[REVIEW] “On a Haunted Train: Reading Ya Shi’s Floral Mutter in Nick Admussen’s Translation” by Joanna Krenz

{Written by Joanna Krenz, this review is part of Issue 46 of Cha.} {Return to Cha Review of Books and Films.}

Ya Shi (author), Nick Admussen (translator), Floral Mutter, Jintian Series of Contemporary Chinese Poetry, Zephyr Press, 2020. 136 pgs.Floral Mutter“Please believe that the rays of light at nightfall have damp / antennae,” urges Ya Shi 哑石, “carrying ancient books    in both hands like oars” in the initial lines of “Entering the Hills.” This opening poem from his bilingual collection Floral Mutter / 花的低语 with impeccable English renditions by Nick Admussen is, first and foremost, an invitation: an unobtrusive, noncommittal invitation to a breathtaking journey through his unique (uni)verse, where even a “tuft of wild grass” has an “immeasurable potential”. At the same time, it is also a set of axioms the Sichuan-based poet-cum-mathematician asks us to assume if we want to grasp the fluid nature of this poetic cosmos. In this cosmos, light and darkness were not separated on the very first day of Creation but remain mutually intertwined, damp, as if having just emerged from the primordial sea. Photons and other particles wait impatiently, extending their “antennae,” for a signal to flood the earth with life. But the poet prefers to keep them in this state of ambiguous entanglement. This is a world which, as we learn from later poems, transforms itself according to bizarre laws, where “the circulation of goods pursues a corrosive chemistry” and “new rain” may form a sofa on which to sit comfortably on one’s birthday—accompanied by a naughty bull that escaped the Chinese Zodiac. Without taking a leap of imagination and accepting its transsubstantial, hypersynesthetic first principle, one will fail to climb the “secluded track panting faintly underfoot” that “trace[s] the slope such that unspoken truths will come to visit”, which the poet envisions in “Truth.” This is not a safe leap, warns Admussen in his biographical essay on Ya Shi from 2013:

Ya Shi […] has an alchemical genius—in his poetry we are confronted with thoughts and experiences that should not, strictly, be possible. Language, the body, and contemporary Chinese life are all transformed, transmuted into something that feels living and natural, but has a thrilling tendency to ignore the ritual strictures that make our world feel safe.[1]

But it is certainly worth the risk, and we should not be afraid, especially that we are lucky to have an amazing guide in the person of the translator, himself a gifted poet, who discreetly secures our steps through the texts.

TRAVELLING WITH SPIRITS

ya-shi-6

Ya Shi (1966 – ) 哑石

In the prose piece “Several Objects Hidden in Poems,” Ya Shi metaphorises poetry as a train, describing his predecessors’ and his own writing philosophy in the following way:

Train here is really not an adjective; it can deliver you to any accessible distant place, and keep you away from illusion. This is how the formal urge of Chinese New Poetry proclaims itself rock-hard and majestic: new civilization, rugged and powerful, and with plenty of glossy-dark passions unearthed from earlier geological eras. Perhaps there have always been a few stokers, their sweat set off against the blazing flame, who endlessly shovel coal into the engine of New Poetry. But the railroad track is probably pencil-straight, rolling with a ka-chunk, ka-chunk, and another ka-chunk. Without a high level of control, it would be hard to avoid monotony or making people drowsy… and so, in order to build up a text’s vigour, some drivers write while basically cross-eyed, their so-called peripheral vision or branching minds wholly denied by the violent sweat trickling down the forehead of form. Ah, the journey I prefer is the one in which you can look at the pretty scenery outside the engineer’s cabin while you drive, even stick your head out the window, twist your body, bounce and shake in appreciation of the passion of the plump butt of words—but don’t overturn the train, laying it out like a corpse on the shrewishly noisy city street. Of course, I am even more opposed to taking the train to “heaven,” that is to say, hanging it by the end so the track arcs like a waterfall. That’s terrifying.

This is exactly what the reader may expect to experience in Floral Mutter. The trip will be miraculous, and all passengers will finally be delivered in good health to a “distant place,” though one should be ready for moments of horror when the driver may feel like shaking in appreciation of plump butts of words rather than holding firmly onto the throttle. Also: get a map, for the “distant place” really is distant and the way back is not clear. Frankly, having travelled several times to and fro through the pages of the book, I would prefer not to go home at all and simply settle there, but since few of us unfortunately cannot afford to dwell upon this earth exclusively poetically, regular outings to it will probably have to suffice.

Immediately after jumping on board and “entering the hills”, we descend into an “empty valley,” finding ourselves in one of the most adventurous poems in the collection, namely “Full Moon Night,” which I playfully call a haunted poem. The fact that in the opening lines the author himself appears a little bit disoriented certainly does not make us feel more confident in the strange place: 

Currently       I cannot say that I understand the valley
understand the petal-like, windborne unfolding of her confession
full moon night         in the underbrush, ladybugs flutter
like the grains of stars     falling into the valley’s wet creases
someone says: the full moon can trigger a kind of savage snow . . .

The tension grows as we learn of the disaster caused by the unyielding weather:

I believe         that this is a simple truth: tonight
when the biting cold of silence crushes my stone house.
And shadows of branches steal in through the window     the oak desk
that’s so fragile I am forced to love it has exploded just a little bit
(from the glossy maroon nub of the elbow off to coarse distance)

The above excerpt is supplemented with an endnote redirecting us to Admussen’s essay “Errata” published in New England Review in 2017.[2] This beautiful piece of self-commentary describes the emotional turbulence the poem caused in Admussen, when his “work as a translator loosened and a ghost slipped in”, derailing the original syntax of lines 8 and 9, which in a more literal translation provided in the note read: “And shadows of branches steal in through the window   fragilely / gradually blowing apart my treasured oak desk”. “Errata” reconstructs how and why he translated the ambiguous adverb qingcui (de) “清脆(地)”, which may mean things as different as “fragilely,” “brittlely,” “clearly and melodiously,” and even “crisply”, into the adjective “fragile” and then stuck it to the noun “desk” in a way that “stretched the grammar without apparent rationale.” From the essay, we learn that he, too, had a desk that he cherished. It had belonged first to his father, who passed away when little Nick was only three months old, and then served the son throughout his student years. When as a PhD candidate he was moving from New Jersey to California, he was forced to throw away the half-broken desk. My awkward recapitulation of the story of the desk’s owners of course does no justice to its subtle depth and to the finesse of Admussen’s narrative, but it hopefully suffices to give the reader an idea why Ya Shi’s lines couldn’t not acquire a special meaning to the translator, which unbeknownst to him made its way to the surface of the poem in English.

Incidentally, I happen to know Admussen’s ghost. I encountered it exactly in the same place in/at “Full Moon Night,” before I ever read “Errata.” We conversed in Polish, and not in English, though, and the spectre was apparently in a better mood, for it generously helped me solve a translational problem instead of complicating it. Perhaps it is the suggestive image of destruction in the text that evokes phantoms of the past, or perhaps there is yet another mystery in Ya Shi’s poetry…

I came across Ya Shi’s works some two or three years ago in Admussen’s renditions on the Lyrikline and Poetry International websites. I was initially attracted by the author’s short bio, identifying a kindred spirit in this practitioner of mathematics and poetry—two disciplines that are particularly dear to my heart—a graduate of Peking University who left the capital to settle in the countryside in his native Sichuan. I gratefully devoured the handful of texts that were available online in English at the time and kept searching for his collections of poetry and essays in Chinese, planning to include Ya Shi in the Polish-language anthology of Chinese poetry I have been working on. One of the first texts I read and translated was “Full Moon Night”, with the “cursed” qingcui in line 8. I was troubled mostly by semantics and not by the tortuous syntax which is quite easy to recreate in highly fusional and structurally flexible Slavic languages. Admussen recalls he tried to retain at least two aspects of qingcui: frailty and clearness-and-melodiousness, but “the superimposition of the two” proved impossible. In Polish there is no perfect solution either, but I was quite satisfied with a near-superimposition, that is an adverb dźwięcznie (‘clearly, sharply, melodiously’) generously prompted by the ghost of the past. The word in question—and this is lucky for me—often happens to be misheard and misrepeated as wdzięcznie (meaning [1] ‘gracefully’ or [2] ‘gratefully’), which preserves part of the semantics of frailty, implying delicateness and proneness to destruction. I recalled a popular song often heard in my grandma’s small village church when I was a child, in which “nightingales are singing ah singing in a clear-and-melodious / graceful-or-grateful voice”; half of the congregation persistently sticking to dźwięczny, and the other half to wdzięczny. I still do not know which one is correct, but the memory of the rough, untrained but energetic and unswervingly faithful voices belonging mostly to old women, one of whom was my beloved grandma, proved quite instrumental in dealing with the lines in question. At the same time, it also influenced my reading of the parenthesized line 10, which I interpreted similarly to Admussen. Now when I look at the poem, I think it may well be taken much more literally, simply as a distance from the smooth maroon surface in the place where one keeps one’s elbows to the coarse far end of the desk, but both of us somehow naturally extended the desk to infinity, to undefined “coarse distance”, leaving the poem open to more ghosts.

Be it as it may, Ya Shi apparently is not scared by ghosts of alien memories flocking into his poems. When Admussen, after a conversation with professors from Sun Yat-Sen University, realised his “mistranslation” of “Full Moon Night” and shared his doubts with the author with an intention to revise the text, Ya Shi advised to stick to the original choice rather than strive for literariness, for “even though it appears to conflict with the surface of the original text, with regards to the experience of the texture of the poetry, it’s a bit closer to the original”.[3] Moreover, already in the following line 11, he “airs out” the house of his poem anyway, politely suggesting to his invisible guests that he’d rather be alone, and in the final part of the poem everything turns back to the flesh-and-blood here-and-now:

once I aired it out under the overfilled moon
hoping it would gestate with deep and ripple-churned
blood     like how my flesh, awoken by the vast sky
wandered an empty valley       listening to mountains’ secret, copious spill

The skilful handling of spectres is arguably one of the factors that most significantly contribute to the artistic success of Ya Shi’s poetry. On the one hand, his verse allows one to bring one’s memories, experiences, emotions into the text without obstacle; his works are almost unconditionally open to all sorts of associations, from the most universal to the most intimate. “Luckily, a poem that rejects closure makes space for each of us to have our own experience, an individual one; even if you don’t experience the same moment as the poems’ original readers, the experience is of no lesser value,” notes Admussen. The reader can rest assured that their personal “input” will not be compromised by the poem—you will probably not encounter a turn of events or a turn of phrase at which you will feel embarrassed that you gave too much, that your serious involvement in the reading process is ridiculed, either because the poem at some point slips into kitsch or because the author decides to cock a snook at you. On the other hand, Ya Shi won’t guide you through your mental labyrinths into a “dirty hotel” room of your “small soul with a great self-pity” where “wall-paper dawns,” to quote from one of my favourite poems, Zbigniew Herbert’s Why the Classics (Dlaczego klasycy). Rather, your “emotional load” will be distributed throughout the poem and contribute to the overall aesthetic effect, as it was the case with Admussen’s rendition, which his academic readers (and the author himself) appreciated in spite of its apparent incorrectness.

At any rate, the journey through the world of the English language would be impossible for the engineer, Ya Shi, and for us, the passengers of his train, without the translator-navigator who knows the route with all its beautiful spots on the one hand, and pitfalls on the other. When he takes a shortcut through more concise phrases or, on the contrary, chooses a roundabout way, longer than on the Chinese map sketched by the author, we know he does so either in order to avoid trouble he’s predicted or encountered—or alternatively, because he wants us to notice something that merits particular attention. I regret that as a non-native user of the target language I cannot detect and fully appreciate all nuances between different registers from Admussen’s diverse “own stack of Englishes (from suburban Missouri, contemporary American poetry, academia, Chinglish)” he claims to have used in order to recreate the complexity of Ya Shi’s landscape and soundscape, but after the “ghost story” we survived together at the gate of the empty valley, I am nevertheless utterly convinced that I can entrust myself to his skills, talent, intuition, and honesty.

CROSSING ELIXIR FIELDS GROWN WITH EARS OF GRASS

The book’s first part, titled Sonnets, consists of twelve fourteen-line poems from Ya Shi’s early cycle Qingcheng Poems. In them, we can almost entirely focus on the landscape and on nature whispering to us the secrets of the world through the train windows. In/at “Dawn” we witness a scene “when the spirit is transformed into a space open on all sides: / the insects, the trees gather here and murmur” to welcome us, “the new arrivals.” Then we pass “A Stand of Wild Apple” to take some creek water, “taste what I’ve been given / until the tart sweetness enters the marrow of my bones,” and look in the “Eyes of Small Animals” that “peek out from the white spaces in the words.” We also visit a battered old “Graveyard,” relax at a “Quiet Lake in the Hills,” and approach the “Pillar of Sound” to touch its “crescent heart.” Between the stations, we are encouraged to reflect on “Years” going by with “natural and fluent courtesy” and enjoy the most exquisite “Present”: “that multisyllabic iridescence, the silent secret complete”. Halfway, in the poem “Grand Drum,” there is another hair-raising moment: “[w]hen redolence rips open the heavy stone under my body / a huge black scorpion will crawl out, straight and silent.” But the poet again keeps a cool head, declaring that he will “face up to it limpid    no fear in [his] eyes”, so we can rest assured he will deal with the danger, protected by the “Guardian Angel” from another poem, namely the moonlight of a “deep autumn night.” In case the traveller doubts that the splendid landscape they have seen is real, in the final sonnet Ya Shi repeats seven times like a mantra that “[t]his mountain valley is absolutely not a symbol” but the genuine skin of the world that the train of poetry cuts through like a knife; “the knife must finally melt   change to blood, to quiet.” The journey’s attractions, though, are more than a wild ride through the mountains, a plunge through haunted hills or an encounter with a scorpion.

In part two (Free Verse) and part three (Fragments), another unique experience awaits the passengers. The author invites us to the old-style engineer cab to see how the poetry locomotive is made, fuelled, and set in motion; he tries to perfect the construction and improve its efficiency, to build a poetic “perpetuum mobile.” In the past few years, these tasks have engaged the author much more than the landscapes outside the window. As Admussen put it in the foreword, “Ya Shi became less interested in the lesson of Qingcheng after he had learned it.” Which of course does not make this lesson any less relevant to us, and we can return to it any time if we get tired or depressed spending too much time inside the huge, dark belly of the train’s engine.

At this point, the image of poetry as a train makes contact with Admussen’s image of Ya Shi as an alchemist that I cited above. The steam engine of his vehicle is like an alchemical furnace in which different ingredients are melted. In Free Verse we observe reactions that take place when the world is transmuted into the word, and final products like  “Cryptic Poem,” “Birthday Poem,” “Axehead Poem,” “Sorrow Poem,” “White Cherry Poem,” and “Water Poem” emerge. In Fragments, in turn, all sorts of surprising “by-products” are released with the dense smoke, creating dazzling images in the air. Finally, part four, comprised of six engaging micro-essays on poetry, including the afore-cited “Several Objects Hidden in Poems”, helps us better comprehend the entire process of concocting what Ya Shi in his 2010 talk in Taipei called a “tiny infinity” (小小的无穷). “A tiny infinity” which “will forever torture humankind’s mind and soul” is a notion refined from Borges’s “The Aleph”, the Jewish Kabbalah, and Cantor’s set theory, this last of which is the conceptual framework that mathematically legitimized explorations of infinity/infinities and allowed the comparison of their powers.[4] Ya Shi says a tiny infinity is both “a scorching hot flame” and “a bone-piercing cold,” a secret and a sweetness (a near-homophonous pair in Chinese: 谜 and 蜜), a ravine depth and a divine fate (shēnyuān 深渊 and shényuán 神缘). In their search for various tiny infinities, he maintains, “the poet and the mathematician approach human civilization with utter innocence and devotion (赤子之心), they are burnt by human difficulties, endure the heat of the flame, but also receive tiny flashes of supreme glory” and share these flashes with others as far as the language medium permits.

The essays collected at the end of Floral Mutter discuss different genres technologies, and alchemical recipes of verse production. Ya Shi has tested all of them in his work. Postmodern poetry, for one, is constructed like cartoons, namely like a 2D cat doomed to catching a non-existent mouse “mimicking the endless manifestations of the human world”; aware of its illusory freedom, the cat still cannot do anything to break out from the flat screen on which it is watched by the hypnotised audience. Intellectual writing, in turn, consists in spilling nightmares on a piece of paper “muddy and violent. Please do your best to forget it”. Lyric poetry is presented in its relationship to adultery and narrative poetry, conversely, as a tight corset. Finally, there is the most peculiar: pure poetry, which grows like an “ear of grass”, an English expression which loses its conventional meaning and function when transplanted onto the soil of the Chinese language. Taken literally, it conjures up a fantastic image of a plant-like auricle, “so unimaginably and disgustingly sensitive to the outside world, especially to the voices of those with whom it was not in harmony, that it [is] not necessarily a truthful and determined thing”. Trying to protect this curious species, people treat it with tenderness, not telling it their private worries “considering the habitual ease with which it is inclined to faint.” In isolation, it starts to grow stronger but is “destined to experience some kind of sealing shut.

Pure poetry as an ear of grass to some extent resembles what Daoists practiced as internal alchemy (neidan) in which one’s body is treated like a cauldron where the elixir of immortality is produced, with three “elixir fields” (dantian) as points of special energetic concentration. But pure poetry is based on a false assumption. Whereas alchemy hinges on optimizing the system of circulation of various elements between the micro-universe of the body and the entire macrocosm in order to “irrigate” the elixir fields, sow them with tiny seeds of infinity, and patiently wait for the harvest, those who write pure poetry directly plant the elixir fields with ears of grass and other exotic seedlings, and isolate them from the outside world as in a greenhouse. The fields birth original, imaginative specimen but all of them are ephemeral, oversensitive to pollution, and unable to reproduce themselves. That is presumably why Ya Shi finally abandons pure poetry, though not without some regret: “I hope I can become more serene, can avoid disturbing its lonely pleasures, but it seems much more likely I will never see it again, and will therefore miss many of the joys of life.”

There is another similar story among Ya Shi’s jottings not included in the collection that may prove useful in reading poems from Floral Mutter. In the said piece, Ya Shi cites a story from a primary school textbook of his daughter titled “A Little Cat Plants Fish” (小猫种鱼). A cat observes a farmer growing plants. He notes that one kind of seed always results in the same kind of plant. When one sows wheat, one will reap wheat, when one plants rice seedlings, one will get rice, etc. Based on this observation, the cat concludes that if he plants a fishbone, he will soon enjoy a fish tree. Needless to say, the attempt fails. Ya Shi reads the story as a story about “poetic foolishness” (诗意的愚蠢). In his unconventional interpretation, he praises the cat for his unconstrained imagination which allowed him to abstract the laws observed in life and extrapolate or “shift” (偏移) them to apply elsewhere, but also scolds the animal—and poets—for not providing an appropriate environment for the experiment. As another example of “poetic foolishness”, he mentions a passage from Mark Kharitonov’s (Марк Харитонов) Lines of Fate (Линии судьбы) about a Brazilian who “invented” an absurd method of making coffee: feeding a cow with coffee leaves to get caffè latte directly from the udder. Ya Shi comments:

[…] on condition that the texture of imagination is not destroyed, we should take into account the environment in which the poetic thing (诗性事物) may survive and the possibility of its survival. […] In other words, in the process of shifting (偏移), we should very carefully protect the real possibility of the growth of the poetic thing; we should treat poetry as a living thing that breathes and belongs to itself. The little cat and Siqueiros made only this one mistake: they used a certain attribute related to the poetic thing (“fishbone”, “coffee leaves + milk”) as a crude substitute for the poetic thing itself, but this mistake proved fatal.[5]

A revised version of this miniature essay was published in an anthology edited by An Qi 安琪 and Kang Cheng康城 Third Word: the Middle Generation’s Essays on Poetry (第三说—中间代诗论), collecting works of authors born in the 1960s. Ya Shi suggested that striving to create a clean internal environment for poetry to breathe and grow is perhaps the most important thing that distinguishes authors born in the seventh decade of the 20th century from the former generations, especially the so-called Obscure Poets and other precursors of the Third Generation:

 Breathing    In my view, the tree of poetry grows nourished simultaneously by language and soul.  A poet, weaving his way through dust, upholds the weight and secret of the soul. He can only breathe in language, until he turns into a healthy consumer of words. Perhaps, unlike the former generations, who excessively emphasized language as such, we are more focused on the complexity of language experience. We don’t indulge in playing with signifieds and signifiers, but instead strive to cultivate breadth and depth of language breath.[6]

I am not entirely convinced that Ya Shi’s statement may indeed be applied to his generation as a whole. Think for instance of Haizi 海子, the “martyr of poetry,” only two years Ya Shi’s senior, who believed poetry could live on food for thought alone, or of Ya Shi’s coeval Yi Sha 伊沙, who called to “starve the poets” whose stomachs, he held, are sufficiently filled with the smell of imaginary wheat from their poems, or yet another near-contemporary of theirs, Che Qianzi 车前子, who keeps exploring the possibilities of pure language play. Among the many radical propositions that popped up in Chinese poetry in the 1980s and 1990s, Ya Shi’s postulate of healthy poetry and healthy consumption of words may sound like an overcautious and boring offer for the petty bourgeoisie. In practice, it is of course nothing of the sort. On healthy body of his verse Ya Shi can perform experiments that poetic organisms weakened with continued Weltschmerz would probably never survive.

Interestingly, as an example of a healthy poem, he cites a work “unfortunately not written by a Chinese author,” namely Yehuda Amichai’s “Try Again,” quoted here in Robert Alter’s rendition:

Try Again

And my scream is made of strange edges
like a complicated key.
It will be hard to open the world with it,
hard and hurting sleep.
Try again, come again.
Leaves on the tree rustle suddenly.
They know a bit before us
about the coming wind. Try again,
there’s a rear door, through the garden.
Perhaps a miracle of quiet convincing speech
that will bring forth water from a rock. Not
striking, just speaking.

This is a beautiful poem and I think one can guess why Ya Shi likes it. Written by a representative of the Jewish nation, so cruelly treated by 20th-century history, “Try Again” emanates a peace and calmness that is rarely seen in poets of countries touched by traumatic collective experiences, China being a case in point. It is not attentively modulated, effective, multi-edged scream but “quiet convincing speech” whose persistent dripping may drill the rock from which water of life will come, just as it did when Moses struck it in the Book of Exodus. Drawing more extensive connections between Ya Shi and Amichai would be a backbreaking task with rather limited cognitive value, but if I were to point out a Chinese author who is not discouraged by long standing at the rear door of (Chinese) reality and patiently “forcing” it with words, artistically independent and self-sufficient thanks to his vivid imagination trained on postmodern literature and abstract mathematics, it would be Ya Shi.

TAMPERING WITH THE ENGINE

From the first lines of “Cryptic Poem” which opens the second part, Free Verse, one learns that what is most harmful to this healthy poetic organism is “the cardiac bang-bang of literary fame” from which it bruises inside “for no reason at all.” Perhaps, suspects Ya Shi, “the glittering system encourage[s] weakness”; he chooses, therefore, to stay outside. Yearning for a “swashbuckling heroism,” he puts forward a spine-chilling idea: “On heaven and earth’s // makeshift chopping block, you can use fir, white oak, red pine… / Spirit and the flesh, sliced until they are so lean!” In “Axehead Poem,” we see him, a Raskolnikov-like persona, “half-awakened, [his] pupils turned to cool tangerines,” fantasizing that his “thermal underwear is a clock of invisibility,” obsessively observing hoof-shaped mud stains on the onion’s root as if an enemy was lurking somewhere in the house, and finally unfolding an “even crazier” vision: “under the vast starry sky, a great tree / has been felled many times, but the axehead, it still stands there gleaming.” One feels that this room-size poetic hyperspace balances on the verge of collapse, and tragedy is around the corner, but Dostoyevsky’s scenario never happens. No crime. No punishment. From beginning to end, the I-speaker remains “still alive, conflicted, chaotic, and soft”.

A “boundless introspection” in “Birthday Poem” reveals the complex constitution and infinite plasticity of his literary body: “deer eyes, little scrolls of ears, dog nose, flowery tongue, // a bottomless stomach wolfing down the cosmos, and boiling invertebrates of the sea” only to turn into an invertebrate medusa in the end. What is more, all these cosmic transformations seem do not to seem to particularly bother the owner of the body in which they take place, a bored math teacher counting hairs on his legs.

“Birthday Poem” has its negative, “Anti-birthday Poem,” where the I-speaker suddenly gets into the Lysol-reeking hands of “monkey doctors” who sprinkle the syrup of “central authority” all around the place. This grotesque image should arguably be read not in the context of the mysterious, transcendental madness of Dostoyevsky’s novels but rather within the framework of Foucault’s History of Madness as a concept intertwined into (bio)politics, tricky structures of power/knowledge, and social machinery of exclusion. The association of monkeys and authority is also present in “Sorrow Poem”, which begins with a picture that brings to mind the famous painting of Pieter Bruegel, often interpreted as an allegory of humans’ becoming slaves to their own follies and sins. Ya Shi’s criticism, though, is targeted at the university:

Today, on a day in May, a shattering noise.
At the lakeside, the green mint asks me to sit and practice forgetting.

At the university where the golden snub-nosed monkey took a position,
everywhere the noise of chains, the noise of alphabet letters.

Theoretically, having a lethal mixture stored in his “Poison Poem” at his disposal, he could easily get rid of the monkeyish oppressors by serving them a fatal dose of verbal toxins, but his peaceful nature does not allow him for such cruelty. Instead, he gives a mini-lecture on chaos, and returns to his furnace to add some new herbs to the cauldron, though without much hope for the final success:

Peel apart the green mint, the ignorance the vessels inside bubble up,

and I have an endless human history to adorn—
the truth is absent, random plump arms shoot up everywhere;

a fact, a plant’s white-hot shame,
if it can really stop the sorrow, well, that’ll be a miracle.

In the final poem from the Free Verse section, entitled “Heartless Poem,” we observe the poet helplessly searching for one word that is missing to make the mixture effective for it to fuel the magic locomotive (“engine” in the poem refers to the train locomotive: 火车头) and push it forever forward along the track which is now “lonely, rumbling, and abandoned,” like “the Way that can waylay” from “Birthday Poem,” covered with weeds (perhaps “ears of grass”…):

There was once a word, everyone was impressed,
seemed like it might become something special.
Now, I am sliding further away on a cool, dim railroad track,
that beast is absent, the heavy breathing
that can restart the engine . . . look,
among the crushed rock of the rail bed, weeds brown and then green,
the wind picks up and then stops, bit by bit the defamiliarized
tips of small shoots push their bodies up through the ash.

Based on the closing lines, one can establish that the missing ingredient is love, but we are not told whether it was eventually found or not. Instead, the author leaves us with a vague consolation: “A history without love will still possess / something barbaric and warm, overflowing the body—”.

Indeed, the train goes on in Fragments, although its rhythm is very irregular: sometimes it clearly accelerates, and sometimes slows down almost to zero velocity, as if the engineer was testing different types of fuel. Or, perhaps, this is just a matter of uneven tracks. At some point, in “Machine,” he tries an electric engine:

Why, when you think the word “machine”
do your eyes fill with tears? A digital fragrance
spreads open each age’s calm pores, electric current
spreads open the drone of wild bees, the wanton cinema.

In “An Exiled Poet Addresses His Own Formless Nostalgia”, when the “little erotic island in the brain firing its electrical charge” stops working, he energetically shovels melancholy into the engine, “useless, unreal kernels, pearls of crumbs of words”. In “The Moon”, he shovels moonlight, but he only manages to produce lightning that “bisects the whetstone in the foothills in a flash”. In “Fragment,” he shovels cruelties in life that “have gone ignored for ages,” but they only “keep strumming on [his] shiny oddity”. In “Brief Sentences,” he shovels in “all substances” but still his locomotive “like a salmon in the dark and frothing water” only releases “its floral mutter”. On the home stretch, the train suddenly speeds up, bulging with lust and humour, when, as in the title of the final poem, “In Old Age, a Monk Remembers His Divine Suppression of Desires” and squeezes through “the throat of the Milky Way” with “the little Nazi swinging from Thor’s belt, a golden waterfall’s humility”.

All the way, however, whether travelling quickly or slowly, or standing and waiting for the driver visiting the teahouse in “Inclination,” in the puffs of the locomotive’s smoke, phrases and images materialise that please or intrigue. Like, for instance, in the diptych “Translation and a Daoist Song”, which is, on that note, one of the strongest evidences of Admussen’s translation mastery. In part one, “Translation”, we are scolded that “In life    we disturb too much dust.” In part two, “Daoist Song”, we witness the spectacle of undisturbed dust only discretely illuminated by life and death: “Life like light on dust, death like dust in light. / A particolored fantasy. The fish flesh getting cold.” I leave other treasures for the reader to pick up by and for themselves. The earlier the better, because “in these words, [there is] a heart-breaking urgency” (“White Cherry Poem”). I am tempted to add: “so buy now with one click”, but I guess Ya Shi and his translator would not necessarily support this kind of marketing, and the massed clicks would make them bruise inside. Therefore, let me conclude with the conventional statement that Floral Mutter is definitely worth a read.

Mutter matters. Q.E.D.

Notes

[1] https://www.poetryinternational.org/pi/poet/24314/Ya-Shi/en/nocache. All quotes that are not footnoted come from Floral Mutter.
[2] http://www.nereview.com/2017/07/25/nick-admussen/
[3] http://www.nereview.com/2017/07/25/nick-admussen/
[4] https://www.poemlife.com/index.php?mod=showart&id=60915&str=1403
[5] http://www.zgnfys.com/m/view.php?aid=29707
[6] http://blog.sina.com.cn/s/blog_48c557e20100ef73.html

6f271-divider5

Joanna Krenz

Joanna Krenz is an Assistant Professor at the Institute of Oriental Studies of Adam Mickiewicz University in Poznań, Poland. Her research focuses on contemporary literature in a comparative perspective, in particular literature’s connections with science, technology, and philosophy. She is also an active translator of Chinese poetry and prose into Polish, her recent translations include Yan Lianke’s novels Dream of Ding Village (Sen wioski Ding, 2019) and Explosion Chronicles (Kroniki Eksplozji, 2019). Currently, she is working on two projects: In Search of Singularity: Polish and Chinese Poetry Since 1989 and The World Re-versed: New Phenomena in Chinese Poetry as a Challenge and Inspiration to Literary Studies.

One thought on “[REVIEW] “On a Haunted Train: Reading Ya Shi’s Floral Mutter in Nick Admussen’s Translation” by Joanna Krenz

  1. Pingback: Joanna Krenz reviews Admussen’s Ya Shi for Cha | Notes on the Mosquito

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s