Yunwen Gao reviews Xi Xi’s Not Written Words discussing the sounds of poetry and the art of translation.
XI XI 西西, Not Written Words: Selected Poetry of Xi Xi 不是文字：西西詩選 Translated from the Chinese by Jennifer Feeley. (Zephyr Press and MCCM Creations, 2016) 168pp. (English and Chinese Edition)
Xi Xi, pseudonym of Cheung Yin, is one of the first generation writers who has grown up in Hong Kong and written about their urban experience since the 1960s. She is a prolific writer in a number of genres. Her publications include novels, short stories, film reviews, poems, and photograph collections. Readers who are familiar with her novel My City (1979) and short story “A Woman Like Me” (1983) would immediately find a similar flavor of “fairy-tale realism” and “urchin style” in this collection of poems. By employing a narrative voice that is always curious and ready to question the conventions of the mundane, Xi Xi never fails to defamiliarize the ways in which we think, read, and speak.
Covering a wide range of poems from 1961 to 1999, Not Written Words is the first collection of Xi Xi’s poems selected from Stone Chimes (1982) and The Selected Poems of Xi Xi: 1959-1999 (2000) translated in English. The 168-page book is a nicely edited collection with the original text in Chinese and the English translation facing each other, as well as translator’s notes attached at the end of the book. Being multilingual and well-read in world literature, Xi Xi molds her poems into a versatile medium to connect literary traditions from different cultures and address issues across the globe. Her sources and influences include classical Chinese poetry and Western poetry. Readers will find references to French New Wave cinema (“At Marienbad”), The Book of Songs (“Pebble”), Tang poems (“Moon”), English metaphysical poems (“Aria”), Allan Ginsberg’s poem “A Supermarket in California” (“Supermarket”) in her writing, to name just a few. Thanks to the translation, readers of world literature can learn more about Xi Xi’s career as a poet in addition to her fictional writing.
In general, Xi Xi’s poems deal with light-hearted topics of daily life. When she writes about political topics, she adopts a solemn narrative voice and announces her opinion in an open and straightforward manner. For example, “June” is a commentary on the 1989 Tian’anmen Square Incident; “Driving through Palestinian Refugee Camps” and “Children among the Ruins” express her sympathy towards Palestinian and Syrian refugees. However, in most of her poems, politics seem to be articulated in an aloof and distanced way. In “Pebble,” the speaker imagines him/herself to be a pebble in the Gobi desert. After pondering over how life would become (“no need to make monthly payments / or pay property fees” p.55), the speaker states:
to me …
Without further comments on the obvious reference to the 1997 Hong Kong Handover, the poem provokes the reader’s imagination to interpret her attitude in various ways simply through connecting two jarringly different topics (a pebble in the desert, and the pending future of Hong Kong).
One of the running themes of her poems is language itself. Her poems constantly challenge linguistic conventions, and by extension, the way languages shape our modes of thinking. Through a series of playful linguistic experiments in Chinese, Xi Xi explores the relation between written words and their meanings through audio and visual dimensions. In “Can We Say,” she intentionally mismatches nouns with classifiers, (a caucus of cucarachas / a hamlet of hams / a sandwich of heroes p.11), in order to reveal the implied hierarchical structure in the Chinese language. “Ichirō” goes beyond linguistic conventions of Chinese by incorporating Japanese vocabularies in Kanji (Chinese characters with Japanese pronunciations), transliteration of Japanese words, and Japanese sentence structure. Linguistically, the poem violates Chinese sentence structure. Acoustically, readers who speak Japanese would also be confused since the poem invites them to switch between two systems of pronunciations when reading. Thus, we are reminded of the nature of poetry beyond written words, as the title of the book suggests.
Given the complexity and malleability of Xi Xi’s language, translating her poems is an inevitably challenging task. Feeley’s decent translation captures the essence of Xi Xi’s linguistic experiments. She is more concerned with reproducing the sound and visual effects of mismatching, displacement, and ambiguity in Xi Xi’s poems than translating the exact wording of each sentence. In the translator’s notes, Feeley provides ample discussion of her artistic decisions in many poems. Students of the art and theory of translation would definitely find it rewarding to read this collection.
I’d like to conclude here with Xi Xi’s discussion of translation from “Reading Translations of the Closing Couplet of Yeats’ ‘Among School Children’” (p.135):
O disparate starry skies, O variant landscapes
How can we know the poet from the poem in translation?
Yunwen Gao is a PhD candidate of East Asian Languages and Cultures at University of Southern California. She is interested in Sinophone literature and culture, postcolonial studies, and language politics.