This [collection] is a rare effort to “open the window” for western readers onto the last fifty years of Chinese poetics.
The title of the new collection of Chinese poetry in translation published by Copper Canyon Press, Push Open the Window: Contemporary Poetry from China, is an unsubtle but effective metaphor for how little most westerners know about poetry being written in China right now. Many readers will have read translations from classical Chinese literature, with poets-cum-translators David Hinton, Kenneth Rexroth and Ezra Pound having done much to introduce us to them. But this is a rare effort to “open the window” for western readers onto the last fifty years of Chinese poetics.
The title also has a double meaning. The introduction notes that Chinese poets, until recently, had little ability to correspond with literary currents flowing through the rest of the world. So it is also about the window that has been opened up for Chinese poets to see and learn from poets around the world.
But it is not simply a window you can look through and say, “Ah ha! There it is!” We usually encounter what is on the other side of that window through the medium of the translator. From my own personal experience, I always wonder who I am reading when I read Rexroth’s beautiful collections of Asian poetry in translation. Am I reading Tu Fu or am I actually reading Rexroth?
But when commenting on poetry in translation when one does not read and write in the original tongue requires us to accept the translator’s choices as valid, so…
Push Open the Window is a collection of poems, taken from the writings forty-nine different poets born after 1945. The order is more or less chronological, arranged by the poet’s birthday.
It can’t be said that the quality of these poems is even, but it can be said that there is a certain trend. The quality and sophistication of the poets seems to go up as the poets get younger and younger. The earliest poets have a sort of untutored enthusiasm – almost like naïve art – touched by the political.
The first poet in the collection, for example, Shi Zhi, I could not truly enjoy on the level of literature. But his poem, BELIEVE IN THE FUTURE, with its stanzas ending in the line, “believe in the future,” have the plaintive pull of someone desperately trying to communicate something that education, society or politics prevents them from fully expressing.
Over the course Push Open the Window, you can see the work become more sophisticated.
One of my favorites came very nearly in the middle of the book. By the poet Hai Zi, it is called “A Poem Dedicated to the Final Night and the First Day:”
Tonight your black hair
Is a lonesome night upon a rock
Shepherds use snow-white herds
To fill the darkness circling the airport
The night falls asleep earlier than I
The night is a god’s wound
You are my wound
Sheep and flowers are also the rock’s wounds
Snow mountains use heavy snow to fill the darkness circling the airport
What the snow mountain goddess eats are beasts, wears are fresh flowers
Tonight ninety-nine snow mountains tower above heaven
Make me restless all night
Tragically, Hai Zhi killed himself in March of 1989, the month before the Tiananmen Square protest began. What touched me about this particular poem was the combination of a style that I recognize as contemporary but that is also in correspondence with those translations from classical poets.
I do not believe I am going out on a limb by saying that the more recent poets in Push Open the Window are much more fully connected to the larger literary world. As barriers to the rest of the world have dropped, poets have benefitted by cross pollination with other traditions.
Though only a few poems are included by each writer, I was struck by how prolific so many of them are. Certainly, any MFA student in America would salivate at the idea of publishing as many collections in America as some of these writers have in their native China.
Most of the introductions-cum-brief biographies that appear before each poet’s work appears were something of a weakness. There was very nearly a different translator for each poet and no apparent style sheet for how to compose them. Some were little more than lists of publications and accomplishments. Others were suspiciously glowing accounts of a particular poet’s genius and importance.
The number of translators also led to another potential issue. A single translator would have enabled a more accurate understanding of the development and changes within Chinese poetry over the last fifty years. With so many different translators, how can one be sure that a perceived, new rhetorical addition to the bag of tricks available to Chinese poets isn’t just a tic of one translator as opposed to another?
Appreciating the works simply as poems can be hard with a collection like Push Open the Window. It is hard to escape seeing it a sort of historical or sociological document on the evolution of literary schema rather than as a work of literature. What is more, with the variations in the quality of the poems, I find it hard to believe that historical thinking was not a factor in the selection process – that this book was intended to document the progress of literary evolution and not just to provide the best literary products.
But as a reminder to every reader, including me, Push Open the Window does deserve consideration on its own merits as a collection of poetry, here is an excerpt from my favorite poem in the book:
The Shape of the Sea
by Jiang Hao
Every time you ask me about the shape of the sea,
I should go get two bags of seawater.
This is the shape of the sea, it’s like a pair of eyes;
Or rather this is the shape of the sea as seen by eyes.