Bei Dao: Four Poems, Newly Translated

Posted by Lidya Endzo Kun iLLa On 7:17 AM
Translation from Chinese by Clayton Eshleman & Lucas Klein

THE REPLY

Contempt is the passport of the contemptible,
Gravitas is the epitaph of the grave.
See, in this aureate sky,
the bent, floating reflections of the dead.

They say that the glacial era has passed,
why then is ice everywhere?
The Cape of Good Hope has been sighted,
why do a thousand ships still clash on the Dead Sea?

I have come into this world,
bringing only paper, cord, and shadow,
to defend before the trial
those voices that have been judged:

I tell you, world,
I—do—not—believe!
Be there a thousand challenges underfoot,
count me as number one thousand and one.

I do not believe the sky is blue;
I do not believe the thunder’s echoes;
I do not believe that dreams falsify;
I do not believe in death without retribution.

If the sea is doomed to smash the embankments,
let all the brack dump into my heart;
if dry land is doomed to rise,
let all humanity claim a new summit.

A new turn for the better with twinkling stars
is being stitched into the unbarricaded sky—
it is an ideogram from five thousand years ago,
the staring eyes of the people of tomorrow.


BEYOND

A bottled up storm commands the sea advancing
beyond the dock, on a night afloat with insomnia
lovers embracing link up chains of power
beyond the painting’s frame, classically smiling plaster statues
use a single day’s shadows to speak
beyond belief, stallions have caught up with death
relentlessly the moon stamps its seal on black events
beyond the story, a plastic tree flaps in the breeze
this dismal grain is the excuse for our existence


APPLE AND STUBBORN ROCK

The sea’s prayer ritual
one bad weather bending down

in vain stubborn rock guards May
resisting the green contagion

the four seasons take turns axing the tree
many stars are identifying the road

with his balancing skills the drunkard
breaks the inner siege of time

a bullet pierces an apple
life has been put on loan


A NEW CENTURY

Hearts leant to honor, the earth darkens
we read the light in the Book of
Cement, read the truth

The golden bomb blows up
we are willing to turn into victims
and to display our wounds to others

On some photo-negative an archeologist
will discover the spirit of the times
which a child grabs onto, saying no,

it is history that prevents us from flying
birds that prevent us from walking
legs that prevent us from dreaming

we who give birth to ourselves
who are birth


A NOTE ON TRANSLATING BEI DAO
by Clayton Eshleman & Lucas Klein

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, 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.

The four poems presented here can also be found in the following collections: “The Reply,” Bei Dao’s most famous poem, is from The August Sleepwalker (New Directions, 1990, tr. by Bonnie S. McDougall, English version only); the other three poems are from Forms of Distance (New Directions, 1994, tr. by David Hinton, a bilingual presentation).

CE / LK, September 2009

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