfec’s meditation on friendship, loss, and memory defies easy summation. This is fitting, for these also inform the fluid bounds of reality lived and described by his characters. Here, dreams are recited alongside the real events they anticipate and/or create; characters from dreams slide into the parables of protagonists; and iconic females blur within the slippages between vowels (e.g., Lesa/Sela) and consonants (e.g., Marta/Mirta). The Planets, in short, is a strange novel. It is made stranger still by the absence of its principle character, known only by the narrated memories of others, the enigmatic, nearly nameless M. This strangeness is fitting, then, for each story told about or by him is born of a gap—between dream and reality, past and present, cause and effect—and manifests the trauma of his absence.
To read The Planets is not so much to implant oneself within its narrated world as it is to discover oneself in this world’s orbit. Whereas in Chejfec’s English-language debut, My Two Worlds, the reader is invited into not merely the narrator’s world but his very perception of it, The Planets is distinguished by the ambivalence of its intimacy—the holding of its reader at arm’s length, in an abeyant proximity. The result is a work less immediately familiar than foreign. In a time where the pace of life has hastened to an informational blur—the world at our keyboarded fingertips and on our cable televisions, with so much available knowledge that we now question its purported power—it is precisely Chejfec’s ability to inhabit the immediacy of both known and unknown, common and strange, that makes his work so timely.
The immediacy of the familiar and the foreign informs, as well, the friendship between the narrator and M, the ponderous duo at the core of The Planets. Remaining nameless—“M for Miguel, or Mauricio; it could also be M for Daniel since, as we know, any name at all can reside behind letters”—they navigate Buenos Aires as though on a dual trajectory. Not merely inseparable in the banal way many childhood friends are described, they considered themselves so linked that the identity of one was unthinkable without the other. In recognition of this they exchange photographs, whereupon “M’s photo” accurately describes both the photo of himself and the one given to him by the narrator (and vice versa). Being and identity, they muse, are not steady-state givens, to hoard behind the closed doors of one’s consciousness. They are, rather, intermittent occurrences, dependent on, if not wholly determined by, the perspective of those who bear witness.
There are also great pieces on Karl Knausgaar’s _My Struggle, Gail Scott’s The Obituary, and Amal Al-Jubouri’s Hagar Before the Occupation/Hagar After the Occupation worth checking out, among many others. So be sure to read all of this issue and support QC however you can—it’s one of the greatest literary resources out there.
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