Sam Moginie Reviews Breaking New Sky: Contemporary Poetry from China

10 November 2014

Breaking New Sky: Contemporary Poetry from China
edited by Ouyang Yu
Five Islands Press, 2013


Breaking New Sky is a happily variegated collection of work by contemporary Chinese poets, edited and translated by Chinese-Australian poet, novelist and translator Ouyang Yu. Strangeness produced by means of a ‘neutral’ or ‘plain’ English (a ‘Yu signature tone’) gives the poems and their objects a riddle-like quality whose pleasures and dramas implicate food, sex, work, river systems, animals, domestic space, relationships, the medical system, nostalgia, death, farming and sleep. This plainness is put to work as the material of an aphoristic narrative mode that defines this anthology; making small claims continuously and thereby amassing charm.

Yu’s introduction begins with an account of a ‘new taste’ he has experienced while running Chinese-to-English translation workshops for Chinese students in Melbourne: a preference for ‘down-to-earth’, ‘subtle and plain speaking’ poems. His anecdote serves to place the translations in Breaking New Sky under the sign of plainness, a category that introduces prose, ‘heart to heart’ communication, the familiar and normal (I’m thinking of ‘plain food’), ease of access, assimilation, the unremarkable, blending in and plainclothes policing as modalities for the poems. There’s also a plainness to Yu’s ‘direct translation’: lines like Zhou Suotong’s ‘I saw the back of a grass-hoeing person’ or He Xiaozu’s ‘even the mah-jong players don’t get in touch / making you feel a bit odd’. Yu’s direct translation method aims to render the original language ‘literally’, to produce ‘poetry that fills the lacuna of a target language … with something so quotidian in the source language, that one’s sense is numbed’. Another result is a highly productive, stretched or slow English.

The selection mixes ‘established’ and ‘un-established’ poets; some award-winning poets come off better than others in this context. Cheng Chou-yu’s popular poem, ‘A Mistake’ is memorable in Yu’s translation, perhaps because of its non-qualities as much as its dramatic final lines: ‘The east wind was not coming, the willow catkins not blowing about … No sound, the spring curtains of March not drawn’; but the penultimate line (‘The trampling of my horse-hooves a mistake’) is much more effective than the sentiment-by-distinction of the closing line (‘I’m not a returnee, but a passer by’). In Bai Helin’s ‘A Fake Rattan Chair’ – another poem singled out as a reader’s favourite by Yu in his introduction – a combination of consumer pathos and nostalgia don’t work out: after the poet tries to figure out how to sit in the eponymous chair ‘[a] bit a la Calvino’, it becomes just another piece of furniture, ‘retired before its time / Like a weary housekeeper.’ Yu’s introduction suggests this poem reads as humorous, but the housekeeper sounds more interesting than the poet here.

Like riddles, many of the poems in Breaking New Sky have heavy endings (contemporary Australian poems do this, too). Hou Ma’s poem ‘Silence’ comes full worm-circle with an image of blood as ‘two small red worms creeping from his nose’. Liang Yujing’s poem ‘The Old Man’ ends with an expression of love for Chairman Mao. Luo Fu’s ‘Song of Tom’ composites images of state violence like a series of endings, the soldier ‘finally made / into a bronze statue in the square.’ Liu Meisong’s great labour poem, ‘Work-Related Injuries’, plays out the premise of hand-as-wife in its final line. Shu Ting’s maxims on friendship also ends with a hard line on work: ‘If good friends are unlucky enough to become your bosses / Please forget their nicknames at once.’

But it’s Lu Ye’s poems that are great; there are ten included in the book, the most of any contributor. Her ‘Perhaps I Am Willing’ is a torquing duck-poem, poised on the edge of human nesting, and an example of a poem where a heavy ending seems light, via the dim compound, ‘liberalist eggs’. ‘Dinner on the Missouri River’ suggests that affective predication is as much a device as a theme for Ye. As she writes, ‘The stomach, encouraged, is turning lyrical’:

The bread loaf, a farm that is no smaller than itself
The ground youth of the oats 
The salmon, its spine removed, is now spread with a curry of confidence
The beef so taut with tendon one isn’t sure if it’s tense or resolute
Vegetable leaves are ill, missing the salad so much
And the rice, in the graveclothes of purple laver

The poem also digests talk about markets: ‘And when they talk about Wall Street and the financial crisis / Only the consonants in the noise shine in the air.’ Later in the same poem, garments are social: ‘But my printed blouse is becoming enemies with the blue jacket of the gentleman sitting next to me.’

Including Ye, there’s a multiplicity of interesting nature-writing modes in this collection. There is writing about looking at the countryside; Zhou Suotong’s line ‘All I saw was metaphors or leisurely moods’ is a startlingly honest line from a poem in this mode. But there are also poems in this collection that do anti-metaphorical and anti-pastoral work. Lei Pingyang’s poem, ‘The 37 Tributaries of the Lancang River within Lanping County, Yunnan Province’, is a conceptual river poem. Mang Ke’s ‘The Sunflower in the Sunlight’ suggests the agency of the flower, as well as the violence of approaching a plant; it’s comparable to an Australian classic, John Shaw Neilson’s ‘The Orange Tree’. But while Neilson’s speaker asks the wrong questions about the plant, Mang Ke’s poem is addressed to the one who, not understanding, ‘squeeze[s] the blood out of it’. Qi Guo’s couplet, ‘an ant / fell in love with you last year’, is powerful because it approaches a minimum of metaphor. Wang Feng’s poem ‘Two Trees’ also defies metaphor: the trees start as seeds mutually implanted in two (human) bodies, but by the end of the poem a distinction between tree and body is untenable. Zhang Wei’s ‘Sitting Idle’ gives arses a role in seasonal change. And in ‘The Philosophy Building’ by Zang De, philosophy is found outside, not inside.

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