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Concentric Circles

Concentric Circles

By Yang Lian

Translated by Brian Holton, Agnes Hung-Chong Chan

Bloodaxe Books, ISBN 1-85224-703-7, Pb. 111 pages, £8.95.
Series 3 No. 6 - After-Images

Yang Lian, a poet with long experience of exile, is aware of translation as a two-way process, shaped by expectations and counter-expectations.

Review by Anna Reckin

Yang Lian's Concentric Circles translated by Brian Holton and Agnes Hung-Chong Chan, and Zheng Danyi's Wings of Summer (Sixth Finger Press, ISBN 9- 8897051 9. Hardback, 336pp. £19.) translated by Luo Hui, exemplify two generations of contemporary Chinese poets as well as two very different approaches to translation and publication. Yang Lian, a prominent member of the Misty School with a worldwide reputation, is represented here in an edition aimed at the English-reading market. Zheng Danyi's bilingual publication is for Chinese as well as English readers, making available, for the first time, a substantial number of poems that, if not widely translated, has long had an underground following.

Yang Lian, a poet with long experience of exile, is aware of translation as a two-way process, shaped by expectations and counter-expectations. In his introduction to Concentric Circles, he wonders whether an English version 'compelled to make clear the person of verbs and choose their tense, as well as define nouns as singular or plural, will open the sealed magic box, or break an exquisite piece of porcelain.' Happily, his conclusion is that Holton and Hung-Chong Chan's work is a 'new beginning', a place where its assumptions and workings can be tested and placed under pressure in a spirit of adventure, even risk.

Following Yang Lian's interest in the spatial and typographical possibilities of Chinese, Holton and Hung-Chong Chan use mainly unpunctuated and uncapitalized English arranged in spaced blocks. The original structure of the book – horizontally into ever-widening circles (represented graphically in the text by using a series of depictions of concentric circles instead of chapter numbers) and vertically into what Yang Lian calls 'multi-storey' spaces – is preserved, representing its underlying themes: space, place and 'the pain of timelessness.'

While there are clearly autobiographical elements here, Yang Lian distinguishes between these and the 'abstract' sections that surround them. Here, exile, diaspora, the aftermath of the pro-democracy movement, are not final terms. Just as classical Chinese and Chinese history continue to be on-going presences in Chinese culture, so the culture of diasporic China co-exists with 'the mainland'. Similarly the square shapes of Chinese characters provide a powerful metaphor for a set of synchronous Chinese realities, changing and unchanging at the same time.

For example, the final chapter in the book (identified by five concentric circles) is based on the Chinese character for poetry, and is subdivided into the three graphic elements of that character, in English 'talking', 'earth' and 'inch'. Each of these is then used to generate a series of sub-poems with , in the case of 'talking', titles such as 'questioning', 'lies', and 'obituary'. All three sections of the chapter end with a reprise, 'Poetry', that echoes images used within the section, tying the chapter together. These reprise poems read vertically on the page as well as horizontally, a reminder of how Chinese itself is often read. For example, the final one, the last poem in Concentric Circles, opens

vanishing to three
three autumns go over the border
three times toward the light birds radiate medicinal shadows
Dante is the one refused by a key
vanishing is thought
what can't be redeemed stows away to form the next line.

Pound’s influence is obvious, as Yang Lian acknowledges in his introduction, arguing that his own Concentric Circles and Holton and Hung-Chong Chan's translation perform a kind of cross-cultural dialogue between the Cantos (especially in Chinese translation) and Chinese poetry. The implications of this for the translation process are discussed by Holton and Hung-Chong Chan in an informative afterword. Here we discover some of their radical approaches to poems whose structures are almost purely sonic or graphic. A poem originally titled 'Shei' ('Who' in Chinese), for example, a Chinese pure-sound poem using a traditional form based on patterns of tones becomes 'Sway', a near-homophonic rendering in English monosyllables (mainly) written in a Welsh bardic metre. Other creative solutions include the use of Greek (transcribed into the Latin alphabet) for a poem written in archaic Seal Script characters, and a parody of Augustan English for a poem written in a parody of the style of the Han dynasty historian Ban Gu.

Zheng Danyi's Wings of Summer also shows a writer who is interested in pushing at linguistic boundaries, but his translator admits to a more conservative approach, suggesting in his introduction that the lyricism and 'flowing exuberance' of Zheng's style may present challenges to English readers looking for 'terseness'. Indeed, the parallel poems encourage the reader to compare the somewhat short English lines on the right-hand page with the more fluid Chinese on the left. Here Zheng can be seen to be a master of rhythm and pacing, as the Chinese characters combine, separate, repeat, perform line- and stanza-break enjambments.

Luo Hui's translations give a clear mapping of the images in Zheng's poems and their positioning stanza by stanza. As the title of the collection suggests, much of the work uses natural imagery, which, as in 'Spring', gives the poetry a formidable intensity through both sound and emotional association. Themes and mood are wide-ranging. Alongside the bitterness and plangency of the work in 'Sixteen Poems' (a series written in 1989, whose first publication, shortly after Tiananmen, was heavily censored) is delicate love poetry, as for example in the title poem: 'I . . . see you, wings folded in a loose shirt / Walking on my clean floor. Evening breezes are gentle / And cool, in a place autumn wind does not reach.'

Putting these two collections side by side highlights the way in which poetry in Chinese seems to push to an extreme the translator's dilemma – caught between sound-pattern, meaning-pattern and eye-pattern. Luo Hui mentions Zheng Danyi's 'electric' readings: an additional CD slipped into the back page would have been welcome. Foot-notes, too, could have offered powerful tools for exploring the cross-cultural dynamics and complex architectures of Yang Lian's work. Poetry, especially poetry moving between languages, is always so much more than ink on the inside surfaces of a book . . .

Anna Reckin

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