Sean O’Brien reviews Jade Ladder

The Guardian has published Sean O’Brien’s review of Jade Ladder: Contemporary Chinese Poetry, edited by Yang Lian 杨炼, W N Herbert, Brian Holton, and Qin Xiaoyu 秦晓宇. It’s a fine and enthusiastic take written by an obviously engaged reader conversant with the current goings-on of poetry worldwide. Here’s how it begins:

The diversity and richness of contemporary Chinese poetry defy description. As Zang Di understatedly puts it in “Cosmo-Sceneriology”, “We seem / to have come to a new place”, but the place itself is multiple. In “100 Years of Solitude for the New Poetry”, the same poet suggests that poetry “has dismissed language” and finds that “yes, for an instant, it was almost not written by you”. To the reader coming newly to the subject, or with the competing translatorial templates of Ezra Pound and Arthur Waley in mind, these are exciting declarations, even as, or maybe because, they resist confident analysis.

O’Brien also singles out Xi Chuan for mention, with an interesting observation that dovetails with some of what he writes about Chinese and Eastern European literature in the afterword to Notes on the Mosquito, “The Tradition This Instant” 传统在此时此刻:

A western reader is likely to be reminded here of Mandelstam’s ill-fated “Stalin Epigram“. Although Mao is seen posthumously by a poet born in 1960, subsequent Chinese administrations have proved just as interested in the ideological demeanour of the arts as were Kruschev and his successors in Russia. Xi Chuan’s “Commandments” could be a poem from the eastern bloc of the 1950s (in this translation it recalls Zbigniew Herbert): “you shall not covet / so it’s not a bad idea to crown yourself king in a dark room / and why not cut a skeleton key and carry it in your hand? / walk, stop, turn: in that capital city under the light of your sun / you will disdain to open each rusted lock”.

The version of “Commandments” 戒律 quoted here is Holton’s from Jade Ladder. My version is included in Notes on the Mosquito.