Xi Chuan: Poetry of the Anti-lyric

Translator’s Note

Xi Chuan
PHOTO COURTESY OF THE AUTHOR

Contemporary Chinese poet Xi Chuan 西川 (the pen-name of Liu Jun 刘军) is a prolific “hyphenated” littérateur: teacher-essayist-translator-editor-poet. The American writer Eliot Weinberger has described him as a “polymath, equally at home discussing the latest American poetry as Shang Dynasty numismatics.”

Currently a professor in pre-modern Chinese literature at the Central Academy for Fine Arts in Beijing, Xi Chuan had also previously taught English language, and Western literature in Chinese translation. (He was an English major at Beijing University, and wrote an undergraduate thesis on Ezra Pound’s translations from the Chinese). His professional career path follows his poetic development: gaining recognition first as one of the post-Obscure poets in the late eighties, his writing was defined by a condensed lyricism in the Western modernist mode. Today, he writes expansive prose-poems that meditate on awkwardness and paradox at the individual and international levels simultaneously. The main shift came in 1989 — the year not only of the students’ democracy and workers’ rights demonstrations, the crushed June 4th in Tian’anmen Square, but also of the death of two of Xi Chuan’s closest writer-friends, Hai Zi 海子 and Luo Yihe 骆一禾 (the former at his own hand) — after which Xi Chuan stopped writing almost completely for three years. When he re-emerged, his form had changed: he was writing a poetry of the anti-lyric, a poetics of contradiction that deconstructed the aestheticism and musicality of his previous self.

…the reader wants to know not only what Xi Chuan says but how he says it, both his images and his style, both his allusions and his elusiveness.

The three poems included here represent the turning point of Xi Chuan’s developing style, where the modernist lyric reaches, and begins to pierce through, its upper limits, the way “plains push out from the edge of the city / mountains lift up at the edge of the plains.” Later, he would describe his focus on the paradox, or oxymoron, as one poetic reaction to China’s political and economic realities; here, those realities are represented by a power outage and an awareness of our becoming history — and Borges’s annotated “aporia of history” — in which, like Borges, we all become librarians “preserving the order of the universe and books.”

Translation is always a challenge, especially between languages as distinct as Chinese and English. My method was to start by clinging as much as possible to the vocabulary and syntax of Xi Chuan’s Chinese, and then, via visions and revisions, to smooth out the edges between the two languages so that two poems could emerge as one. Overall, a consistent consideration has motivated my translation: that is, the reader wants to know not only what Xi Chuan says but how he says it, both his images and his style, both his allusions and his elusiveness.

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