To begin ...

As the twentieth century fades out
the nineteenth begins
it is as if nothing happened
though those who lived it thought
that everything was happening
enough to name a world for & a time
to hold it in your hand
unlimited.......the last delusion
like the perfect mask of death

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

Xi Chuan: Two Sequences from Eagle’s Words, a prose-poem in ninety-nine stanzas

Translation from Chinese by Lucas Klein

On False Causality and True Chance in a Dark Room

26. In a dark room, I put my ear to the wall, listening in, but don’t hear anything stirring in the neighbor’s home next door. Then suddenly I hear someone next door with an ear to the wall as well. Quickly I pull my ear back, sure to behave like an upright and proper man.

27. In a dark room, I should not wake from a good dream while my father wakes from a bad one. He reprimands me, and his reprimands are valid; I turn introspective, completely loyal and filial. I tell him my good dream, so he could have his own, but his good dream was already forgotten in the bathroom.

28. After a brush with death an ascetic becomes a philanderer.

29. One handsome young man kills two handsome young men just because they all look the same.

30. In a dark room I have a séance with smoke and mirrors. Some fool really does walk in the door and kneel down before me. I kick him away, continuing my indulgence, when another fool breaks down the door, wielding a butcher-knife to overthrow me.

31. In a dark room, I turn on the radio. Its melodramatic love story awakens my self-pity. Just then a burglar crawls out from under my bed, engages me in a discussion of the meaning of life, and vows right then to turn over a new leaf.

32. An enthusiast of the Analects of Confucius refutes another enthusiast of the Analects of Confucius to a bloody pulp.

33. Du Fu has received too much exaltation, so no other Du Fu could ever win anything.

34. In a dark room, I fawn over a dead man. He was not my ancestor but my neighbor. I create for him a life of glory, his cast-iron face flushed with pink. Many years later, I overeat at the home of his grandson.

35. In a dark room, I paint a portrait of a fictitious girl. An acquaintance says he recognizes the girl in the picture: she lives in the East District, 35 Springweed Lane. I find the place, but her neighbor says she’s just left on a long journey.

36. Faced with an emptied grave the giddy graverobber has nothing to do.

37. With nothing to do the line cook goes back to his dark room.

38. In a dark room, my gold ring, passed down for three generations, rolls onto the floor, never to be seen again. Therefore I suspect that beneath my dark room is another dark room; therefore I suspect that everyone who ever wore a gold ring lives beneath me.

39. In a dark room, some guy comes in the wrong door but tries to make the most of it. He puts down his backpack, washes his face and brushes his teeth, and then orders me to get out. I say that this is my home, this is my lifeline, I’m not going anywhere. And so we start to wrestle in the darkness.

On My Meaningless Life

88. In a crowd of people some people are not people, just as in a flock of eagles some eagles are not eagles; some eagles are forced to wander through alleyways, some people are forced to fly in the sky.

89. I fall asleep as soon as it gets dark, I get up as soon as it’s light out. I always dream of a doctor with a fever and a mail carrier with a toothache, and then I meet them; so in order to meet myself, I must dream of myself, but dreaming of oneself is so embarrassing.

90. Once, I had a dream in which a blind man asked about someone. I replied that I had heard of but did not know this person. When I awoke, I howled in shock: it was me that the blind man was looking for!

91. Only when a nail pierced through my hand did my hand reveal the truth; only when black smoke choked me to tears could I feel my existence. Riding sidesaddle on a white horse ten fairies tore up my heart.

92. For this I have changed my name, concealed my identity, wandered lonely as a cloud, resigned myself to fate.

93. I once demanded of a boss lady at an inn that I be the boss of the inn. To her enduring surprise I also demanded she provide me with room and board at no charge. She asked: “Who are you? Where do you come from?” I said: “I’m just the man who makes these two demands. You choose.”

94. I once found myself astray in a gloomy abode, like a mercenary upsetting its order, like a ruffian arousing ladies’ fears. At this time I could taste a different kind of astray—astray from happiness, I forgot all disorder and fear.

95. I once was caught in a besieged city, and once I ran into an aged scholar. When I pointed out our “plight” and “lonesomeness,” he said his sole concern was the fortune of all god’s children. So I spit into the mouth of the crow.

96. I once asked a magistrate about the key to promotions, and he told me to go back home and be a good little citizen. I asked him: “Do you want to know how to turn stone into gold?” And when he revealed the greed behind his eyes, I said: “I too know how to keep secrets.”

97. If you can sit down then sit down, if you can lie down then lie down. Just to get by, every day I work more than three jobs. But every time I finish, someone takes my remuneration.

98. The wise men say: “To fly intoxicates the eagle.” Wrong, flying does not intoxicate the eagle, any more than walking intoxicates the human.

99. So please let me stay in your room for an hour, since an eagle plans to live in one of my ventricles for a week. If you accept me, I’ll change into any form you wish, but not for too long, or my true form will be revealed.

Xi Chuan西川 (the penname of Liu Jun 刘军), a poet, essayist, and translator, was born in 1963 in Jiangsu province, and graduated from the English Department of Peking University in 1985. Formerly a visiting adjunct professor to New York University (2007) and Orion Visiting artist at University of Victoria, Canada (2009), he now teaches Classical and Modern Chinese literature at the Central Academy of Fine Arts in Beijing. Xi Chuan has published four collections of poems, including A Fictitious Family Tree (1997) and Roughly Speaking (1997), two books of essays, and one book of criticism, in addition to a play and translations ranging from Ezra Pound to Jorge Luis Borges to Czeslaw Milosz. His own poetry and essays have also been widely anthologized and translated. His the prizes, honors, and fellowships include the Modern Chinese Poetry Award (1994), UNESCO-ASCHBERG bursaries of artists (1997), the national Lu Xun Prize for Literature (2001), and the ZhuangZhongwen Prize for Literature (2003). He was also named one of the top ten winners of the Weimar International Essay Prize Contest (Germany, 1999).

Lucas Klein—a former radio DJ and union organizer—is a writer, translator, and editor of His translations, essays, and poems have appeared or are forthcoming at Cerise, Jacket, and Drunken Boat, and he regularly reviews books for Rain Taxi and other venues. A graduate of Middlebury College (BA) and Yale University (PhD), he is Assistant Professor in the Dept. of Chinese, Translation and Linguistics at City University of Hong Kong. Endure, a small collection of Bei Dao poems translated with Clayton Eshleman, is now out from Black Widow Press, and in addition to Xi Chuan he is at work translating Tang dynasty poet Li Shangyin.


WAS said...

A fine example of a Quantum Field poet, albeit with a distinctly Kafkaesque sense of humor. I like the sense here, when reality can be created like a poem, of identity finally forced to look at its non-reflection in the mirror.

Lucas Klein said...

I'm glad you like the poems, William. Could you explain what you mean by "Quantum Field poet"?


WAS said...

Ah. Quantum Field theory is a theoretical physics complex involving the irreducibility of bosons and the non-linear transformations between waves and particles (properties written about by Poe, by the way). The free flow of creation in the quantum field – ie how easy it is to influence behavior and matter creation at the quantum level – has led this rather arcane knowledge into wider metaphysical usage, particularly through the book The Holographic Universe by Michael Talbot, which talks about the “practical” implications of physicist David Bohm’s work in understanding the indistinguishability of perception and reality. The short, short summation: our thoughts create reality. There are millions of people cultivating the implications of this right now, from modern-day mystery schools of enlightenment to popularizations such as “What the Bleep?” and “The Secret.” Many poets, too, are understanding that poetic worlds of words extend into tangible actuality in subtle but powerful ways. I didn’t mean to suggest Liu Jun was consciously doing this too, but I thought of it when I read lines like “I’ll change into any form you wish, but not for too long, or my true form will be revealed” or “I paint a portrait of a fictitious girl. An acquaintance says he recognizes the girl in the picture.” Quantum field work depends on the consciousness of the observer – but the true mystery is what is the observer anyway? This poet tweaks that notion, but I think now on closer exam Liu Jun looks more like a trickster poet, Chinese style, secular variant.