Starting this week, we’ll be highlighting the five finalists in the poetry category for the BTBA. Similar to what we did for the fiction longlist, these will be framed by the question: “Why should this book win?”
Click here for all past and future posts in this series.
Today’s post is by poetry committee member Idra Novey. Idra is the director of the Literary Translation at Columbia University program, a poet, and a translator. It’s worth noting here that her translation of Manoel de Barros’s “Birds for a Demolition” was eligible for this year’s BTBA, but was excluded from consideration based on the fact that Idra was a judge. That said, over on the fiction side, her translation of “On Elegance While Sleeping” is a finalist.
Flash Cards by YU Jian, translated by Wang Ping and Ron Padgett
Publisher: Zephyr Press & the Chinese University Press
Why This Book Should Win: Because Yu Jian knows we should avoid comparing ourselves to fish: they’re doomed, the lake drying up. Because Yu Jian has many lines that are this tragic and funny and involve washing machines and the Chinese army.
So many American poets are currently struggling with how to write about our environment. It’s an important questions, and I’ve been reading new pastorals: poems of lament, elegies for the flora and fauna that we’re rapidly losing and won’t get back. But here comes Yu Jian, writing about nature—and more—in a new way that addresses loss with humor and with a lack of familiar binaries.
In Flash Cards, his first collection to appear in English translation, he writes of frogs that died in 1998 along with their pond, but also of the mosquitoes that remain there, “sometimes conversing in English.” It’s hard to translate humor well, especially in the streamlined language of a poem, but American poet Ron Padgett and Chinese poet Wang Ping do an extraordinary job of getting the tone right every time. “Conversing” is just the verb for a wry, quirky line like this in English.
In another poem, when Yu Jian drives to the edge of “the virgin forest,” the translators go with a car that “zooms.” That zoom seems spot on when an imaginary doe leaps into Yu Jian’s heart and he says, “I no longer have a stream or meadow/ to keep it there.”
Not all of the poems in Flash Cards are concerned with the natural world, however, or at least not explicitly. One stunning poem begins with “the washing machine on Saturday” and ends with the declaration:
Happiness belongs only to a cashmere sweater
that demands a different spin cycle
its only wish to match
the mistress’ red skirt.
I would argue that happiness also belongs to the reader of Flash Cards and to its translators, as the humor and music in these English versions suggests that Wang Ping and Ron Padgett took great pleasure, and care, in translating these poems. If you haven’t yet had the experience of having a woman in heavy makeup and a wolf face turn to you at dusk in the zoo and say in perfect Mandarin, “Good evening, comrade,” you’re in for a delightful surprise with the poetry of Yu Jian.
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To have watched from one of your patios
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from the bank of shadow to have watched
the scattered lights
my ignorance has learned no names for
nor their places in constellations
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