——by way of Preface to Concentric Circles

When the Chinese translation of Ezra Pound’s Pisan Cantos was published, I wrote a short essay for it, entitled In the Timeless Air, in which I come to a sensational conclusion: only with its Chinese translation was the Cantos finally completed. The argument is not actually complicated. To me, the most impressive poetic quality of the Cantos lies in the contradiction between the synchronic nature of its poetic ideas and the diachronic nature of its language. The startlingly, inexplicably large-scale collage of episodes that seems out of control cannot be obviously explained by Pound’s simple intention to write the longest poem in English. I think Pound’s real focus was to break through the limitations of time, especially those temporal limits which exist in the grammar of English. His Cantos ramify through all time — it is by embracing all cultures, past to present, east and west, that he is enabled to peel away the illusion of the differentiation between the different presentations of life, and touch directly on the changeless core of existence. In other words, the Cantos is not an epic, i.e. a poema about history, but on the contrary, , it is a poetry which effaces “history”. That self-sufficient universe of poetry, without beginning or end, completely overthrows the European epic tradition. I do not know whether or not Pound got this creative idea from his “reinvention” of ancient Chinese poetry.) But the Chinese language does give him the best return of all: by way of the constant form of Chinese verbs – which are unchanged, even if person and tense change - the Chinese translation of the Cantos eradicates all trace of the struggle between the poet and his language, and finally, completes Pound’s wish to break away from the diachronic grip of the English language. What the Chinese reader sees is the Cantos re-invented by means of the unique qualities of the Chinese language, an entirety which is transparent, stable, omnipresent and flawless. In the timeless air, the poem itself is the air.

I should be happy that, when I started to write the long poem Concentric Circles in 1994, my “Yanglish” was far too bad to read the Cantos in its original language, and that the Pisan Cantos were not published in China until 1998: I could therefore avoid the suspicion of having produced a Chinese version of the Cantos in my Concentric Circles. The poetic space of Concentric Circles is achieved precisely by deleting time in order to highlight the unchanging human situtation. This idea comes from my awareness of the still-treacherous blood ties between the reality of China and the nature of the Chinese language. To me, synchronization is not a metaphysical game, but a kind of necessity rooted in the connotative content of my writings. However, the problem now, as I write the preface to the English translation of Concentric Circles, is whether Brian Holton and Agnes Chan’s English, after it has been 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? I remember how Brian used to embarrass me with his questions, which I had never been asked before. But I have to say I like this kind of embarrassment. It compels me to see those things which originally were hidden on an indistinct level within the Chinese text. It is like the Chinese translation of the Cantos in reverse, in which Brian and Agnes are pulling back my work into the diachronic conflict, examining each line from the perspective of time and tense, finding and exposing the internal relationships between the lines, and so testing the credibility of the synchronic factors there. Such an act is linguistic in nature, and at the same time directly concerned with existence itself. With the linguistic layers which translation creatively adds, the challenge that the original text poses becomes more risky, more varied, and more beautiful. Therefore, the English translation is not the finish, but a new beginning for Concentric Circles, which will continue its adventures in all the other non-Chinese diachronic languages. I converse with Pound in Concentric Circles, “moved once again by an ancient betrayal,” and I think he would have liked this idea.

When my exile began in 1989, the challenge that I was faced with was not only “why should I write,” but “how should I write?” In other words, was it possible for me, instead of refusing to talk only on the subject of exile, but to continue developing creativity in poetic form, to match my so-called “profound” experiences? For a Chinese poet, this also in and of itself included the bigger proposition: how could poetry written during my exile add to the modern transformation of the entire tradition of Chinese verse? The poetry ought to be deeper, not just different. Where the Sea Stands Still, written in 1993, is composed of several poem cycles, a structure that I used for the first time outside China. Later, I called this kind of writing the discovery of a “structure of life.” Concentric Circles, written between 1994 and 1997, brought the formal elements of Where the Sea Stands Still into full play. I am even tempted to say the form of Concentric Circles is more “man-made” —— as flawless as the pefect form of a seven-syllable regulated verse(1). First, the whole book is similar to a complete geometric form: there are five chapters altogether (linked to each other by the progressively increasing number of circles), and in each chapter, there are three sections. Second, the inner structure is asymmetric and steady: the relatively “abstract” thinking in the first, third and fifth chapters, and the concrete autobiographical content in the second and fourth chapters pile on top of each other, constituting a multi-storey space both varied and unified. Here, the choice of “Concentric Circles” as the title and the structure seems to be destined by some imperceptible but inexorable reason. On the one hand, it developed out of ideas begun long ago when I wrote the long poem Yi(2). On the other hand, it grew out of seemingly pure chance: an artist friend of mine took a photo when she worked on her piece Do Angels Really Exist? — in an almost completely dark room, the light emitted from the only small bulb broadened into a set of concentric circles on the ground. It was strange not only because the photo captured something invisible to the naked eye (a kind of ghost?), but because it seemed to unveil a hidden structure deep down in the world, where the darkness had been formed and shown, and which was the only way to show the darkness. I introduced this image directly into a prose poem in chapter three. But, the darkness formed into “concentric circles” went far beyond the room. It extended limitlessly, embracing all my experiences of life: self/other, in China/out of China, contemporaneity/historicity, life/writing, existence/illusion, internality/externality, and so on… and then it penetrated me, pointing toward the essential everyone. Three years of writing entered Concentric Circles into the ranks of Yi and Where the Sea Stands Still, forming the keel of my own “mini-tradition”, and that is precisely what we would expect it to be: the roots of the living tradition of Chinese poetry.

Much contemporary Chinese poetry gives western readers the impression of surrealism. But to me, playing such games with images which seem obscure but are actually so simple is a diminishment of real writing. All of my efforts to write Concentric Circles were focused on the depth of reality. The choice of form in each line and each poem and the impetus to create the whole book, all originated from my own interrogation of the human condition. I owe a debt of gratitude to my Chinese experiences. (Which I plainly call “nightmare inspiration”.) Cruel reality, the weird circles of history, heavy cultural burdens, the obstacles to linking our culture with “mainstream” western culture, and our ancient language, which serves as the double source of both destruction and rebirth, all reveal for me how many levels there are in that so-called “depth.” When people talk about “the pains of time” in China with feigned profundity, they do not know the reality is much more horrible than that: what I want to express in my works is exactly “the pain of timelessness.” The “history” of China is just like a square black Chinese character, which, time or tense notwithstanding, never changes. This brings us back to Pound again. As a matter of fact, not only did he “invent” ancient Chinese poetry for the west, but, for Chinese poets, he also re-invented the Chinese language. I mean that he invented an attitude towards one’s own language, so that the Chinese characters could shed their unconscious primitivity (a kind of vulgar “mystery”?) and become the organic material poets could use to signify a certain poetic that could not be expressed by anything else. You may say that chapter five of Concentric Circles is conceptual art uising the Chinese language: I divided the Chinese character 詩 (“poetry”) into its three constituent parts (言, 土, 寸 — each of which is a character by itself(3) ), and used each of them to develop a set of seven poems with a single-character title containing the same radical; the three sets are all ended with a poem entitled “詩”. These twenty-one poems together compose a “world inside a character.” They are connected to each other by the visual element of their titles (the first level of Chineseness, or the nature of the Chinese language), and then in the poems, I further deal with various levels of Chineseness and Chinese poetry: visual, auditory, the absence of marked person, the absence of marked tense, homonyms, the use of characters to mark sounds, palindromes, the use of allegory, radicals serving as independent characters, two-dimensional reading, unfinished lines….so questioning the language to an extreme, and unfolding it again at the end of my questioning. Please do not forget the last unfinished line of the book: poem is — what? This open question is directly inherited from Questions to Heaven written by Qu Yuan(4) two thousand, five hundred years ago. Do time and “evolution” really bring anything to our life — when we still suffer from the pain of not finding any answers?

The English translation of Concentric Circles is a pagoda built from the top. What Brian and Agnes did here was not to give western readers another brochure for the cultural tourist, but to challenge both themselves and the reader. They could hardly find any similar work translated from Chinese to which they could have referred. (I have to say that, the experience of translation to or from Chinese simply falls very short when compared with translation to or from European languages.) This blankness compelled them to invent! For the reader, this translation perfectly manifests the quality of poetry itself: the refusal to give in to vulgarity. I am happy that Concentric Circles still retains its flavour of “ancient betrayal” even in translation. My effort to exceed the limits of the Chinese language was “translated” by Brian and Agnes into creativity in English. This is how it ought to be, because I am moved once again when I read the translation, and I feel that I am struggling free from time and am incorporated into the beautiful “concentric circles” of ancient and modern poetry, in China or elsewhere.

Yang Lian

(1)Tr. The lüshi, a classical Chinese form with a strict tonal pattern and rhyme scheme, seven syllables per line, and strict requirements for semantic and syntactic parallel structures.
(2)Tr. Xiandai Shi She, Taipei, 1994; tr. Mabel Lee, Yi, Green Integer, København/Los Angeles, 2002
(3)Tr. Meaning, respectively, “speech/talking” “earth”, and “inch”
(4)Tr. The famous minister in the Kingdom of Chu during the period of the Warring States (475—221 B.C.), who was later banished to the distant south and finally threw himself into Miluo River to show his loyalty.