Xi Chuan’s “Books”

Looking at the tumblr posts in which Xi Chuan has been mentioned, I noticed an often-repeated, and re-tweeted, quote:

The lofty bookshelves sag
Under thousands of sleeping souls
Silence, hopeful—
Every time I open a book, a soul is awakened.

(It even shows up in Spanish, as well as German, above). It’s beautiful, and takes on a special weight in age of e-books–perhaps, ironically, why it has been spread so readily on the internet–and yet, interestingly, I could not place the quote. I knew it was not my translation (despite the fact that Goodreads thinks that it comes from my Tinfish chapbook Yours Truly & Other Poems), which means that Xi Chuan and I had not selected it for inclusion in Notes on the Mosquito, and I couln’t find it in Michael Day’s translations on the DACHS archive… so where did it come from, and how was it phrased in Xi Chuan’s Chinese?

 A bit more googling turned up the quote again as an epigraph to a chapter in Inkspell, by German  children’s author Cornelia Funke, which attributed the quote to “New Generation“–more than a hint that it might be from the Wang Ping-edited anthology, New Generation: Poems from China Today (Hanging Loose Press, 1999). And indeed, on pp. 145 – 146, in the poem “Books” 书籍, I found the source, as translated by Wang with Murat Nemet-Nejat.

And yet the quote as it’s been disseminated is not completely accurate–between lines two and three of the section another couplet is missing, which to my mind separate two moments of high lyricism and rescue the poem from overstated melodrama. At any rate, here is the poem in full as it appears in New Generation (click here for the poem in Chinese):


Books should be illuminated by torches,
just as the Incas illuminated their city.

Torches shone on its
woven fabric, pears, gold and silver utensils–

objects that time uses to express itself
from opposition to unity, revealing the secret of fate,

like Hercules and Plato
attracted by the same spring bee.

“All books are the same book,”
pale Mallarmé said with confidence.

All mistakes are the same mistake,
like Ptolemy’s research into earth and stars,

his precise calculations
that only led him to absurd conclusions.

Books create a space larger than books.
The life of fire ends in its own flame.

Emperor Qin Shi haunted the library hallway
and Aldous Huxley,

robbed of the past by a fire,
clarified the rest of his life in a single lecture.

I see a rose
covered with dust; what else can death do?

The lofty bookshelves sag
under thousands of sleeping souls.

We live together,
hiding beneath the spirit’s torch.

Silence, hopeful–
every time I open a book, a soul is awakened.

A strange woman walks
in a city I’ve never seen.

A funeral is taking place
in a dusk I’ve never entered.

Othello’s anger, Hamlet’s conscience,
Truth spoken at will, muffled bells.

I read a family prophecy.
The pains I’ve seen are no more than the pains themselves.

History records only a few people’s deeds:
The rest is silence.

Xi Chuan at Seattle Public Library

Xi ChuanOn January 9, three days after Xi Chuan’s talk at the MLA, the Seattle Public Library will host a reading with him and Prof. Paul Manfredi in an event co-sponsored by the Elliot Bay Book Company.

This is from the Library’s press release:

[Xi] Chuan is the internationally award-winning author of five collections of poems, two books of essays, one book of criticism and a play. He has translated works by authors ranging from Ezra Pound to Jorge Luis Borges to Czelaw Milosz.

The program is free and open to the public. No registration is required. Parking is available in the Central Library garage for $5 evening rate. Doors will open at 6:30 p.m.

The Elliot Bay Book Co. have ordered copies of the Tinfish chapbook Yours Truly & Other Poems for the event, and copies of A Song of the Corner should be available while supplies last.

Tinfish Retro Series Writeup

At the Honolulu Weekly, Matthew DeKneef has a writeup of Tinfish Press’s Retro Series of chapbooks, Small Press, Big Fish, including special mention of Xi Chuan’s Yours Truly & Other Poems. Here’s an excerpt:

From kitchen sink approaches to poems with more intentional goals, part of the fun is reveling in those novel gems. Personal favorites include Revilla’s “Pull Without Push,” Aitken’s “The Day Danno Died (In Memory of James MacArthur)” and [Xi] Chuan’s “Yours Truly.” Though most exciting about the Retro Series … is feeling a sense that each has a charged responsibility to their words. That they matter. Or maybe that’s just how you feel as reader. Either way, you’ve been hooked.

Yours Truly & Other Poems

My copies of Yours Truly & Other Poems, the Tinfish Press chapbook of six of my translations of recent Xi Chuan pieces, just arrived in the mail today. Here are the contents: “Unusual” 反常, “I Bury My Tail” 我藏着我的尾巴, “The Neighbors” 邻居, “Somebody” 某人, “The Plains” 平原, and “Yours Truly” 小老儿. Here’s how it looks: (click on the images to order yours for only $3.00 in greenbacks!)

Tinfish Retro Chapbook: Yours Truly & Other Poems

Just in time for his US reading tour, Tinfish Press has published a chapbook of a handful of my Xi Chuan translations under the title Yours Truly & Other Poems, a veritable steal at under $3.00 US (indeed–it’s cheaper than the printing cost, so buy early & often!).

Click on the cover image below for details, an excerpt, and ordering information:

front cover of Tinfish Retro Chapbook