Turner on Cheng and Métail from Calligrams


Cha has published Matt Turner’s review of two French studies of Chinese poetry, Michèle Métail’s Wild Geese Returning: Chinese Reversible Poems, translated by Jody Gladding, and the re-release of François Cheng’s Chinese Poetic Writing, translated from by Donald A. Riggs with classical Chinese poems translated by Jerome P. Seaton, released as part of the Calligrams series by New York Review Books and Chinese University Press.

Turner explains:

NYRB’s Calligrams series publishes titles relating to traditional Chinese literature and Euro-American modernism, calling to mind Guillaume Apollinaire’s book of visual poetry, Calligrammes (1918), and Ernest Fenollosa’s essay on the Chinese written language, “The Chinese Written Character as a Medium for Poetry” (1919). It should also call to mind Ezra Pound, who saw in Chinese literature the tools to “make it new.”

About the books, he writes that Cheng, “a Chinese-French structuralist who trained with Roland Barthes and Jacques Lacan—offers

that the Chinese written language has an emptiness or void at its heart; its written language demonstrates the shifting relationships of person to world, expressing ontological truths … Cheng states that these relationships translate into poetic images … Subject and object become a matter of language, in which the terms serve to reflect each other—not signifying themselves, but projecting outwards as a comprehensive image … Another way of saying this is that the poet and the poem do not unite, but refract each other.

As for Michèle Métail, “French sinologist and OuLiPo member,” her study of “reversible poems,” which “can be written in grids, in which all directions yield different readings or narratives; written in circles that have no discernible starting or ending points or be poems that, although written conventionally, can be read backwards, like palindromes”—reading one poem discussed by Métail, Turner writes:

The message is clear: lust is bad. Yet one has the sense that in a similar poem one could continue the permutations and end up with something very different. Perhaps that’s because of the “void” at the heart of the Chinese written language as much as the form of huiwenshi. The fine line between the “inside” of the poem and the “outside” of the poem functions as an image that refracts the world. So the question this poses is if this theory applies to literature in English today, to Chinese-language literature today, and if the theory can be implemented as a writing method, or only read backwards?

Click on the image above for the full review.