Che Qianzi (author), Yunte Huang (translator), No Poetry: Selected Poems of Che Qianzi, Polymorph Editions, 2019. 177 pgs.
The poems in No Poetry, written by Che Qianzi and translated by Yunte Huang, were described by the poet Forrest Gander as “hilariously understated acts of sabotage”. What are they sabotaging? Not poetry itself (though its title may suggest so), but the conventions and expectations that revolve around it.
No Poetry, which was shortlisted for the 2020 Lucien Stryk Asian Translation Prize, does not care for playing by the rules. Its poems, which tend toward free verse, are uninterested in structured forms and regular stanzas. They call themselves haikus and ignore the syllable count (“Of Early Spring: A Haiku”). They largely refuse intangible, romantic abstractions; instead, they root themselves in concrete and tangible images. They also rarely default to common poetic symbols and motifs, preferring to enact a visual vocabulary of their own that spans a host of animals—spiders, crickets, roosters, dogs, parrots, horses, fleas, ants, monkeys, swallows, fish, and so on—and unexpected assemblages between snow, ship and black hair (“Evolution”), blue hills, green waters and half-purple alfalfa beds (“A Hand-Copied Paperback”), or Peking Opera fiddles, elephants and pomegranates (“The South and the Alley”). No Poetry’s lush, expansive and indiscriminate character suggests that no single image seems to be favoured over another, and that, more crucially, no combination of images is too strange for poetry. There is no default, and there is no hierarchy.
Amongst its running list of deviances, perhaps No Poetry’s greatest act of refusal is its refusal to be sophisticated. This can be seen in how, besides not defaulting to or favouring classically beautiful images that often encompass the pastoral (such as fields, sky, forest, flowers, fruit), astrological and extra-terrestrial (such as the sun or moon, planets, stars) and traditionally romantic (such as roses, rain, cheek, eyes), No Poetry does not shy away from the crude. From “[t]he ignorant woman [who] suddenly feels sexy” (“No Poetry (Selections)”) to the speaker who “reach[es] orgasm” when fed “‘White Bunny’ candy,” (“Made in Shanghai”) to “[the] cockroach [which] looks far at the backyard garbage dump” (“Invention”), it welcomes the mundane and variously taboo. In other words, it ushers in and houses aspects of life that tend to be inherited by the poor and/or working-class. In doing so the collection rejects the elitist leanings of the institution of poetry, where, in its aesthetic preference for the classically beautiful images mentioned above, images of poor and/or working class lives are often omitted or denied. This extends, entangles and aligns with No Poetry indiscriminate use of images, which brings about images such as a “[c]ricket… [h]ammering nails” (“Humans”) or the juxtaposition of “yellow buttocks” and “an apple” (“Lessons of a Plaster Statue”). The classically beautiful and mundane or crude are placed on equal footing. This not only reconstitutes the crude and mundane as poetry, but also, in the manner of the postmodern, collapses the boundaries between what is high- and low-class.
The dissolution of poetry’s classist conventions is compounded by No Poetry’s use of bathos. In “Plain as Speech”, which begins with “the end” and ends with “the middle,” tension “meanders” rather than building up to a release. In “No Poetry (Selections)”, in which we leap from “[t]he suburban train” to “[f]ish lay[ing] eggs”, to “a kingdom of green grass on the moon”, images are so disparate and loosely associated that it is hard for them to accumulate tension at all. “Poetry”, which declares in its opening that “[f]inding a poem/ [i]s more important/ [t]han finding a poet” continues building tension in two further tercets where “[t]he poem has abandoned/ [t]he poet” and the poem speaks. However, it concludes with a turn to the mundane and trivial: “Under the bed/ There is a slipper”. There are poems that offer catharsis, such as “The Rider and the Horse”, but for the most part, Che’s poems do not allow for climax or release. The anticlimactic is favoured in a way that centres the mundane and disparate, offering a rhythm that feels more aligned with the uneven realities of everyday life—which rarely runs in clean dramatic arcs—than your typically well-written poem.
Crucially, in its bathos, No Poetry destabilises the general consensus, however flawed, that poetry should be written to convey deep philosophical truths. This does not mean that such truths will not surface, but rather that poetry should not be too serious or self-important in attempting to convey such sentiments. A good example of this might be “A Group Photo of the 20th Century”. Despite the inclusion of “20th Century” in the title, which feels somewhat grand, the body of the poem reads simply: “‘Ka—/ cha!’/ One more, ‘Ka—” with a large space between the first and second lines that fills about half the page. The poem does not mention or describe any historical events; it is largely unemotional; it literally depicts the taking of a photograph. It could be any photograph of the 20th century, even, since it is not “the” but “[a] [g]roup [p]hoto”. Thus, “A Group Photo of the 20th Century” is a poem that is literally what it says it is.
This tongue-in-cheek literality characterises the two key through-lines of No Poetry. The first through-line is the return of poetry to its fundamental material qualities by engaging with the visual, spatial and aural possibilities of words, particularly Chinese characters. In “A Character Resembling an Insect”, the Chinese character for “a member”, which looks like an insect facing upwards, is used as a base unit to form a triangle on the page. The triangle is formed by a repetition of the character, with one character on the first line, two in the second line, and so on for nine lines. As such, the poem itself is a snowballing repetition of a single word, and, as prompted by its title, becomes a visual experience where the pictographic quality of the character is emphasized. What we’re looking at is somewhat like a compact swarm of insects. Similarly, the poem that follows this one, titled “A National Summer”, employs the Chinese character for “fly” (the insect) is used as a base unit which is scattered across the page, mimicking a smattering of flies buzzing haphazardly in a room. The poem here becomes especially spatial in its effect, where the page of words is akin to a room of flies, an effect which is echoed in “An Antique Screen”. “Chinese Character Comic Strip” takes this to a micro level by delightfully taking single Chinese characters as complete comic strip panels which depict scenes such as the Jade King lying in bed with a flea. Word is rendered as an image in and of itself, as well as a base unit or stroke with which a larger image might be drawn.
The aural possibilities of words are also teased out in No Poetry, such as in its use of puns or homonyms in “Handle”, or its wordplay in “Coming and Going”. Just as with the pictographic qualities previously discussed, No Poetry’s presentation of the aural qualities of Mandarin is not a new revelation. We know these things, whether consciously or intuitively. What No Poetry does is make apparent what is already there.
No Poetry’s persistence in stating the obvious and yet overlooked or forgotten continues in its second key thread: metatextual poems which elucidate the nature of producing, structuring, printing and distributing text—or, in other words, the material and structural conditions within which poetry or text in general is housed. The first sign of this is in the collection’s “blackout” poems. I use parentheses because these poems are not the result of blacking words out on an existing text, but a poem intentionally written with certain characters obscured by black boxes. In “In the End Was the Night”, a Chinese character is “blacked” out in each line, leaving behind a list of body parts. However, in its final line, the rules of the poem are reconfigured as one and a half characters are obscured, leaving half a character behind for the reader. What is expressed by this approach to writing a poem? Perhaps it might be read as an act of self-censorship. It also emphasises to readers that the act of writing is a series of decisions on the part of the writer as to what is finally read, and also what is omitted. For every word that is shown, another has been discarded or obscured from view.
Metatextuality intensifies as we travel further into the collection, becoming the hinge upon which the whole of No Poetry might be said to swing. There are too many examples I could address, but perhaps a list of poem titles is as telling as the detailed analysis of any poem. Spanning names such as “A Hand-Copied Paperback”, “A Random Note”, “Poetry”, “Note Papers (Selections)”, “Erroneous Pages”, “A Poetry Collection Titled ‘Notes’ (Selections)” and “No Poetry (Selections)”, Che’s poems continually avoid lyrical and metaphorical titles in favour of functional ones that name the materiality of paper and writing. In their self-referentiality they prompt the reader to think more deeply about how poetry is written, transferred, copied, printed, curated and distributed between readers and cultures.
Given all of the attempts made in No Poetry to return poetry to the simple, plain and literal, it may be surprising to say that the collection is revelatory—but it is. What emerges from the insolent reverence or loving anarchy of No Poetry are poems that verge upon aphorisms, poems whose evasion of drama and loyalty to the literal and material in fact create expansive room for surprise, poetry and sentiment to arise. With a spirit which aligns with the Taoist notion of 无为而治, which translates loosely as (re)solving something by making no effort, No Poetry employs a kind of passivity toward the revelatory possibilities of poetry which quickly allows them to emerge. By lingering instead of rushing, movement is created. By not taking things seriously, the most truthful or enlightening revelations arrive. By resisting the codified norms of poetry, its fundamental nature is revealed.
The irreverent and Chinese-specific ways in which language is used in these poems renders their translations especially fascinating and unusual. Perhaps it might be concluded quite easily that many technical elements of Che’s poems do not survive the process of translation into English, given that he focuses on the linguistic structures and sounds of Chinese, which differ quite drastically from that of the English language. Visual poems such as “A Character Resembling an Insect” are left more or less untranslated as images in their own right, while the homonyms of “Handle” disappear in English. Interestingly, if one is able to read between the languages, the process of translation also destabilises authorship. For example, Che’s use of “不二法门”, an idiom which means there is no other way or method to do something, is translated literally, word for word, as “Buer Temple Gate” in English. It is hard to tell if this is Huang revealing the wordplay in the original text (where it is ambiguous), or if this is Huang also adopting Che’s spirit of returning language its root features through play.
Ultimately, given the nature of these poems, it follows that compromise, which is inevitable in any process of translation, is especially central to the process of translating No Poetry. It reminds me of another function of translation, which is not simply to attempt to reproduce a text in a different language than its own, but also, as Yuri Herrera wrote in Signs Preceding the End of the World, to “make the attributes of both [languages] resound”. As he writes,
The double lives of each poem in No Poetry, then, are not merely cousins facing each other across open pages, but also a way by which the English language is bent to accommodate the needs of Chinese, producing a third mode that rests between them.
How to cite: Yee, Ang Kia. “Loving Anarchy: A Review of No Poetry.” Cha: An Asian Literary Journal, 02 Feb. 2021, https://chajournal.blog/2021/02/02/anarchy/.
Ang Kia Yee is a writer and artist whose interdisciplinary practice is rooted in poetry but spans and cross-pollinates theatre, performance art, pottery, poetry, fiction, reviews and essays. Guided by romance, devotion and a fascination with the collapse of formal boundaries, she gravitates towards transdisciplinary processes that involve the distortion and co-mutation of mediums, languages and forms, with a particular interest in the acts of translation that take place in the process. Her writing can also be found in Quarterly Literary Review Singapore, Stand Magazine, Plural Art Mag and so-far. Visit her website for more information.