Notes on Xi Chuan’s Notes on the Mosquito: Selected Poems
Xi Chuan has been famous in China (and not just in China) since the 1980s. Until this year, however, there have been no book-length English translations of his poetry. So reading this new career survey from New Directions and translator Lucas Klein, Notes on the Mosquito: Selected Poems, feels like discovering a strange and exhilarating new region of world poetry. Some notes on what one finds there:
At the start, a tight and concise lyric poetry evoking cityscapes, railroad bridges, mountains, cypresses, and wind. One gets the sense that these cities are real -- Xi Chuan has lived most of his life in Beijing and is nothing if not a Beijing poet -- but at the same time dream cities. He began publishing his poems in the late '80s; his early poems follow the “Obscure” (menglong) poets in their registering of psychological states and social criticisms through stark but mysterious images. The Obscure group -- Bei Dao, Duo Duo, Gu Cheng, Yang Lian, and their comrades -- was the most vital force in Chinese poetry when Xi Chuan began publishing, and it’s natural that their work would influence his. But from the start his style isn’t quite theirs. It’s less emotive, and more oblique in its protest against the Communist Party bureaucracy.
Wind moves in and out of these poems, through windows in a concrete high-rise in Beijing, or through the forest, or through the poet’s mind.
Before the rise of wind the woods were still
before the rise of wind sunlight and cloudiness
could be ignored for having
no raision d’etre
before the rise of wind a man walking through the woods
was a man without memory
before the rise of wind it couldn’t be said
whether winter wind
or summer wind was harsher
In 1989, Xi Chuan participated in the student protests at Tiananmen Square. After the state repression, the exile of the Obscure poets, and the deaths of two close friends (also poets) from Beijing University, he wrote almost nothing for two years. In 1992, his magazine Tendency (Qingxiang) was shut down. He eventually returned to regular writing, but with a radically different vision. While not abandoning lyrical poetry, he began writing sharp prose poem sequences that use earthy, sometimes caustic, language to explore and question Chinese history, literature, and society. Some of the best pieces in Notes on the Mosquito (including the title poem) are these prose poems or poetic essays. The recent “Senses of Reality” and “Thirty Historical Reflections” suites are at once wonder-filled and bleakly funny: they cover everything from wild boars to a Sanskrit-inscribed brick found in an antique shop to the behavior of ghosts during the Six Dynasties:
In the Six Dynasties, ghosts were educated, and could discuss The Five Classics with humans and debate atheists about the existence of ghosts.
In the Six Dynasties, men had successful romances, but the successes were due to ghosts: female ghosts would host banquets in the grave, and what man wouldn’t make an appearance?
In the Six Dynasties, swans were kindhearted, and would pursue a person for five or six miles, just to give back a shoe.
In the Six Dynasties, the tigers were the contrarians, waiting for men to take a piss outdoors so they could bite off their dicks.
Xi Chuan has translated Borges and even written a poem about him, but these prose poems bring to mind another great Argentine: Julio Cortazar in quizzical sketches like Cronopios and Famas.
His poems also bring to mind the Western modernists: urban surrealism, clear images expressed in laconic language, black humor, and dialogues with the dead. But one also thinks of the classical Chinese poets: atmospheres and experiences captured in a few words, a slight shift in mood (a change in the weather, the sight of an inscription on a tree) evoking entire worlds:
An old man with a broom sweeps the street clean.
A middle-aged man paints his door green.
At Allah’s command an ox exits the city alone to wander the Pamirs alone.
A girl returns to her hometown after traveling the world and finds the prisons of her hometown abandoned for fifty years.
Mountains all around, mountains harboring gold and not bandits.
One also thinks of a Chinese wisdom writer as great as Zhuangzi. Xi Chuan has a similarly playful and puzzling mind, embracing the bafflement and ambiguity of the world. Zhuangzi himself makes an appearance in these poems, as do other luminaries of Chinese literature, philosophy, and history: the “grand historian” Sima Qian, the satirical poet Sima Xiangru, the poets of the Tang Dynasty, and even Confucius. These presences are as much a part of Xi Chuan’s landscape as Beijing’s streets, the South Xinjiang mountains, or the huge Chinese plains. From a poem called “Plains”:
the darkness must be dealt with prudently
especially the dog barks and birdcalls traveling too far in the dark
a thousand miles of rainfall, in which someone must be stranded
ten-thousand-mile-away news on a flickering TV
turning around doesn’t mean going home
going home doesn’t mean home is where it used to be
to dream of the plains on the plains is a plain thing to do
to dream of Confucius on the plains is as far from plain as Confucius dreaming of the Duke of Zhou
Xi Chuan is something of a wisdom writer himself. The fact that he plays ironic and theatrical games with his writing is actually in keeping with a great deal of Chinese philosophy (Zhuangzi again). From a poem called “Exhortations”:
Don’t demand too much of the world. Don’t hold on to your sleeping wife while dreaming of high-yield margins. Don’t light lamps in the daytime. Don’t smear people’s faces. Remember: don’t piss in the wild. Don’t sing in a cemetery. Don’t take promises lightly. Don’t be annoying. Make wisdom something useful.
This can’t be taken completely at face value, of course, as Xi Chuan is very far from an exhorter. What unites his lyric poems and his essay-poems is that they all carry a sense of the world’s plenitude -- evoked so gorgeously in a poem like “South Xinjiang Notes” -- and of the world’s puzzlement. The plenitude is itself bewildering (what to make of the Turkic Muslims he runs into in beautiful South Xinjiang?) and the bewilderment has a certain beauty, as in his poem “Discoveries”:
even the Tang Dynasty fell in the end
even dumpsters have people living in them
even indulgent idealists have no clue how to live
even men with sloped shoulders run away from home
even the doctor got gonorrhea but he kept working
even the drunk knew the way home but forgot which door
even birds learn how to keep silent in May
even the living dead will scream out “Save me!”
For English-speakers, Notes on the Mosquito is a way out of our scandalous literary disorientation (literally: “losing the East”), and into the thrilling disorientation of Xi Chuan’s keen, perceptive mind.