Canaan Morse reviews John Balcom’s translation of Grass Roots: Selected Poems by Xiang Yang 向陽 (Zephyr) for World Literature Today:
Balcom’s ubiquitous preference for merging verbs into adjectival phrases or deleting them entirely strengthens static image and removes dynamic energies that might be considered noisier in English than in Chinese.
And yet the poems are not quiet. They are vividly aware of the aporias and ambiguities inherent in the classical Chinese narrative that iterates time through space, and they speak to them … Balcom’s flexible English represents some of these differences with facility; lines like “A bloody rain falls on fields plowed by bullets” stand apart from lines like “The surprise encounter of the fish and the leaves,” which are brilliant for entirely different reasons. Yet many of his decisions, especially his frequent deletions, seem hard to justify … Balcom’s introduction makes no mention of his process. Translation is frequently maligned as either a derivative act or a violent, domineering one. Perhaps greater transparency could prevent it from being either.
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Zephyr Press will be publishing Grass Roots, a collection of poems by Taiwanese poet Xiang Yang 向陽, translated by John Balcom.
The so-called “third generation poets,” such as Xiang Yang, Du Ye, and Lo Qing, wanted to see a resurgence of Chinese national and local culture after years of foreign domination. In Taiwan, this revival was complex and multifaceted: the trend toward Westernization in the cultural sphere was subverted by a resurgence of interest in traditional Chinese culture, and political domination by the Kuomintang from the Mainland was opposed by promotion of Taiwanese language and culture. Xiang Yang himself eventually decided to explore two avenues: to write poetry in his native southern Min dialect and to experiment with formalist verse. “I asked myself what made classical poems so enduring,” he says. “It seemed to me that the strict compositional rules and forms of classical poetry contributed greatly to poetic quality.” He began experimenting with forms and rhyme, finally settling on a ten-line poem broken into two quintets as the form most suited to his temperament. It can be said that form made a poet out of him: formal limitations helped to channel and structure the poetic impulse.
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