[Review] “Found in Translations: Chris Song’s Rifle and Lily” by Phill Provance

{Written by Phill Provance, this review is part of Issue 46 (March/April 2020) of Cha.} {Return to Cha Review of Books and Films.}

Chris Song (author), Tammy Lai-Ming Ho, Lucas Klein and Chris Song (translators), Rifle and Lily, Musical Stone Publishing, 2018. 48 pgs.

Rifle and Lily

The perennial hazard for any poetry reviewer is simply “not getting it.” This is doubly the case with a translated collection—and especially when the reviewer is unfamiliar with the collection’s original language. Suffice to say, then, that when a translation is, on top of everything else, the work of multiple translators, many a reviewer would sooner hang up than risk making an ass of themselves.

Of course, much like Shakespeare’s Bottom and ‎Apuleius’s Lucius, yours truly has never shied away from an opportunity to be an ass. Moreover, in the case of Chris Song’s Rifle and Lily, the seeming difficulties of writing a review are only superficial. Why? Because Song’s recent collection is, despite every indication to the contrary, eminently accessible. Indeed, its multiple translators have succeeded so masterfully that, unless you thoroughly read the book’s title page or table of contents, it would never occur to you that it is anything other than a contemporary English-language poetry collection.

That said, if Rifle and Lily doesn’t necessarily seem like a translation, it also treads a fine line between a collection and an anthology, for its translators—including Lucas Klein, Tammy Lai-Ming Ho, and Song himself—are not only prominent and representative cultural figures of Hong Kong’s vibrant contemporary Sino-English literary scene, but each is also a distinctive voice in their own right. Thus, in reading the collection, what is noticeable is how the poems do not adhere to a single approach or vision; rather, each of the work’s poet-scholar-translators refracts Song’s work through the prism of his or her own distinctive style—resulting in a collection whose effect is something like that of hearing one voice echoed numerous times till the respective tones, timbres and pitches of the echoes appear to be of multiple provenance.

And yet this is hardly a failing, for from the outset it is apparent each poem’s theme has been matched to its translator’s characteristic style. Hence, Lucas Klein’s approach—which tends toward extravagant, sensual litany and a Merwin-like avoidance of end-punctuation—achieves a disorienting stillness perfect for the collection’s opening and penultimate poems, “Whisky Effusions” (about pitiful drunkenness) and “Remembering Too Much” (about a grandmother with Alzheimer’s disease). Likewise, Tammy Lai-Ming Ho’s characteristic tendency toward succinct, concrete realism evokes a certain stark clarity perfectly aligned with Song’s meditations on the profane in poems like “Ode to a Dead Bird.”

However, the most intriguing of these poem-approach matches are found in Song’s own translations, which regularly include minor grammatical hiccups that strike the native English speaker’s ear much like the speech of ESL students. For example, in “To the Zither” a very glaring use of a past participle instead of an infinitive occurs in line 10: “Once caught / don’t panicked”; similarly, in line 5 of “El Largo do Lilau” one finds a stray adverbial preposition where none is required: “sometimes she straightens up/ glimpses at the sky.”

Naturally, the initial urge upon reading these lines is to want to correct, to think “don’t panic” and “glimpses the sky.” But to discount such language as typos or errors is a grave misunderstanding; clearly, the poet uses modal- and phrasal-verb constructions just as well as any native of London or New York—as shown in line 14 of the former poem with “One day you shall play” and line 12 of the latter with “she was moved by neither debris nor bricks” (emphasis mine). Contrary to initial impressions, then, this isn’t “bad English” at all but a very intentional mimicry of these poems’ primary subject, the grandmother of “Remembering Too Much.” Further, in that they appear only when the speaker dips into empathetic narrative to voice the subject’s speech, their purpose is to capture the subject’s language faithfully, thereby communicating much more than their properly phrased alternatives ever could.

So Song’s use of non-idiomatic English is never less than artful throughout, and as when some American and British poets have, for the sake of brevity, omitted certain particles that are just as soon implied, the content of these intentional errors is always clear. But, even more profoundly, by their nature they not only subtly differentiate the subject’s voice from the speaker’s but also, on a much deeper level, evince great vulnerability in the care the speaker takes in phrasing them accurately. As a result, they go beyond the superficiality of voice effects, speaking to the impossibility of human communication in whatever language and calling into question what “good English” actually is. Which, one might ask, having read Song’s collection, is better: the bad thing said well or the good thing said poorly? And, if the latter, what if, despite all intentions, the good thing was said so poorly its audience didn’t understand?

Thus, one eventually realises the decision to use multiple translators is not an error at all but is integral to the very nature of Song’s collection as an expression of the multitude of voices in today’s Hong Kong; in other words, Rifle and Lily is not a Chinese-language poetry collection translated into English but a collection of poetry that challenges our notions of linguistic classification by depending on translation as a compositional strategy. As such, its overall impact is to decentre concepts of authorship and authority just as the city’s present political upheaval is decentring these notions. That is, in honouring a plurality of voices, Rifle and Lily is, by extension, a strong and relevant political statement in the Sino-English literature of Hong Kong, a city fighting, at present, to locate its voice in the unified plurality of democracy.

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Phill Provance

Phill Provance was born in an Appalachian valley town of 5,000 people to a Kirby salesman and a welfare caseworker who divorced when he was four. Subsequently spending his early years in a trailer on his grandparents’ farm, he witnessed the same alcoholism, drug abuse, mental illness, domestic violence, and poverty that figure into most stereotypes of Appalachia. Yet, at the same time, he also experienced the genuine devotion and kindness of people whose only hope, often, is sticking together. Since leaving home at eighteen, he has published comics, nonfiction, journalism, and poetry in numerous newspapers, journals, and magazines throughout the English-speaking world. His forthcoming poetry collection, A Plan in Case of Morning (Vine Leaves Press, 2020), is his third book. His other works include the nonfiction popular history A Brief History of Woodbridge, New Jersey (The History Press, 2019) and the poetry chapbook The Day the Sun Rolled Out of the Sky (Cy Gist Press, 2010). His second full-length work of nonfiction, Postcards of McHenry County, Illinois, is forthcoming from Arcadia Publishing in 2021. Visit his website for more information.

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