September 2009

Clayton Eshleman


A Bei Dao Portfolio

A Note on Translating Bei Dao 

Bei Dao’s interaction with Clayton Eshleman and his wife Caryl begins in 1992, when Eliot Weinberger wrote to ask if he would nominate Bei Dao for the semester-long MacAndless Chair in the Humanities at Eastern Michigan University. Bei Dao had been living in Scandinavia since his exile from China in 1989 -- when democracy and workers’ rights activists shouted his poems at the Tiananmen Square demonstrations -- and was unhappy there, so Weinberger wanted to help him try the US. Clayton nominated him for the Chair, and he was offered the position to come in the fall of 1993. After his arrival, Clayton helped him settle in at the house of a friend, while Caryl worked with the head of EMU’s English Department to sort his immigration papers and apply for a Green Card. In 1994 Bei Dao moved from Ypsilanti to share an apartment with a Chinese friend in Ann Arbor, staying on for a couple years before moving to California, where he had accepted a one-year position in East Asian Languages & Cultures at UC Davis. 

Reading Bei Dao’s poetry in translation from the 1980s and ’90s, Clayton’s first reactions were of puzzlement. At times the writing struck him as imaginative and acute, while at other times it seemed flat, presented in something approximating pidgin English. After reading Bei Dao’s Unlock (New Directions, 2000), translated by Eliot Weinberger and Iona Man-Cheong, which he liked very much, Clayton realized that his limited response to such books as Forms of Distance and Landscape Over Zero (both published by New Directions in 1994 and 1996) probably had to do with the translations by David Hinton (and, in the latter book, Yanbing Chen). 

A long review of these three poetry collections, along with a book of Bei Dao’s essays titled Blue House (translated by Ted Huters and Feng-ying Ming, Zephyr, 2000), was Lucas Klein’s first publication. While the review was positive, Lucas’s first feelings reading Bei Dao echo Clayton’s ambivalence. Both drawn to and thwarted by the hermeticism of Bei Dao’s lines, Lucas wrote, “While many readers will find themselves sliding across his poetry, when his poetry catches them his hold is strong,” which seems like a generalization of his personal frustration and desire in the face of the lyrics. 

Lucas first met Bei Dao on Halloween, 2003, in a hotel in Manhattan’s Chinatown, following a public conversation between Bei Dao and Eliot Weinberger at Poets House the night before. Bei Dao’s soft-spoken sincerity and unassuming manner -- nearly the opposite of how some have caricatured him, as a careerist writing for international glory -- pressed against Lucas’s earlier reading of his poems, and he guessed that his poetic mysteriousness might come from a personal shyness. Clayton and Caryl were also present at that meeting -- the first time Lucas had met them -- and Lucas was able to glean some of what Bei Dao had written about them in Blue House

Lucas’s research in the years since has mostly focused on medieval Chinese, but modern and contemporary Chinese poetry has also maintained its hold. Coming upon trajectories and techniques written under, or at times against, Bei Dao’s influence -- which has stayed strong despite the difficulty, for much of the past twenty years, of finding Bei Dao’s writing in China -- Lucas still found Bei Dao’s style opaque, even obscure. When Clayton contacted him for help in looking into Bei Dao’s poetry in advance of his introduction to his Naropa reading this summer, Lucas took the opportunity to look into the writing at a level deeper than he’d allowed himself previously. He came to feel that his sense of Bei Dao had too often been obscured by his hasty readings of the Chinese and, like Clayton, on an over-reliance on the English translations -- too often, Lucas felt, he had read the available translations with the aim of checking for mistakes, rather than to comprehend their interpretation of Bei Dao’s poetic vision. Working on the new translations with Clayton, after receiving permission to translate and publish from the author, with the necessary result of looking closely at Bei Dao’s Chinese, has shown Lucas that, for instance, by avoiding punctuation and playing with enjambment, lineation, and phrase-pacing, Bei Dao often creates splits in his meaning. Trying to recreate some of that ambiguity, David Hinton’s translations generally treat each line as its own clause; the result, Lucas says, is overly disjunctive poetry, and that when the stanza, rather than the line, can be heard as Bei Dao’s usual unit of poetic composition, the ambiguity but also the fluidity can emerge more fully through English translation.

The point, for neither Clayton nor for Lucas, is to supplant, or replace, earlier translations. Rather, since each translation enacts its own reading, these translations present an alternative to Hinton’s vision, and to his performance of that vision. As their long history with Bei Dao can attest, Clayton and Lucas see manifold meanings in Bei Dao’s writing, and believe that he deserves to be read as often, and as deeply, as possible.

In the selection of poems presented here, "Sower" is from Forms of Distance (New Directions, 1994, translated by David Hinton). The other three poems are from Landscape Over Zero (New Directions, 1996, translated by David Hinton and Yambing Chen). Both collections are bilingual.

-- Clayton Eshleman and Lucas Klein, August 2009


The Landscape at Degree Zero 

It is the sparrow hawk who teaches song to swim
it is the song that retraces the earliest airs 

We exchange fragments of delight
and enter the family from different routes 

It is the father who has confirmed the dark
it is the dark that leads to the classics’ lightning 

The door of weeping shuts with a thud
leaving the echo to pursue its wail 

It is the pen that flowers within despair
it is the flower that resists necessity’s path

It is love’s beam that awakes
to brighten the landscape at degree zero



A sower walks into the hall
it’s war out there, he says
you are wallowing in vapidity
shirking your duty to warn of the danger
I am come in the name of the fields
it’s war out there

I leave the hall
all around   scenes of the harvest
I start to design the war
to perform death
The crops I torch
flare up like wolf signals

One thought is driving me crazy:
he is sowing seeds onto marble



A hundred thousand windows shimmer
these sooth-sayers
are between yesterday and the sea
Oh the joys of getting lost 

A bridge becomes reality
spanning public rays of light
while the secret voyage touching
yesterday’s rose provides
a dilemma for each sheet of paper 

a dawn for each of my mother’s tears


The Border   

The storm turns toward the future of the north
the roots of the sick wail underground
the sun’s propeller
compels the bees to change into light
chains of envoys
scatter seeds into wind-snatching ears

Streams remembered
will never end
sounds stolen
have become the border 

At the border there is no hope
a book
gulps down a wing
and then inside the solid ice of language
are the atoning brothers
for which you struggle