FifthBy Wendy Chin-Tanner
July 28, 2010
Over this handspan of years,
has been caught
in your bedside mirror,
sharp or dull
depending on the hour,
the light, the season,
how long I look.
Funny how the eye
can only see itself this way.
The first year,
we were like paper,
tearable yet unwritten.
this unadorned body,
this uncarved block.
We should burn
like a good bonfire,
leaving no trace.
A memorable, lush, clear, sudden-springing-imaged poem, Wendy. You continue the Chinese tradition powerfully.
Hmm, I must say this poem feels to me not like the continuation of any particular tradition. One of the reasons I love Wendy’s poetry is that she does employ stylistic strokes reminiscent (in a sort of Arthur Waley transliterative way of thinking) of Cathay, and underscores the western and other traditions that nestle in just as comfortably–deep founts from which she can mix her unique voice.
Huh, Uche? What are you on about?
Maybe nothing. Possibly I’m just projecting my own sensitivities as one easily lumped into “other cultural” on Wendy 😉
In case it came off wrongly, my comment was not meant to be a swipe at you but rather a meditation triggered by what you said.
Uche, you’ve dug yourself deeper into …… something. 😉
‘Twould be terrific if you could tackle the issue of translating poetry in your third of the poetry series. I’ve got an example of my own to contribute.
Many USAmericans cut their teeth on Arthur Waley, Ezra Pound, and later Kenneth Rexroth’s translations of Chinese poetry.
The issues surrounding translations are many and infinitely debatable. The issues surrounding translations from Chinese into English add even more to the incredible mix.
Aiiieeeeee! Arthur Waley, Ezra Pound, Kenneth Rexroth as translators. *Runs & hides*. A more minatory cast unimaginable 🙂
Waley made the Chinese sound like a nation of tin ears, but to be fair he was needed for the initial break, extending basic understanding of poetry from West to East. Pound’s translations were appalling as such, but were gorgeous poetry on their own. Rexroth just ran a self-staffed translation sweatshop. I think if he were working these days he would have outsourced back to China 😉
I’ve always been wary of the modern conception of Asian poetry from such translations because I’ve been told by Chinese/Japanese/Korean poet friends that a lot of the assumed conventions never get beyond the superficial (e.g. the translation of ideographically expressed lexeme into an English syllable in haiku and tanka), but as you say these are such complex matters they’re hard to even approach.
Since I know Chinese poetry, for the most part, from English translations, Uche, I can’t reasonably comment on the translators’ faithfulness to the originals. I can only judge their poetry as a thing separate from the originals. And in that, I find some of their works good, even inspiring, and much of the rest sort of “machine-y”.
Post-uni formal Chinese language training, I set myself the goal—and met it—of learning to write, speak (Mandarin) and read 500 Chinese characters. This would allow my comprehending about 80% of the text in Chinese newspapers. Despite a couple long visits to Taiwan to gain more Chinese, it slipped away with little everyday use. Therefore, I’ve hired Chinese tutors pretty much everywhere I’ve lived in the USA. Still, without daily conversation in the language, its expanded lexis eludes me. Equal only to English, Chinese has the most words of all world languages. Further, its oldest, classical words (characters) are unreadable and inexplicable to many present-day Chinese.
I cannot convey the joy I get and have always got, Uche, from seeing and writing (classical) Chinese characters and from hearing and speaking (Mandarin) Chinese.
In the second life-phase of my writing poems, I unconsciously adopted some characteristics that I’d known from Chinese poems: brief, one-stanza’ed short lines of dropping-down vivid words (often) from the world of nature; a seemingly simple presentation of metaphored emotional depth, as well, sometimes, of wit. That is what I meant when I said that Wendy’s poem continued the Chinese tradition. It is a manner very different, in many respects, from English poetry. Some of the reasons for that are bound in the different “grammars” of Chinese and English, their syntax; other reasons are in the varied styles of centuries of much-revered Chinese poets.
I think it’s Angela Tung who said that learning Chinese (I assume Mandarin) affected (and improved) her poetry markedly. I’ve long wanted to learn Chinese, really for the silly reason that it’s a tonal language like my native Igbo, so I might have less trouble with some of its more famous pitfalls. I really do need to get off my arse one day and make good on that ambition. If it’s like my usual m.o. I have to plan a trip there with my family, which always seems to stimulate me to make a proper run at a language.
“I think it’s Angela Tung who said that learning Chinese (I assume Mandarin) affected (and improved) her poetry markedly.” That’s fascinating and understandable, Uche. Some have defined poetry as the “essence” of thought and feeling. It seems to me that much Chinese poetry is just that, an essence.
You quickly grasp the vocabulary, sound and meanings of other languages, you fortunate devil! I do the sounds rather well, but it takes me centuries to get and keep the words in my head.
Chinese has four tones. Vietnamese has something like 19 tones—YEEK!!! How many does Igbo have?
For those who might want to pronounce the 4 Chinese tones, they can say “ma” in each of the following 4 ways:
Tone 1: say “ma” in a high, sustained sound
Tone 2: say “ma” in a slightly rising sound, as if you’re questioning your mum.
Tone 2: say “ma” in a rising tone that starts lower than Tone 2, as if you’re mum hadn’t heard you the first time.
Tone 3: say “ma” the way you’d say “SHIT!”
Have fun, Uche!
why, yes, i did say that about learning Mandarin and writing poetry! 🙂 i think it was a comment on one of Uche’s posts.
i’ve always been suspicious – or at least confused – by Kenneth Rexroth et al as a “translator” of Chinese poetry. translating anything from Chinese is incredibly hard. i took three years of college-level Chinese and never even got to reading a newspaper. for grad school, i stupidly picked Chinese for a literary translation class – instead of the much more doable French – and had an absolutely terrible time trying to translate a simple, straightforward piece of nonfiction.
so were Kenneth Rexroth and Ezra Pound actual Chinese scholars? or were their “translations” simply impressions of what they thought Chinese poetry was?
judy, i have the same problem with the language when i’m not using it. living in China for six months, my skills improved vastly, as they do when I’m surrounded by family for a few days. i find myself thinking in Chinese as well.
have you all seen this article in the online WSJ?
it’s about how language may influence culture. i thought this quote very apropos to this conversation:
“In Mandarin, the future can be below and the past above.”
which is totally true! “next week” is “xia ge li bai,” literally, “the week below,” while “last time” is “shang ci,” or the “up time.” also in chinese, there are no prepositions or tenses, only time words tacked onto the end of sentences. maybe that is partly what changed my poetry writing skills, this different way of thinking, and plus memorizing and learning the characters is visual – maybe it woke up a part of my brain that hadn’t been in use for some time.
i like these quotes too:
okay, longest comment ever over!
Great that you somehow managed to chase me and my comment down, angela!
I especially liked this part in the WSJ article you recommended on language influencing culture, with the example of “Humpty Dumpty sat . . .”:
“In Russian, you would have to mark tense and also gender, changing the verb if Mrs. Dumpty did the sitting. You would also have to decide if the sitting event was completed or not. If our ovoid hero sat on the wall for the entire time he was meant to, it would be a different form of the verb than if, say, he had a great fall.”
“In Turkish, you would have to include in the verb how you acquired this information. For example, if you saw the chubby fellow on the wall with your own eyes, you’d use one form of the verb, but if you had simply read or heard about it, you’d use a different form.”
That’s so cool! Just goes to show that the more you know of other languages, like you say, your ways of thinking change, too.
You note 3 ways your thinking changes when you use Mandarin: no prepositions or tenses, and the picture-ish visuals of the characters themselves. I totally agree that they change one’s way of imagining and creating poems—-and prose, too.
I learned the Yale University system of spelling in English the Chinese sound of Mandarin words, so you and I spell the words a bit differently, but I can for the most part easily figure out your spellings; e.g., you write “xia ge” whereas I’d write “sya ge”.
How is your last name spoken? First tone? And does it have a meaning, like “tung” meaning the direction, as in “tung” for east (or is it west?)?
Oh, what a beautiful gift, Wendy!
I just adore this poem.
The first year,
we were like paper,
tearable yet unwritten.
The layers and rich layers to be found just in that one, seemingly simple stanza alone.
I love handspan.
Also, happy anniversary!
Oh, lovely. There’s something about the cut-through shortness of lines that hits well. And I like that last stanza quite a bit. And “The first year / we were like paper” that just opens up a lot of stuff in my head. Nice.
Wendy, this is lovely. “Over this handspan of years” is such a perfect phrase.
wendy, a jewel of a poem.