December 20, 2019
Thanks to Alissa Simon, HMU Tutor, for today’s post.
“When you think you’re getting good, be humble. There’s no end to the learning.” – Arthur Sze
In a previous post, I mentioned that The Silk Dragon was one of my favorite anthologies. Since I dabble with translations, I find it instructive. But also, for non-translator’s Sze’s practice is enlightening. Recently, I was lucky enough to attend a discussion and lecture by poet and translator Arthur Sze (shortly after he won the 2019 National Book Award for Poetry). The following describes a bit about his work and a bit about the evening.
In the introduction to The Silk Dragon, Sze explains, “…the mind is a dragon. In Chinese culture a dragon embodies magic, transformation and energy. Wolfram Eberhard once wrote, ‘As a magic animal, the dragon is able to shrink to the size of a silkworm; and then it can swell up till it fills the space between heaven and earth.’ Li Shang-yin wrote in a famous untitled poem, included in this collection: ‘A spring silkworm spins silk up/ to the instant of death.’ That phrase can be taken as metaphor for how a poetry works with language. The ‘silk’ dragon’ then is my metaphor for poetry.” In other words, the poetry contains a magic, a transformation and an energy of its own, without which it is considered dead.
To demonstrate the painstaking process of translation, Sze shared a sample of his process (there is a similar example included in the introduction to The Silk Dragon). For each poem, he writes a list of approximate English translations underneath each Chinese character. Since Chinese conveys more with an ideogram than a single word in English can convey, there is some immediate loss. One example that Sze shared in the discussion was that the word sorrow contains two characters, one of which is autumn. So, already there is no way to pull that image into the English translation.
Though he feels this loss with each poem and each word, without the attempt at translation, we are left without any cultural crossover. The idea of transferring some image (regardless of deficits) from the Chinese culture into English reminds me of a line from Sze’s own poem “Lichen Song” which reads: “I stay gripped to pine and the sugar of existence runs through you runs through me.” In other words, this connection is vital, even if imperfect. Furthermore, the invocation of sugar indicates that the imperfections even contain a sort of sweetness. Sze’s translations offer a view of a world that no longer exists, and of which we would be ignorant otherwise. The importance of translation cannot be overstated, and yet, it largely goes unnoticed. Many of the books which we take for granted have arrived through translation. This includes works by Sappho, Homer, Dostoevsky, Dante, Anne Frank, Cervantes, Goethe, Proust, Kafka, and many, many more.
Not only does Sze work at translations, but his newest book of poetry, Sight Lines, just won the National Book Award. Sze’s obvious attachment to nature arrives through careful, paced observation. What most impresses me about his poetry is the interconnectedness of his work. The images and actions have a globalizing effect which takes the commonplace and mixes it with the special and unique. I love how he places the local within larger, global contexts. For example, in “Beyond Completion” (from Redshifting Web) he writes: “The night is rich with floating pollen;/ in the morning, we break up the soil/ to prepare for corn. Fossilized cotton pollen/ has been discovered at a site above six thousand feet./ As the character yi, change, is derived/ from the skin of a chameleon, we are/ living the briefest hues on the skin/ of the world. I gaze at the Sombrero Galaxy/ between Corvus and Spica: on a night with no moon,/ I notice my shadow by starlight.” This ends the first section of his poem. The second section then begins with the vital question: “Where does matter end and space begin?” Sze does less philosophizing than grouping. He draws images to paper and then rearranges them in a way that makes profound statements. Images that would seem contradictory actually complement.
In his poem “Water Calligraphy” (from Sight Lines), a group of people traveling by canoe arrive at land and ask permission to beach their canoes. In an interview, Sze explains that “[W]hen they ask and receive permission to land, they enact a form of respect and responsibility, humility and reciprocal engagement that we can all benefit from.” While there are other phenomenal qualities to Sze’s poems, I wanted to focus on the idea of humility and respect. He is generous with life and people. Careful observation of something (or someone) that might go unnoticed otherwise is a source of reverence, peace and hope. In giving voice to something like the lichen of “Lichen Song,” Sze demonstrates a way towards a more just, hopeful future: one that prioritizes listening and attention.
“…if you slowed you could discover that mosquitoes bat their wings six hundred times a second and before they mate synchronize their wings….and if you absorb not blot my song you could learn you are not alone in pain and grief” – Lichen Song
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