[REVIEW] “Seeing Sounds and Tasting the Words: Reviewing Xi Xi’s 𝑁𝑜𝑡 𝑊𝑟𝑖𝑡𝑡𝑒𝑛 𝑊𝑜𝑟𝑑𝑠” by Jennifer Anne Eagleton

{Return to Cha Review of Books and Films.}

Xi Xi (author), Jennifer Feeley (translator), Not Written Words, Zephyr Press and MCCM Creations, 2016. 152 pgs.

Charles Bernstein in his essay in Close Listening: Poetry and the Performed Word states that “unsounded poetry remains inert marks on a page, waiting to be able to be called into use by saying, or hearing, the words aloud”, implying that the audible human voice of the poet/reader (at poetry readings) brings the vibrant internal sounds of poetry to life, and that we gain a greater understanding of and an extra dimension to poems by hearing them read aloud. Perhaps so, but Xi Xi’s poems in this bilingual volume covering decades-long work, have such a musicality and playfulness about them, that they almost take tangible audible form, without any need for a human voice. They have their own.

This voice appears in “stereo” as this is a bilingual volume with the Chinese and English text of each poem facing each other, forming a “dialogue” of sorts. In this fashion, we see how the poet has set out her work on the page and how it is accommodated in English to fit into the different natures of that second language. For readers who don’t know Chinese, they can at least get an idea of the shape of the poem if not the compromises and alterations that have to be made to fit different grammatical “clothes”.

I started reading these poems and, as a reader of Chinese, started to wonder why translator Jennifer Feeley had made certain choices in her translation, before realising there was a helpful section at the back of the book explaining some of them. This was extremely helpful and would also be a good learning tool for fledgling literary translators, showing you can be faithful to the work even if compromises have to be made.

A major thread through these poems is language itself. The title of the collection comes from the poem “What I am Thinking of Is Not Written Words” 我想到的不是文字 (p. 33) and reiterates the “slipperiness” of words in their ambiguity, that they cannot capture all of one’s thoughts and feelings (although readers of Xi Xi’s poem may disagree, in that she brings meanings forwards beyond the words alone). Her poems constantly challenge and subvert linguistic convention and how language shapes our thinking. Through a series of playful linguistic experiments in Chinese, Xi Xi explores the relation between written words and their meanings through audio and visual dimensions (this is poetry in 3D).

The following poems particularly resonate with me as an applied linguist/discourse analyst and a forever-student of the Chinese language.

  • In “Can We Say” 可不可以說 (pp. 10-11) she intentionally mismatches nouns with classifiers, (a caucus of cucarachas / a hamlet of hams / a sandwich of heroes), giving us new ways of thinking about collectivities, and screwing our conception of things, bringing in news—for example a “caucus of cucarachas” conjures the incomprehensibility of politicians talking over one another in contestation.
  • “Excerpts from a Feminist Dictionary” 女性主義字典抽樣 (pp. 66-67) is gendering and de-gendering—making fun of how language can be limited, but Xi Xi finds a way that perhaps “we” is a better pronoun than gendered ones. Or perhaps the poet just wants to laugh about how we try to fit language to particular, rather uncomfortable norms?
  • The tiger in “A Stripped Tiger in a Field of Green Grass” 綠草叢中一斑斕老虎 (pp. 72-73), literally “hides” in onomatopoeia representing the creatures of nature—playing on the physicality of words and their sounds. This is both a visual and aural poem.
  • Xi Xi’s discussion of translation from “Reading Translations of the Closing Couplet of Yeats’ ‘Among School Children’” 讀葉慈《在學童中間》中譯末二行 (pp.132-135) is a succinct primer on the translation process, being “simply transitions”, no one translation being the same, each bringing something to the translation table, so to speak, there being no definitive translation. The more the better, she seems to imply.
  • Written on the flyleaf of a Gary Snyder Poetry Collection (pp. 136-139), “Your gaze at last shifts East” is a kind of story of how Snyder “became” the Zen poet “Cold Mountain”, and is also perhaps a critique of the sacredness of Western poetic forms and how an understanding of China, as reflected in poetry that can be truly given essence if feeling, is given free rein over stylistic conventions.

The width and breadth of the subject matter of the poems in the collection is stunning. Readers will find references to French New Wave cinema (“At Marienbad” 在馬倫堡, p. 4), the Book of Songs (“Pebble” 礫石, pp. 52-53), Tang poems (“Moon” 月亮, pp. 110-111), English metaphysical poems (“Aria” 詠歎調, pp. 124-125), Allen Ginsberg’s poem “A Supermarket in California” (“Supermarket” 超級市場, pp. 128-129) in her writing, to name just a few.

Xi Xi’s poems often deal with light-hearted topics of daily life. Her voice is curious, questioning and playful. When she writes about political topics as in “June” 六月, which is about Tiananmen Square in 1989 (pp. 102-103) or the Middle East (“Driving through Palestinian Refugee Camps” 車過巴勒斯坦難民營, pp. 112-113), her narrative voice becomes more solemn and open, employing a straightforward manner. I have heard her work described as “fairy-tale realism” and “urchin style”—which is also characteristic of her fiction. The introduction to the volume by Jennifer Feeley helpfully provides context on Xi Xi’s life and literary history.

The work of Xi Xi sometimes seems deceptively simple, but this simplicity actually contains complexity of meaning and is worth multiple readings. Feeley’s excellent translations extends and ably captures the spirit and language play contained within. Reading these poems, we become synesthetes: we see sounds and taste the words.

Also see this review in Cha:

How to cite: Eagleton, Jennifer Anne. “Seeing Sounds and Tasting the Words: Reviewing Xi Xi’s Not Written Words.” Cha: An Asian Literary Journal, 10 Feb. 2021, chajournal.blog/2021/02/10/not-written-words/.

Jennifer Anne Eagleton.jpg

Jennifer Anne Eagleton, a Hong Kong resident since October 1997, is a committee member of the Hong Kong Democratic Foundation and a Civic Party member. She has been a close observer of Hong Kong politics since her arrival in the city. She was an adviser to the University of Hong Kong’s “Designing Democracy Hong Kong” project (2011-2013), and in 2012 completed a PhD on how Hong Kong talks about democracy using metaphor. Jennifer has written a number of language-related articles for Hong Kong Free Press and is currently compiling a book combining Hong Kong culture, photography, and political metaphor. A previous president of the Hong Kong Women in Publishing Society, Jennifer is also a part-time tutor of stylistics/discourse analysis at OUHK as well as a freelance writer, researcher, and editor on cultural topics. In her spare time she collects Hong Kong political pamphlets and artefacts.

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