[REVIEW] “A Poet of Contrast in New Translation: Song Lin’s Sunday Sparrows in Jami Proctor Xu’s Translation” by Danielle Karanjeet J. de Feo-Giet

{Written by Danielle Karanjeet J. de Feo-Giet, this review is part of Issue 45 (January/February 2020) of Cha.} {Return to Cha Review of Books and Films.}

Song Lin (author), Jami Proctor Xu (translator), Sunday Sparrows, Jintian Series of Contemporary Chinese Poetry, Zephyr Press, 2020. 144 pgs.

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In this retrospective volume of forty-eight poems in new translation, if one thing becomes clear, it is that, notwithstanding his painterly layering of imagery, Song Lin is a poet of silence and sound. From the political quiet of “Pianissimo”(“Pianissimo Area” [弱音区]), the chirping of crickets or the fluttering of moths to “polyphony” (“Ghost Festival: A Double Rainbow over Erhai Lake “[中元节: 双虹升上洱海]) “bellowing waterfalls” and his own wild and joyful “roars” (“Climbing a Mountain with My Son on My Shoulders”[扛着儿子登山]), Song’s observations, usually cool and meditative, are now and then rent by shrieks and crashes. This tone is set from the very first poem of the volume, “Only Time” (只有时间), where “only time” “creates flows and rivers,” but at the same time:

Only time’s throat lets out a freakishly shrill sound
that splashes in your blood flows
and renders all living things immobile mid-dance

Proctor Xu’s translation of Song’s lyrical and sensitive work is guided, as she states in the volume’s tender introduction, by her personal relationship with the poet, which allowed for collaborative negotiations of individual words and phrases. Being a poet in her own right, Proctor Xu’s handling of the translation is well thought-out and, on the whole, harmonises well with the characteristic flow blending the contemporary and classical in Song’s original writings, although the notes that end the volume leave out some interesting fine points of references. Song is fascinated by the natural world, particularly water, and architecture as lieux of meditation, but also a metaphor (as he says, “Rivers are the earth’s tongues”), and consequently, the poems in this collection, too, flow in waves.

Whether quiet or loud, Song’s poems range out from an intensely private viewpoint, encapsulating deep feelings of sorrow, joy, passion, solitude, and even anger as they glide from place to place, season to season—from the ancient Cambrian period to the present day. At times a confessional diary, at times the notebook of a flâneur or vagabond (浪人) with its romantic references to Fountainbleu and the Seine, these works are also saturated with classical influences like the travel writing of Xu Xiake or Tang dynasty poetry. They reflect, too, Song’s itinerant history after leaving China in 1991, blending places and identities in an impressionistic style born of his participation in the avant-garde literary movements of the 80s university poetry scene. He delights in both the wild and the cosmopolitan in a collage-like use of names and images.

Reviewing the content, there are a few areas that may give us pause in the current political and socio-economic climate. Slightly problematic at the moment of this publication, perhaps, is Song’s repeated invocation of Xinjiang as an exotic location. Placed alongside romantic references, there is a flavour of enjoyment, even of ownership, to his engagement with the landscape and its aesthetics, devoid of people. We should note, too, that the poet that Song describes is implicitly male, invited to search out beautiful women, and identifying with male characters—we may say that Song’s gaze is the male gaze throughout the volume, as well. This is understandable given Song’s own gender, but it is worth noting, nonetheless. The virtue of the poems’ personal viewpoint is perhaps not a stumbling block, but a fact that puts the reader in the shoes of a particular male poet, at a particular point in time.

In Song’s bricolage, sensual elements in his poems are allowed to shine out amid meditative statements, and sensuality, even sexuality is rendered sacred. For example, these striking verses from “The City Wall and the Setting Sun” (城墙与落日):

It’s hard to describe the way the reflections ripple on the lake.
Poetry is equally bare, approaching zero.
The objects across from us become our mirror: people drinking, talking.
They hold out their hands and touch the scalding landscape.
I use all my organs to breathe February in;
I taste Nanjing as if tasting a tangerine.
I’ve returned; the wind blows my clothes. Below the city wall at sunset.
We walk back toward a tree-full of plum blossom in the spring rain.

Displaying, as they do, the contrasts within these works between quiet distance, and sensual engagement, “ignit(ing) unfamiliar love,” stanzas such as the below from “Emptiness” (空白), show the iconography of Song’s sacred natural hierarchy in erotic terms, or vice versa:

Between hearts there’s a clump of fur with happiness stuck to it, which is no different than the spiritual grass outside the window

But perhaps the most revealing of Song’s poems in the collection as to his own methodology, understanding of poetry, and of himself as a poet, is “Advice for a Young Poet” (给青年诗人的忠告), in the middle of the collection. The title recalls Rilke’s “Letters to a Young Poet” (Briefe an einen jungen Dichter):

Perhaps this is poetry: a flying arrow’s shadow
fighting against the movements of the flying arrow. Following
the logic of the Arabian Nights, an elephant easily passes through
the eye of a needle.
Fish in the Haolian River possess a superior understanding.
They swiftly swim, or they pause and observe.
Great masters are hard to find. Even if the one who truly hears your music is
somewhere on this earth, in this moment they’re often absent.
For example, when the bewildered Bo Ya arrived at the shore of the Bohai Sea,
he was unexpectedly enraptured with the merciless foam.
Therefore, the guqin he played was no longer his original one.
Whose was that final music? We just need to listen.

Song refers here to the Arabian Nights, with its stories within stories, perhaps the biblical, but also to classical Daoist philosopher Zhuangzi’s famous encounter with the “happiness of fishes,” and the myths of Bo Ya the great musician and the itinerant Liu Chen and Ruan Zhao who wandered into paradise, and out again. He uses the classic phrase derived from the Bo Ya myth, “he who knows your music”, which is zhiyin (知音), an intimate connection, and speaks of rocks as belonging to the Confucian hierarchy of the gentleman (君子).

But in his silences and screams, Song renders up this vision where the natural world is seen through his eyes, and is continuous with him as a thinking, feeling person, punctuated by sensual interfaces and moments of politics, often through a cloud of functional ambiguity. Even as he borrows titles from Tang poetry (“Visiting the Hermit but Not Encountering Him” [寻隐者不遇]), he crafts a world that is bittersweet and modern. Perhaps the most poignant line in the collection comes from the poem “My Father’s Migration” (父亲的迁徙), the title of which refers not only to his father’s movements while still living, but the movement of his grave after his death, a bitter fact with what we may see as a political sting:

Now we’re forcing you to move again,
to fly in a place the persecutor’s laugh can’t reach

Song’s poetry has flown, like the arrow he describes, with him around the world, and yet it has existed in tension all the way, resisting the impulse to return home at odds with the desire to fly free. This new translation is a map of flight.


Danielle K. J. de Feo-Giet DPhil (Oxon.) AM (Harvard), BA hons. (SOAS) is an independent scholar in the Boston area fascinated by the literary and popular culture of contemporary China and India in Mandarin and Hindi languages. Her research blends sociological and humanities techniques to examine culture as a personal, social and economic product in ever-changing circulations of value.  Co-founder of the JUXTAPOSE Project, an international multi-disciplinary conference series, she is particularly interested in film, television and fan culture, humour, and the everyday. She is a proud mom and avid baker.

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