[REVIEW] “Myriad Powers of Words: Duo Duo’s ๐‘Š๐‘œ๐‘Ÿ๐‘‘๐‘  ๐‘Ž๐‘  ๐บ๐‘Ÿ๐‘Ž๐‘–๐‘›” by Liang Luo

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Duo Duo (author), Lucas Klein (translator), Words as Grain: New and Selected Poems. Yale University Press, 2021. 246 pgs.

What follows can only be read as an impressionistic fleeting encounter between a reader and the poems in this collection at a particular moment in time and space: not a particularly fortunate moment, but one emotionally charged and psychologically reverberating, cathartic and healing.    

Written by one of the most celebrated contemporary Chinese poets Duo Duo ๅคšๅคš (1951- ) and translated and edited by the award-winning translator Lucas Klein, Words as Grain ่ฏๅฆ‚่ฐท็ฒ’ moves from Duo Duoโ€™s most recent poems back to his earliest ones, with four sections, each forming a period of his lifeโ€™s journeys and taking its title from one of his poems of that period. โ€œThe Force of Forging Words (2004-2018)โ€ collects every single poem written upon Duo Duoโ€™s return to China from 15 years of exile abroad. โ€œAmsterdamโ€™s River (1989-2004)โ€ includes selected poems written during the period of his exile, mainly in the Netherlands. โ€œDelusion is the Master of Reality (1982-1988)โ€ highlights selected poems written during Chinaโ€™s โ€œreform and opening upโ€ period of the 1980s. โ€œInstruction (1972-1976),โ€ the last of the four sections, features some of Duo Duoโ€™s earliest collected poems written in his twenties during the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976).   

Duo Duoโ€™s 2004 poem โ€œIn Classโ€, which is about how words may be forged, remade, and granting words agency and centre-stage in his poetry, asks the reader to โ€œlet the words have Sundays of their ownโ€ (8), while his 2005 poem โ€œBetween Two Chestnut Forests Is a Plot of Arable Landโ€ laments that โ€œmy parents are now two rows of trees with no complaintsโ€ (12). Words, in these instances, are evasive, they may want to take days off, may not be able to escape death, but may also be left behind and have a life of their own. As the final line of the 2010 poem โ€œDrinking Blood in the Wordless Zoneโ€ states, โ€œwords being whatโ€™s said, wordsโ€™ / remnants, saying everythingโ€ (40).

With words at the centre of Duo Duoโ€™s poetry, they take on multiple facets of interesting personas. Words can be incomprehensible, as in the 1986 poem simply titled โ€œWordsโ€ ๅญ— (here the English translation did not distinguish between characters ๅญ—and words/phrases ่ฏ), โ€œthey are autonomous / clambering together / to resist their own meaningsโ€ (214). The poet finds โ€œno home in wordsโ€ in a 2012 poem, and the impenetrability of words continues in a 2013 poem โ€œSpeechless Between Partnersโ€: โ€œwords, in a place far away / are equivalent, but do not meet / the attainment of meaning makes them transformโ€ (77), quite a fitting, meta-portrayal of the difficulties and rewards in any processes of interpretation and translation.

When words fail, image endures, though such dilemmas are again resolutely expressed and confronted in words. Duo Duo continues to highlight psychological and physical constraints in his texts, a sentiment we could all personally identify with, especially in our current state of physical immobility and psychological exhaustion. But Duo Duo also leaves ample room for visual imagination, such as in โ€œIn the Roomโ€ (2006), โ€œyou cannot walk out of this empty room/but see the mountain as a drifting cloudโ€ (16), and in โ€œThe Sunlight in the Art Studioโ€ from the same year: โ€œthere is still tragedy / but then there is still the landscapeโ€ (17). In โ€œCupping Moonlight Through a Crack in the Doorโ€ไปŽ้—จ็ผๆŽฌๆŽฅๆœˆๅ…‰ (โ€œcuppingโ€ is quite a vivid translation for ๆŽฌๆŽฅ), also written in 2006, Duo Duo again highlights the unfathomability of texts, โ€œheld in these hands / the palms are written over with words unknownโ€, as well as the physicality and sensuality of images, with a close-up on the threads of lights (19). Such a difficulty and even inability to articulate psychological and mental sufferings in words persists in โ€œAnother Phase in Ageโ€ (2007): โ€œin the collected works of pain / you are collected, we are harvested/you are separated anew, we are quarantined/the bulk future / runs again toward illiterate fearโ€”โ€ (22).

In addition to probing the dynamics of words and images, Duo Duo is sensitive to multiple sensory stimulations and multidirectional interactions among sounds, images and words. In โ€œGrassโ€”Headwatersโ€ (2007) he can โ€œhear the copper pain in our voices / leave behind the shape of a valleyโ€ (23); in โ€œThe Statue of the Reading Girlโ€ (2008) he can see โ€œlilac blinked an eye / your feet were sticking out of stone, silently / just then I heard music/ten toes digging into sand/fell and rose like piano keysโ€ (27). The dynamic interactions between voices and silence, and thought and silence become a central theme in Duo Duoโ€™s poetry, and he is determined to โ€œlet the dialogue between thought and silence continueโ€ (โ€œReading Great Poemsโ€, 2011, 49), resulting in words โ€œburst[ing] through the foreheadโ€ (โ€œGreeting the Words That Burst Through the Foreheadโ€, 2011, 55).

Such sensory stimulations open up words and poetry to other arts for Duo Duo: โ€œcalligraphy is a matter of mind / the way a word is the memory of line / a painting is silent, hiding inside its substance / from pain, that shaped spirit / the severed nerve is made to moveโ€ (โ€œThe Shang Yang Exhibitโ€, 2012, 57). Such a sensation intimately echoes what was recorded in the โ€œGreat Prefaceโ€ of Shijing ่ฏ—ๅคงๅบ, where words and speeches, and singing and dancing, are woven together into an integral network of expressive, intermedial performance. Duo Duo continues to explore such a performative intermediality in his poetry, as in โ€œJust a Few Booksโ€ (2014): โ€œwe didnโ€™t understand / what music was / through the odd noises of word groupings / a few books rise / in the convection of the wordโ€™s linked prayers/let be become beโ€ (89); or in โ€œNo Stars in the Sky, No Lights on the Bridgeโ€ (2015): โ€œa landscape painting walks to its own margins/shadows like smoke or spirits, still movingโ€ (104).

Such sensory mediations also lead to philosophical musings, as in โ€œCome from Two Prisonsโ€ (2007): โ€œdistance is only the outcome of measurementโ€ (24), and โ€œToward the Borges Bookshopโ€ (2008): โ€œmyth never regenerates / time overflows from a bowl it seems to have met / before, teaching passersby/not to look at dirty water, but to notice tragedy:/every going in is a going astray / and other than going astray, there will be no going inโ€ (26). In addition to Western influences, such musings also remind readers of many recurring threads in the Chinese philosophical traditions, in particular Daoism, as in โ€œNo Dialogue Before Writingโ€ (2013): โ€œthe more speech, the less drama / โ€ฆ / all surplus originates in lack / in human nature, there is no mileage / in health, no life / endlessness is not enough illusion/taking shape only when youโ€™re absentโ€ (76), where one cannot help being reminded of Zhuangzi.

One recurring theme in such philosophical musings is a return to the myriad powers of words, as a means to record, rewrite, remember, return, recognise, redress, and restart: โ€œtime is not here, but amid permission/waiting for these words to be dug up/to be preserved, above all to be begunโ€ (โ€œNo Answer from the Depthsโ€, 2010, 42). In the title poem for the first section of Words as Grain, โ€œThe Force of Forging Wordsโ€ ้“ธ่ฏไน‹ๅŠ› (2014), the transgressive energy of words is highlighted in the last line, โ€œif words can spill beyond their own bounds/only there, to test the hearing of the endโ€ (93). Such an energy can also be prophetic, as in โ€œFrom an Unfamiliar Forestโ€ from the same year, โ€œthese trees will sway in words / speaking with whatโ€™s yet to arriveโ€ (85).

These philosophical musings lead to deeper meta-reflections on the evolving figure of the poet and the act of translation, as in โ€œPoetโ€ (1973): โ€œdraped in moonlight, I am upheld as a frail king/letting sentences like a swarm of bees rush inโ€ (239), and โ€œWalking Toward Winterโ€ (1989): โ€œfollowers in a funeral procession waver east and west / so far away, translationโ€™s sounds in Mayโ€™s grain wavesโ€ (126). At the same time, the impotence of words again surfaces in these self-introspections, as in โ€œWriting That Canโ€™t Let Go of Its Grief Examines the Cotton Fieldโ€ (2000): โ€œbronze has exiled the witnessโ€™s tongue / grass relates the incompetence of wordsโ€ (170), in โ€œNo Mourning Language / The Report of a Canon Is the Start of Comprehensionโ€ (2003): โ€œlet history lie, let the deaf monopolize listening / words load nothingโ€ (182), and in โ€œIn a Few Modified Sea-Jumping Soundsโ€ from the same year, โ€œpain has more clarity than language/the sound of farewell travels farther than that of goodbyeโ€ (184).

In this context, โ€œwords as grainโ€ emerges in vivid configurations and comes alive as a central metaphor for the forging and remaking of poetry and life, which involves planting seeds, picking weeds, and harvesting grain in the fields, among many more layers of a complex web of meanings. In his poetry over four decades, Duo Duo connects grain, weeds, and fields in his musings on life and death, lonesomeness and expression, speeches and silence, and emptiness and harvest. โ€œThe Landscape of Terms Is Not for Viewingโ€ ่ฏ่ฏญ้ฃŽๆ™ฏ, ไธไธบ่ง‚็œ‹ , from 2012 (translating่ฏ่ฏญ as โ€œtermsโ€ here may not be as clear as โ€œwordsโ€ or โ€œphrasesโ€ in the context of this book) is particularly intriguing in this context. It stipulates, โ€œlonesomeness is grain, you cannot not be there/when expensive paper leaves no trace/no words on it, no you / only what cannot be erased can be new/only whatโ€™s most real is worth buryingโ€ (59). Another fascinating poem, โ€œTalking the Whole Wayโ€ from the same year, further grants words agency and connects words and grain: โ€œbehind you, words knot their own chain/may emptiness harvest good wheat/thereโ€™s a limit to water, but not to fluidityโ€ (60). Such a connection is not something new for Duo Duo. One can trace his connecting words and grain in โ€œNews of Liberationโ€™s Exile by Springโ€ (1982), where he articulates his writing and its crystallsation in the style of planting seeds, picking weeds, and harvesting grain, with a heavy dose of contemplative self-analysis, โ€œin the deeper deeper trust in story/we plant every day, pick every day/having used the fields and taken their secrets/their used lust/was the grain we saved each dayโ€ (191).

Lucas Klein, in his translatorโ€™s introduction, asks to what degree contextualisation is useful in reading Duo Duoโ€™s poetry (or any poetry), and arranges his selections and translations to move from present into the past, as he considers the recent poems less culturally situated, hence more accessible, than older poems for the non-Chinese reader. Klein continues to emphasise the tension between reading Duo Duoโ€™s poetry โ€œfor the argument they make about eternal conceptsโ€ or โ€œlooking for the contextsโ€ฆand seeing how the contexts might ground what the poems sayโ€ (xvi) and finds in Duo Duoโ€™s poetry a preference for the former.

Klein finds the questionsโ€”whether the poems are best read as tied to their contexts or as independent works of the imaginationโ€”are the same ones we must ask of translations: whether they are best approached as if tethered to the texts they are representing, or can they take on lives of their own in a new language? He hopes to answer yes to both questions in both cases (xxiii). On the one hand, Klein believes in the potential of poems in translation to take on lives of their own, on the other hand, he also demands accuracy. His goal as both translator and compiler of the poems included in this collection, according to the translatorโ€™s introduction, โ€œis to let Duo Duoโ€™s style come throughโ€ (xxiv).

As readers, we are fortunate to have Kleinโ€™s meticulous work and expert guidance in translating and compiling this excellent volume of Duo Duoโ€™s poems, in close dialogue with and filling important gaps in previous translations and scholarly studies. As a โ€œnewโ€ anthology, Words as Grain collects every poem Duo Duo has published since his last collection in English translation from 2002, which includes the full section of โ€œThe Force of Forging Wordsโ€ (2004-2018), accounting for roughly half of the poems translated in this volume. Kleinโ€™s powerful translation of these newest poems itself is a major contribution to teaching and researching contemporary Chinese poetry in the English-speaking world. As a โ€œselectedโ€ anthology, Words as Grain also includes a selection of Duo Duoโ€™s poetry of the previous three decades, which contains both newly translated poems and poems retranslated by Klein for this volume, another major contribution to the field, as these selections not only carefully contextualise the most recent poems, but also demonstrate Kleinโ€™s sensitive approach to the two interpretative possibilities of Duo Duoโ€™s poetry and its English translation, unleashing the transgressive power of imagination in both poetry and translation while respecting their subtle linguistic exchanges and cultural contexts.

Anyone interested in contemporary anglophone poetry and contemporary Chinese culture will benefit from keeping this book by their side, as it is beautifully selected, translated, and produced. At a time when physical travel is severely restricted for many, Words as Grain, with its portable size, can serve as food for thought for our spiritual roaming, both at home and in the classroom, both virtually and in-person.       

How to cite: Luo, Liang. โ€œMyriad Powers of Words: Duo Duo’s Words as Grain.โ€ Cha: An Asian Literary Journal, 16 Sept. 2021, chajournal.blog/2021/09/16/review-duo-duo/.


Liang Luo is an associate professor of Chinese studies at the University of Kentucky. She is the author of The Avant-Garde and the Popular in Modern China (Michigan, 2014) and The Global White Snake (Michigan, 2021). She is working on a new book and documentary project, Profound Propaganda: The International Avant-Garde and Modern China.

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  1. Pingback: Liang Luo on Duo Duo’s Words as Grain | Notes on the Mosquito

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