In honor of the recent passing of Liu Xiaobo 刘晓波, here is a link to an old piece, which had slipped by without my noticing it when it was first published: Nick Admussen’s “Awkward, Diligent: Liu Xiaobo’s Love Poetry” for his wife, Liu Xia 刘霞. Admussen writes:
In addition to the essays that have made him famous, Xiaobo generally writes two kinds of poems. One, best represented in translation by Jeffrey Yang, is a series of poems written for the victims of the Tiananmen Square Massacre, often on the anniversaries of the event. The other is a series of poems addressed to Liu Xiaobo’s wife, Liu Xia—a number of these appear in English at the end of Yang’s translation, as well as in the collection No Enemies, No Hatred, which I helped translate. The elegies for Tiananmen are persistent, ritual, endlessly harsh: they display not only the cruelty and excess of the government reaction to peaceful protest, but Liu’s own sense of responsibility, loss, and helplessness. He writes, “Even if I have the courage / to be jailed again / it isn’t courage enough / to dig up corpses from memory.”
Xiaobo’s poems to his wife, though, are the most illuminating to me. During some of his stays in prison, he was able to write and send hundreds of poems and letters to Xia. These poems waver between public documents and interpersonal contact. They wheedle playfully: “. . . think of me as a cigarette / now to light, now to rub out / go ahead, smoke!” They reach out: “One letter is enough / for me to transcend everything and face / you to speak.” They often seem, implicitly or explicitly, to apologize: “Beloved / my wife / in this dust-weary world of / so much depravity / why do you / choose me alone to endure.” But they remonstrate and mock, too: a poem on Kant is dedicated to “Xia, who has never read Kant.” Taken together, the poetry enacts a love in progress, a need, a selfless drive to care for and support the beloved that is deeply tied to a simultaneous, frightening urge to manipulate and transform him or her for self-serving purposes.
Liu Xiaobo 刘晓波, human rights activist, 2010 Nobel Peace Prize laureate, and poet, died on July 13, 2017–less than a month after he was granted medical parole for a terminal liver cancer diagnosis.
Graywolf Press, which published his poetry and that of his wife Liu Xia 刘霞 in English translation, now has a page in commemoration of Liu. It links to a piece by Jeffrey Yang, translator of June Fourth Elegies 念念六四, and it quotes executive editor Jeff Shots saying, “we stand in sadness and in solidarity with poet and artist Liu Xia and their families, and those many still wrongfully imprisoned for exercising freedom of speech.”
The page also includes a statement by Jennifer Kronovet, co-translator of Liu Xia’s Empty Chairs 空椅子:
Liu Xiaobo and Liu Xia have been powerful symbols in the fight for democracy in China. But reading their poetry, one is reminded that in addition to being symbols, they are also real people, full of humor and insight and love for each other. I hope that Liu Xiaobo continues to be a powerful symbol in China and across the world, but I also hope that Liu Xia will have the chance someday to just be a person, free.
The Poetry Foundation has published “Bei Dao’s Beijing: The eminent Chinese poet on exile and his native city,” Julian Gewirtz’s review of City Gate, Open Up, the newly published memoirs of Bei Dao 北岛, translated by Jeffrey Yang. The review also weaves in decades of Bei Dao’s poetry, creating a compelling narrative of his development and longstanding interests. It ends:
Faced with the weight of history and the force of politics, Bei Dao’s struggle to “refute the Beijing of today” and “rebuild” his Beijing ultimately—perhaps inevitably—proves unattainable in either poetry or prose. He writes in his memoir, “This long-consuming task of rebuilding and reconstruction—I feel it’s almost impossible to achieve.” Yet this does not undermine the value of the attempt. In the 1994 interview, he elaborated on this point: “On the one hand poetry is useless. It can’t change the world materially. On the other hand it is a basic part of human existence… [and] what makes human beings human.” His yearning for a lost Beijing might fit the same rubric: a desire at once “useless,” “impossible,” and intensely human. “Writing is a renaming of the world,” he has said, and his memoir, like his poetry, is fundamentally an act of “renaming.” In a recent poem, “Black Map” (translated by Weinberger), Bei Dao imagines a final salute to his lost city:
Beijing, let me
toast your lamplights
let my white hair lead
the way through the black map
as though a storm were taking you to fly
I wait in line until the small window
shuts: O the bright moon
I go home—reunions
are one less
fewer than goodbyes
In “A Poet Who Survived Mao,” Wenguang Huang reviews City Gate, Open Up 城门开, the new memoir by Bei Dao 北岛, for the Wall Street Journal. Huang writes:
In 18 essays, crafted with poetic precision and enriched by Jeffrey Yang’s assiduous translation, Bei Dao depicts a cast of memorable characters with humor and insight: a tenacious family nanny always on the lookout for revolutionary opportunities; a talented schoolmate who sneaked across the border to Burma to join guerrilla forces; and the author’s father, a former government propaganda official and a moody authoritarian at home. Bei Dao devotes a long chapter to the universal theme of a troubled father-son relationship.
“City Gate, Open Up” made me want to retrieve my old college journal filled with the poet’s quotable stanzas. When I called my family back in China, however, I found out that it had been tossed out long ago. “There’s no room for old stuff,” a family member said indifferently. That now seems to be the national slogan. It only makes Bei Dao’s book more poignant.
In honor of Burton Watson’s passing, I am collecting statements and memories from friends and fans, to be posted as they come in. The following comment is from Jeffrey Yang, poet, translator, and editor at New York Review Books and New Directions:
For me, Burton Watson exists as an emanation of one of the five Dainichi Nyorai, specifically Ashuku Nyorai, residing east of the Diamond Realm, manifesting enlightenment through his translations, which reflect the fluidity of water and mirror-like wisdom, exciting the blood with their earth-touching music. I wasn’t fortunate enough to meet him in the flesh. His presence assumed more ethereal proportions in my mind, expanding and evolving with each new book of his I read. His selection of Su Tung-p‘o poems served as a direct model for my first translation, East Slope, that I worked on in graduate school. His Chuang Tzu I found in a discarded box of books in the English Department and have kept near me ever since, along with his translations of Kumarajiva’s version of the Vimalakirti Sutra and Sima Qian’s Records. I’ve long taken to heart that in his book of fu rhyme-prose he turned to the art of the sports announcer for primary inspiration. Most recently I’ve been reading his marvelous Record of Miraculous Events, translations of the setsuwa genre of anecdotal “spoken stories,” again setting a standard for what a classical text can be (i.e. karmically relevant, entertaining, filled with miracles). With awe and reverence one looks at all the books he’s published over the decades, knowing that the breadth and depth of his classical devotions is matched by that rare quality of consistent worth—nothing rushed, every line turned over and over in the mind. Master Watson’s work can be summed up in the three incidental words Milton used to describe Poetry and upon which Coleridge based all his dicta on the subject: “simple, sensuous, passionate.” No wonder his secret to translating classical Chinese poetry was never a secret: Read as much contemporary American poetry as possible, for that is the idiom he chose to translate into.
In his presence, I recite this verse of praise from his Vimalakirti:
Free of worldly attachments, like the lotus blossom, constantly you move within the realm of emptiness and quiet; you have mastered the marks of all phenomena, no blocks or hindrances; like the sky, you lean on nothing—we bow our heads!
Contact me if you would like to add your own remembrance.
Publishers Weekly has a brief review of Bei Dao’s 北岛 memoirs about growing up in Beijing, City Gate, Open Up 城门开, translated by Jeffrey Yang (forthcoming from New Directions). It reads:
In this ruminative, lyrical memoir, revered Chinese poet Bei Dao (The Rose of Time) reflects on his father, the Beijing of his youth, and China’s Cultural Revolution. Returning to Beijing after over two decades away, including 13 years of exile from China, the poet was inspired to record his memories of a city he found drastically altered, reflecting on an idyllic childhood of hide-and-seek and ghost stories. He captures the unique timbres of street peddlers, and remembers treasuring a bowl of wonton soup during the Great Famine. There are comic tales as well: two rival cultural discussion groups coming to blows over a Paganini record; a protest of the middle school cafeteria’s less-than-stringent sanitation standards led by the poet as a swaggering youth. As he reached adulthood, the Revolution cast a pall: the Red Guards confiscated “counterrevolutionary” materials, and beatings and suicides became routine. In the final pages, Bei Dao recalls his complicated relationship with his father, whose illness brought Bei Dao back to Beijing after so many years. This is a nuanced account of China in the era of the Cultural Revolution, seen through one young man’s eyes. Since that young man became a poet, it is also beautifully textured, full of the sounds, sights, and scents of a Beijing that is no more.
Around age six or seven I composed a musical invention: to the sounds of car horns I hummed a tune in counterpoint. Together these two sounds defined the metropolis for me. As dream became reality, the proliferating noises of the metropolis (particularly the sounds of drills and jackhammers) tormented me to madness; after many long nights of fleeting sleep, I ultimately concluded that to the children of our agricultural empire, the so-called metropolis, the great city, has had little relation to their verbal creativity…
Jeffrey Yang, poet, editor, and translator of Uyghur and Chinese poetry (both classical and modern, including Liu Xiaobo’s 刘晓波June Fourth Elegies, Su Shi’s 蘇軾 East Slope, and Bei Dao’s 北岛 forthcoming memoir City Gate, Open Up) answers questions as part of Words Without Borders‘ “Translator Relay“:
You are a translator, but also an award-winning poet. Can you speak about how your work as a poet informs your translations? And in turn, do you find that your work as a translator informs your poetry?
I try not to dissect this back and forth too much as the two so naturally fit together, like Adam and Eve. Both require careful attention to the musical qualities of language. The two can also overtly overlap, in that translating a poem is akin to writing a poem in a new language, or when writing a poem includes translated lines from another language. Both practices thrive in obscurity and with patient tinkering at the minutest level of word and line. As the recent Nobel Laureate said fifty years ago, “People have one great blessing—obscurity.” Each revels in an economy of language while persisting outside of the day-to-day economy, where profit never ventures upon its threshold. The one feeds the other in body and spirit, as with the other arts.
An evening of reading and discussion with Xi Chuan and Eliot Weinberger, introduced by their New Directions editor Jeffrey Yang. This event is part of BookExpo America’s Global Market Forum Honoring China.
When: 7 pm, Friday, May 15, 2015
Where: Barnes & Noble Upper West Side
2289 Broadway, New York, NY 10024
The National Endowment for the Arts announced their Literary Translation Fellowships recently, with one of the fellowships going to Jeffrey Yang for his translation of City Gate Open Up 城門開, a “lyrical autobiography” by Bei Dao 北島. Here is the NEA’s announcement:
A $25,000 fellowship to Jeffrey Yang (Beacon, NY) to support the translation from the Chinese of City Gate Open Up, a lyrical autobiogaphy by poet Bei Dao. This project aims to translate the lyrical prose memoir of his childhood and adolescence in Beijing, where he was born in 1949. It is a book not only of the poet as a child, but of the metropolis itself, coming alive through the memories of its neighborhoods and residents, gardens, and temples, schools and music, and vibrant ways of life. Since the Tiananmen Square Massacre in 1989, [Bei] Dao had been living in forced exile, moving from country to country, forbidden by the Chinese government to return to his homeland. The compulsion to write this book began in 2001, when Dao was allowed back into China to see his sick father.
Click on the image above for more information about other fellowship winners, and to download The Art of Empathy, the NEA’s new collection of essays about the importance of literary translation.