Yang Mu (author), Michelle Yeh (editor), Hawk of the Mind: Collected Poems, Columbia University Press, 2018. 248 pgs.
It may seem pedantic, but I think I should begin this review of Yang Mu’s Hawk of the Mind: Collected Poems, translated into English from the Chinese, with some comments on the way it has been put together. A challenge I always have with collected editions is where to start. This is especially so if, like the current volume, they do not visibly contain demarcations between phases of a poet’s work or signpost distinct and separate collections. Glancing at the contents page, it is not clear which individual collections each of the poems might be from. The biography at the back of the book tells me he is “the author of more than two dozen poetry and prose collections.” A quick search online yields a site that claims he has fourteen poetry collections and fifteen prose collections. The foreword states that between 1960 and 2016, Yang Mu published “seventeen original books of poems.”
I look to the foreword for some more guidance. We are not told whether Collected in fact represents Yang Mu’s entire poetic oeuvre, or whether the editor has made selections. If so (which I suspect to be the case), it is also unclear how the editor went about making these choices or what organising principle lies behind them. I gather the poems are arranged chronologically. (But I can’t be sure.) Finally, the foreword tells me that I, the reader, will through engagement with Yang Mu’s poetry, “emerge more aware of the world and what it means to be human.” As it is though, I am still unaware of the shape of Yang Mu’s poetic corpus and career.
As you can tell by now, I am uncomfortable with this treatment of the poet’s work. Seventeen collections over what is essentially a lifetime of work by a poet seen as a giant of Chinese contemporary poetry demands, I think, more careful consideration and more by way of scholarly apparatus. Most of all, the span of fifty-six years demands a sense of critical appraisal as to how the poet has grown and developed, and how he may have abandoned or pursued different obsessions in the course of his career. This is especially so as collected editions have the tendency to flatten out these changes and present them as a single, unchanging and timeless body of work, delivered by the poet as a transmutation of the Muse’s tears.
There is one final issue which troubled me. No less than eleven translators are listed in the final pages of the book. This number of translators would not be so unusual for classical Chinese poetry, of course, but it is a bit odd for contemporary Chinese works. My assumption is that Yang Mu has had different translators over the course of his life’s work, and these translators, past and present, are all reflected in the collection. I wish then that the editor, Michelle Yeh, had also written about the possible issues arising from this: did she consider whether having eleven translators for the work of one poet might lead to issues of coherence or dissonance? Did she consider re-translating (she is one of the translators) some of the poems? Did she edit any of the translations? Without the benefit of the original texts on the facing page (or even the original Chinese titles), it is difficult for the reviewer to judge whether the diversity of translators has had any effect on the final product. It is very difficult to look up specific poems. (There is also no index of poems or first lines.)
I tried to do this for the very first poem, “The Star Is My Only Guide” (星是唯一的嚮導), and I ended up with more questions. The translation and original text for this poem have been published by Asymptote Journal, translated by Yeh and Arthur Sze (a pair that also translates some other poems in Collected). There are two odd points which I almost immediately spot:
- The title of the poem is not “The Star is My Only Guide” as in the collection but actually “The Star is My Only Guide I“. I realise that the editor has decided to publish the first section of the poem, but not the second (which is shown on Asymptote’s website). This is not explained, and very odd. As a poet myself, I would have many questions for an editor, who decided to publish what is essentially an incomplete work.
- The last two lines of the first section are, in Chinese:
While the translation reads:
It was me with a downward gaze
In my youthful gallop, you were the wind full in my face
The bilingual among you will have spotted the issue: the original actually says “It was me at eighteen,” which the translators have strangely omitted.
Unfortunately, without the full Chinese texts of the other poems, and also given the number of translators, the issues of translation and editing that I have raised cannot be dealt with here in full. I hope, though, I have raised some issues which will invite reflection and debate among translators and editors.
I move on, at last, to the work itself. Yang Mu’s poetry is lyrical, urbane, cosmopolitan and deeply humanist. He is admirably comfortable and at ease with both Chinese and Western cultural traditions, gliding between the two. An early poem, “Jizi of Yanling Hangs Up His Sword,” is written in the voice of Jizi of Yanling (576–485 BCE), a prince and diplomat of the state of Wu during the Spring and Autumn Period, as well as a Confucianist who had promised to give his sword to the Lord of Xu, who admired it. Unfortunately, the Lord of Xu dies before Jizi is able to hand him the weapon, so Jizi hangs it on a tree by his friend’s grave:
Perhaps the blue glow of my precious sword will
Brighten you and me on this lonely autumn night
You died longing for a friend
I languish as a hermit
The tired boatman, once arrogant, once gentle
In “Sailing to Ireland,” written just two years after the Jizi poem, Yang Mu responds to Yeats’ “Easter, 1916.” In “The Vacated Seat,” Yang Mu uses an epigraph from the Middle English Romance, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight and reflects on the moment after a hero departs on his quest. There are responses to Pindar and Dante. Yang Mu shows himself to be a poet conversant with many traditions.
He was also a writer with a social conscience, much exercised by the injustices and events of the wider world. In “Etudes: The Twelve Earthly Branches,” Yang Mu uses the Chinese and Western zodiac as a frame to comment on the Vietnam War, dramatising the events of the war against haunting and surreal scenes of love-making with a certain “Louisa”:
Louisa, please hold me with all the tenderness of America
Accept me, a fish of wounded blood
You too are a shining fish
Rotting in a polluted city. Louisa
Please come back to life in the olive grove
and lie on your back for me. Second watch
A dewy olive grove
In “Ireland,” Yang Mu responds to Bloody Sunday, in which civilians were killed in Bogside, Northern Ireland by British soldiers during a peaceful protest in 1972. (The poem is written in 1972.) The start of the poem is finely calibrated, with a chilling last line in the first stanza:
They came wearing raincoats
blood and fatigue
stars and superstition
they calculated the position
Of the tides at dawn. Actually love
did not belong to them.
This strain of concern for the world’s affairs is still present in Yang Mu’s later work. A long poem written in 2000, “The Lost Ring,” is dedicated to Chechnya, and dramatises the story of a Chechen woman, Heidi, who narrowly escapes death at the hands of Russian soldiers.
What is most striking about Yang Mu’s work, especially in more recent years, is his ability to evoke mood and hidden significances with astonishing economy. Take, for example, the last poem of the book, “Autumn,” reproduced here in entirety:
The small flowers of memory start a riot in a mysterious
dimension. I am certain that in the deep past
Such an event must have happened before, then entered into myth
The wavering colours, the cruel demon of an outworn heart
will still hover above a depleted legion of dragonflies
in the land of indecisiveness
Amnesia is an excuse
This short exploration of memory is immediately intriguing with the phrase “small flowers of memory.” Yang Mu displays an ability to quickly draw the reader into a secret, quiet realm of his own. In contrast to the earlier poems where he engages with the world, these poems seem to represent a retreat into the realm of the mind and mood, where moments bear extraordinary significance.
This is a fine volume of poetry, capturing many highlights from a long and fruitful poetic career. It will serve as a good introduction to Yang Mu for many English readers. I only wish some of the issues I raised earlier in the review had been considered more deeply by the editor and publisher.
Daryl Lim Wei Jie is a poet and critic based in Singapore. He is particularly interested in the intersections between poetry and history. His first collection of poetry, A Book of Changes, was published by Math Paper Press in 2016, under the Ten Year Series imprint. His work has appeared in the Quarterly Literary Review Singapore, Cordite, Cha, Ceriph, Drunken Boat and Softblow, and his poetry has been anthologised in A Luxury We Cannot Afford (Math Paper Press, 2015) and elsewhere. His work won him the Golden Point Award in English Poetry in 2015, awarded by the National Arts Council, Singapore.