[REVIEW] “Seeing Sounds and Tasting the Words: Reviewing Xi Xi’s ๐‘๐‘œ๐‘ก ๐‘Š๐‘Ÿ๐‘–๐‘ก๐‘ก๐‘’๐‘› ๐‘Š๐‘œ๐‘Ÿ๐‘‘๐‘ ” 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 โ€œunsounded poetry remains inert marks on a page, waiting to be able to be called into use by saying, or hearing, the words aloudโ€, 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 Xiโ€™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 โ€œstereoโ€ as this is a bilingual volume with the Chinese and English text of each poem facing each other, forming a โ€œdialogueโ€ 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 donโ€™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 โ€œclothesโ€.

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 โ€œWhat I am Thinking of Is Not Written Wordsโ€ ๆˆ‘ๆƒณๅˆฐ็š„ไธๆ˜ฏๆ–‡ๅญ— (p. 33) and reiterates the โ€œslipperinessโ€ of words in their ambiguity, that they cannot capture all of oneโ€™s thoughts and feelings (although readers of Xi Xiโ€™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 โ€œCan We Sayโ€ ๅฏไธๅฏไปฅ่ชช (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 newsโ€”for example a โ€œcaucus of cucarachasโ€ conjures the incomprehensibility of politicians talking over one another in contestation.
  • โ€œExcerpts from a Feminist Dictionaryโ€ ๅฅณๆ€งไธป็พฉๅญ—ๅ…ธๆŠฝๆจฃ (pp. 66-67) is gendering and de-genderingโ€”making fun of how language can be limited, but Xi Xi finds a way that perhaps โ€œweโ€ 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 โ€œA Stripped Tiger in a Field of Green Grass” ็ถ ่‰ๅขไธญไธ€ๆ–‘ๆ–•่€่™Ž (pp. 72-73), literally โ€œhidesโ€ in onomatopoeia representing the creatures of natureโ€”playing on the physicality of words and their sounds. This is both a visual and aural poem.
  • Xi Xiโ€™s discussion of translation from โ€œReading Translations of the Closing Couplet of Yeatsโ€™ โ€˜Among School Childrenโ€™โ€ ่ฎ€่‘‰ๆ…ˆใ€Šๅœจๅญธ็ซฅไธญ้–“ใ€‹ไธญ่ญฏๆœซไบŒ่กŒ (pp.132-135) is a succinct primer on the translation process, being โ€œsimply transitionsโ€, 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), โ€œYour gaze at last shifts Eastโ€ is a kind of story of how Snyder โ€œbecameโ€ the Zen poet โ€œCold Mountainโ€, 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 (โ€œAt Marienbadโ€ ๅœจ้ฆฌๅ€ซๅ ก, p. 4), the Book of Songs (โ€œPebbleโ€ ็คซ็Ÿณ, pp. 52-53), Tang poems (โ€œMoonโ€ ๆœˆไบฎ, pp. 110-111), English metaphysical poems (โ€œAriaโ€ ่ฉ ๆญŽ่ชฟ, pp. 124-125), Allen Ginsbergโ€™s poem โ€œA Supermarket in Californiaโ€ (โ€œSupermarketโ€ ่ถ…็ดšๅธ‚ๅ ด, pp. 128-129) in her writing, to name just a few.

Xi Xiโ€™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 โ€œJuneโ€ ๅ…ญๆœˆ, which is about Tiananmen Square in 1989 (pp. 102-103) or the Middle East (โ€œDriving through Palestinian Refugee Campsโ€ ่ปŠ้Žๅทดๅ‹’ๆ–ฏๅฆ้›ฃๆฐ‘็‡Ÿ, pp. 112-113), her narrative voice becomes more solemn and open, employing a straightforward manner. I have heard her work described as โ€œfairy-tale realismโ€ and โ€œurchin styleโ€โ€”which is also characteristic of her fiction. The introduction to the volume by Jennifer Feeley helpfully provides context on Xi Xiโ€™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. Feeleyโ€™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:ย Eagleton, Jennifer Anne. โ€œSeeing Sounds and Tasting the Words: Reviewing Xi Xi’s Not Written Words.โ€ย 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 Kongโ€™s โ€œDesigning Democracy Hong Kongโ€ 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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