Michael Farrell Reviews Hong Ying, Translated by Mabel Lee

By | 10 September 2015

I Too Am Salammbo by Hong Ying
Translated by Mabel Lee
Vagabond Press, 2015

Hong Ying’s I Too Am Salammbo is a selection of poems from 1990-2012, based on a Chinese selection published in 2014. Though almost all the poems contain conceptual, or imagistic, interest (bar some of the ‘city’ poems: ‘Berlin’, ‘London’, etc.), the formal repetition gets a bit wearing.

The collection’s translator, Mabel Lee, uses spacing as caesurae to evoke the possibility of Chinese characters for phrases like ‘moss attracts moss’ (‘Ascending the Mountain’) and ‘painting otters’ (‘Otters’). These are just one kind of moment that happens: many of the poems are far from being as sweetly picturesque, pointing instead to family and sexual trouble, and sometimes both together:

Our lungs
Always wrap around men’s lies and sex organs
Turning    I
Confront Mother
And Mother walks away all alone
Before death we sisters will open our beautiful mouths
To spit out one man after another (‘Dreaming of Beijing’)

The use of spacing is effective in aiding line readability. While sometimes it provides merely a slowing down of the line, at others, where the shift in sense between the two phrases is more disjunctive, the effect is one of montage, referring to text, feeling, memory, metaphor:

People walking on ancient land    my home village
Other side of the ferry crossing
Stone houses
Furtive lust    more than thirty years
Endless eulogies

To one name    and torment
Summers of freedom
Illusions of the present
Writing    about the black shadows of your wounds
Including the gold tiger in your arms    then saying
Winter has ended (‘Writing’) 

The concise poem ‘Destruction’ creates its own casket with spacing that might allow exit or entry:

By storing a woman’s childhood
In a jade casket    her old age begins
When she dies    there is heavy rain
And a swarm of bees circles over our heads

Lee’s critical introduction surmises biographical scenes behind Hong Ying’s poems, particularly in relation to family and men; I think I would have preferred to know less of Hong Ying’s life, or to read about it after reading the poems.

In rereading, however, their very strangeness opens up to meanings beyond the personal. The second and third poems of the book’s first section (the first facing pair), ‘Dusk’ and ‘Fortune Teller’s Dance’ move deftly from a seemingly hopeless immersion in death to a paradoxical, universal vision of new life:

By recalling Father’s death
There is also my death

The blue turns into a chill wind    I use a sleeve
To shield my face
Falls into the folds of my clothes
As you said
By recalling Mother’s death
There is also your death (‘Dusk’)

Tiny feet    pink flowers are in bloom
Buddha laughs
And hell is three feet deeper
To take in more people

Going up the stairs
You tiptoe    breathing like a fish
Tiny lips spitting out a fresh world (‘Fortune Teller’s Dance’)

As we know from the introduction, Hong Ying lived on the Yangtze River as a child; images of fish and river recur in the poems. These can be affirming, as in the quote above, or contemptuous, as in the following, which shows greater identification with the cat than the fish:

I sent the cat to find you
But there was no news all summer
The cat had its four paws etched with your name
The cat said    no    no
Her eyes brimming with tears
It was also a summer
When I wrote the cat’s words in a book
Who wins who loses? Like a stinking fish
A cruel white    colonizes the eyes of the crowd
I lost because I had buried myself under the tree 
                    (‘The Black and the White of Eyes’)

There is a strong relation to the nonhuman animal in these poems: ‘Copying a weasel I stand in the rain knocking doors’ (‘Night in a Small Town’); ‘Gulls in flocks nestle in the hull/Panting as they bend over me’ (‘In Pursuit’). The most powerful for me, recalling Ned Kelly at fifteen (‘every one looks on me/ like at black snake’ from the ‘Babington Letter’) is ‘Among New People’, a worldly allegory:

A black snake and I are eyeing one another
When assailed by a burst of wind and dust
I am borne into the air for half a kilometre

The black snake is dead
I dig a hole in the backyard and bury the snakeskin
Familiar breathing glides over my navel
I’ve buried half of myself

Hong Ying’s distinct relationality extends to objects, such as the dish of ‘Early Morning’, and the photos of the ‘you’ that the narrator eats in ‘The Story of You and Me’; and also to trees:

The tree outside is buffeted by the wind
Without any movement

What kind of tree is it?
What kind of wind is it?
The person speaking is dressed in mourning.
                     (‘The Elm is Already in Flower’)
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