Translated from the Chinese by Fiona Sze-Lorrain
(Minneapolis, MN: Milkweed Editions, 2015)
“A stage setting has no independent life of its own. Its emphasis is directed towards the performance. In the absence of the actor it does not exist.”
These words by Robert Edmond Jones from The Dramatic Imagination (1941) come to mind as I read Yi Lu’s Sea Summit, translated from the Chinese by Fiona Sze-Lorrain. Yi Lu is a theatre scenographer, and her poems brim with the imagistic tendencies we might expect from a visual artist. More specifically, her poetic style fits that of a theatrical set designer. Within the poetry of Sea Summit, the images are like set pieces. They play supporting roles as they help to tell the speaker’s stories.
The first stanza of “A Treeful of Bird Calls” never mentions the speaker. There’s no first person I, yet even the first few lines establish the confessional tone. They serve as one part of the greater objective correlative, defined by T. S. Eliot as a “set of objects, a situation, a chain of events which shall be the formula of [a] particular emotion.” The piece opens:
a treeful of bird calls like starlight like scissors like nails
like ladders like a river passage by passage
a treeful of bird calls like a hectic forge
At this point, before we reach the first I of the piece, which exists in the second stanza of this four-stanza poem, we might not realize that these images, this setting, reflect the emotional core of the speaker. However, they establish the tone for a self-discovery. They acclimate the reader so that we might be ready for the more gravid human embodiment that is to come, such as the closing of the piece:
I jingle like a treeful of bird calls
light and expand my rooms one by one
like a treeful of bird calls I’m fully lit ready to work
Here, at the end of the poem, these images more directly represent the plights and the triumphs of the speaker, as the treeful of bird calls functions as simile.
We’d be wrong to neglect the ways in which Sze-Lorrain’s translations allow the English-speaking audience to access these poems. While there’s much to talk about in terms of Sze-Lorrain’s expertise in diction and musicality, it’s this translator’s attention to one word that I find most striking. “Contrary to the evidence of most translations,” writes renowned translator Eliot Weinberger in 19 Ways of Looking at Wang Wei (1987), “the first-person singular rarely appears in Chinese poetry. By eliminating the controlling individual mind of the poet, the experience becomes both universal and immediate to the reader.” While Yi Lu does at times employ 我 (which translates to the pronoun I in English), this is not always the case within Sea Summit, and the occasional lack of pronouns in the Chinese might prove problematic for a translator. One such issue is the rendering of sentences grammatically incorrect, leaving them, in the most literal of translations, disjointed to the native English speaker’s ear. The reader might find herself seeking the subject of the sentence. Alternately, this omission of a noun or pronoun could result, in English, in a second-person command. For example, in “An Expanse of Azure,” Yi Lu writes, “看到滴水穿石,” which Sze-Lorrain translates as “I see a water drop penetrate a stone.” This is a literal translation except for the addition of the “I,” and this inclusion is reasonable within the context of the piece. Here’s the phrase, as translated by Sze-Lorrain, together with its preceding lines:
like a tiny transparent mirror
letting me see the internal cracks
through meandering dark tunnels and deep places
I see a water drop penetrate a stone
The shift from me to an implied you, via the command “see a water drop penetrate a stone,” would be both jarring and inaccurate to the Chinese poem. This addition of I before “see a water drop penetrate a stone” allows for a truthful translation of the line.
Interestingly, the final line of the poem also begins with “看到,” or “see.” In this case, however, the translator does not add the I, and this makes sense. It’s unnecessary due to the syntax of the greater phrase:
I see the skeleton of a mountain
see the silent endurance of a mountain
The lack of the poem’s punctuation (and you’ll find no punctuation in the Chinese nor the English version of Sea Summit), paired with the parallelism of the lines, allows the reader to understand that it is most literally the speaker who sees this “silent endurance of a mountain.” Moreover, Sze-Lorrain’s omission of the I in this final line demonstrates her expert understanding of the rich history of Chinese poetry. The subtle exclusion of that I from the closing line leaves the reader with that universal and immediate experience that Weinberger notes as a characteristic of Chinese poetry. This communal and visceral experience reminds me of the theatre.
From cows whose “bowed heads seem unrelated to their tails” to the “exploding peak of the volcano’s heart,” from the “pregnant woman like a big flower” to pain as “the crossroad of heavy traffic / trucks cars motorcycles rickshaws bicycles / in a chaos blocked,” Yi Lu’s images are masterful in a way that, perhaps, only a theatre scenographer might envision. They reflect, support, and converse with the condition of the speaker. And, like curtains, these private experiences are torn open in a theater where there is no fourth wall; as we read, we’re immersed in each scene, each poem, via the stage that is Yi Lu’s sensitive and poignant poetry.
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Heather Lang is the Associate Poetry Editor and Managing Online Editor of The Literary Review.