Che Qianzi (author), Yunte Huang (translator), No Poetry: Selected Poems of Che Qianzi, Polymorph Editions, 2019. 177 pgs.
Che Qianzi’s bilingual poetry collection No Poetry, translated from the Chinese by Yunte Huang and shortlisted for the 2020 Lucien Stryk Asian Translation Prize, unveils a literary world, where verses and stanzas are given their wildest forms tracing back to the ancient Chinese characters’ pictographic uniqueness. Words shine through the paper, returning to their distant origins, bringing divination back to practice, honouring the ceremony for words to evolve and transform; leaving infinite openness to readers to interpret, or simply look at. Roland Barthes has called it the “visual uncertainty”, as if it is an insurmountable cultural chasm still growing between various cultures—a task to decipher.
Can we read these poems without interpretation? Treating them as if they are alive, and trying to take the appearance of those poems as they are—a bounding spider or a diligent cricket—and making no effort to decrypt them. Perhaps, that is what the poet intended. Che Qianzi not only brings the pictographic Chinese characters to life in his poetry collection, but also merges symbolic images perfectly in verse, creating an artistic conception that can be grasped but not explained in words. As a result, the rich silence the poet injects into his poems in both a spatial and a philosophical sense projects a bright light on the contemporary Chinese poetry landscape as if a dancing fairy between times and terrains.
The last time I enjoyed a bilingual poetry collection was Ingeborg Bachmann’s Darkness Spoken, translated by Peter Filkins. In that chunky collection, readers are being directed by German and English, languages with a common linguistic origin; however, in No Poetry, Chinese and English are two languages with very different roots. Translator Yunte Huang undertook a rather daunting task to bridge the reader and the poet’s reality in a comprehensible, elegant manner with a spatial touch, leaving much more leeway for the reader’s imagination.
The Empty Space
If there were no emptiness, there would be no life.—Margaret Atwood.
According to Yunte Huang, Che Qianzi’s poems are avant-garde, sometimes dandy, but also evoke a sense of Zen, reserving plenty of blank space on the page and for the imagination.
Born Gu Pan, Che Qianzi is a painter as well as a poet. Leaving a blank space is a particular technique in Chinese painting, which has been adopted into poetry where the language doesn’t lead. Readers are left to stare into the blank space, and listen to the intended silence. The “Zen intention” does not simply fade into the background, but is rather used as a means to manipulate the intangible space so as to communicate.
In “A Group Photo of the 20th Century”, other than the onomatopoetic words “ka” and “cha”, there are only two words on the entire page, leaving the sound of taking a photo and the blank “landscape” to the gathered invisible group, restoring a scene that we are all too familiar with in the 21st century. In “Of Early Spring: A Haiku”, the poet frames space himself, offering readers a visual snow field, accompanied by a black cube, next to the verse “Crows robbed the tea shop”. What a “visual uncertainty”! The black cube here could be interpreted as an abstracted crow in its dark squarish figure, robbing glitter from the tea shop.
However, in “In the End Was the Night”, the same black cube is turned into the type of black lines commonly used to overwrite redacted or censored text, only here they covering supposed body parts, or parts of them. Again, a space has been left for readers to decipher; this time, however, it is not a white blank that we used to see in Chinese paintings, but a saturated black block between the first letter “c” and the last two letters “st”, as if the poet tries to return to an original condition of “chest distress” with words. This is the communication Che Qianzi intends to present, and interpretation is up to the reader.
Back to the Chinese Characters
“Just as the living heard the sounds of their ancestors in the divination cracks, so did Chinese characters provide the means to hear the sounds of the original words, bringing those words, as it were, back to life.”—David N. Keightley.
The “visual uncertainty” this bilingual poetry collection offers has many folds. One is to view Chinese characters as a whole, as a glyph, a logograph as well as an image. It invites imagination. When Sinologists delve into researching the origins of Chinese writing, the abstraction of the written characters, their carried sound/syllables, the ancient ceremonial divine service and its association with the cracked and carved early characters are like a converging river, all contributing to the complex of Chinese writing systems. This unique form later became the primeval yet highly crafted form of poems (Book of Songs), preserved and passed down.
Che Qianzi seems to see right through the centuries’ mists of florid language; therefore, he goes back to the deep roots, where Chinese characters are taken back to their original abstraction, infused with the poet’s own interpretation. The poem “A Character Resembling an Insect” bears this out. The poet uses the traditional Chinese character “員” which means “member” to assemble a right-angled triangle. Contrary to the title’s notion of “A Character”, the poem itself is a collection of the same character used repetitively, sending a visual, metaphorical message from the hierarchy of a group of presumed institutions’ members, all as one.
The sensation Che Qianzi creates echoes with some of his previous poems. Those poems portray a bizarre dreamy reality, but yet somehow so collective, almost assemble the lined-up “members” in a wider context—
As one of only two poems in the collection not translated into English, “A Character Resembling an Insect” is a vivid example of pictographic and self-explanatory Chinese characters. Translating such a poem into English is nigh impossible. It could possibly work phonetically, but to do so would mean sacrificing the poem’s visual impact. For me, this is still the poet playing with silence. He silences the target language, achieving an indescribable impression, leaving English and its readers in silence; thus, there is no more reading for this poem, only a picturesque reality, forming a half-finished pyramid.
Che Qianzi also uses homonyms in his poems to imply another meaning onto a noun. The poem “Handle” starts with “Boundless father” for the first verse, following with “farther”, where the translator preserved the homophony in both words—in Chinese, 父亲 (fù qīn, means “father”) and 付清 (fù qīng, means “paid in full”) share the similar syllables with different tones, revealing a story yet to be told in a lyrical manner.
Farther into the collection, the poet delves into the empty space again, coining the phrase 弥天空白 (mí tiān kòng bái, translated as “Empty as the sky”). For Chinese speakers, this phrase could invoke an immediate association with the original idiom 弥天大谎 (mí tiān dà huǎng), which emerges in a later stanza—“As empty as a sky-high lie”. Between stanzas, Che Qianzi creates a stronger echo using the existing idiom and its unconventional variations.
In Che Qianzi’s poetry, attributes of words change, as if he is leading the readers to enter a world which Roland Barthes refers to as a journey “to undo our own ‘reality’ under the effect of other formulations, other syntaxes; to discover certain unsuspected positions of the subject in utterance…”
Reading Che Qianzi’s poetry harks back to distant epochs, and with his experimental and avant-garde poetry, he portrays a landscape that harnesses the essence of the Chinese language to its most poetic nature. In every possible way, he presents his readers a poetic world and a multi-faceted reality. He traces back to the beginning of the time, when Chinese writing has been created, and brings the lost “poetic” even in onomatopoetic words back to the 21st century. It is such an inspiration to experience this volume, including the silence, all being put there in the kaleidoscope for the reader to turn, in the meanwhile, the poet whispers in the ear: “Look at the silence you see —”
How to cite: Müller, Yu. “Look at the Silence You See: A Review of Che Qianzi’s No Poetry” Cha: An Asian Literary Journal, 26 Jan. 2021, chajournal.blog/2021/01/26/no-poetry/.
Yu Müller is an interpreter and translator. Occasionally she trains machines to replace herself but, more regularly, she is an irreplaceable Mandarin Chinese teacher. Her poems are seen in Voice & Verse Poetry Magazine, Just a Coin’s Worth of Blue, and her literary translations includes Li Qing Zhao: Spring Hides in the Little Room. She has lived in furnaces across China, Middle East, and is currently chilling in Germany. Visit her website for more information.