"Dazzling Songs Hanging in the Void": Yang Lian's
Twitchell-Waas, Jeffrey, Chicago Review
"Dazzling songs hanging in the void": Yang Lian's
A few years ago, in response to the first complete translation into Chinese of Pound's Pisan Cantos, Yang 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. 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 obfuscating. 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. …