First Mountain by Zhang Er and Translated with Joseph Donahue (Zephyr Press, 2018)
In November 2001, my extended family in China arranged a special burial ceremony for my paternal grandparents who had died in the past decade, seven years apart, both in their 90s. We, the living, were to move their ashes from Beijing, where they had lived their last twenty-five years, back to their ancestral home in Shanxi province. It was their wish to be buried together in the family cemetery. [. . .] my mother, my brother and I—physically carried the ashes on the train journey from Beijing to the remote mountainside village of Nan Po, southeast of Shanxi province.
(from the book’s introduction)
Passage is narrative. We push forward and time floats by. Things live. Things die. The world changes. The familial persists. Discomfort. Strategizing. Documentation. The longest glances that are like flutters, frenzies, rhythms of light bouncing and scattering and moving from abrupt brightness to soft remains.
First Mountain is Washingtonian poet Zhang Er’s latest collection of verse, and it is towering. Monumental, as similarly described by co-translator and life-time friend of Zhang Er, Joseph Donahue.
A note on the process of language translation on this book: First Mountain was written by Zhang Er in Chinese, and then translated into English. This form was then visited and explored and refined through a collaborative process with Joseph Donahue. Despite not being fluent in Chinese, Donahue applied a second set of eyes to heightening the mountainous qualities of the book, in a sense. His presence is an additive one.
I finally feel the weight of
the baggage, the silence.
“Welcome to Beijing”
Wide banner, a toothy snarl.
Travelers, dazed and sleepless.
(from “Xizhi Men Station”)
Though it’s not clear how much contribution Donahue provides poem by poem, they certainly did, collectively, no harm to the text. A benefit to the context of the translation is a closing piece for the collection demonstrating the process of communication and collaboration, and direct discussion of the text between Donahue and Zhang Er. To see this process is to feel even more stunned, feel pulled even more inward, to make the passage through the text a higher, exceptional passage.
The book moves from before, during, and after a sequence of death and burial rituals for the poet’s grandparents. Susan M. Schultz describes the book aptly, stating that it contains “stories of returning their ashes to their hometown, about the family members who gather around those ashes. It’s also a book about love: grandparents married for many decades, the author’s marriage, her love for her young daughter.” These things and more fill the pages of First Mountain, which feels like a primal stack of notes and investigations into the ritual of self-reflection.
The experience was more than a cultural shock to me. I was traveling back through time and space to a landscape and soundscape strange yet somehow familiar, where I found my ancestors, my clan members, and an elaboration of the relation of life and death. An entire unfamiliar and ancient belief system was presented to me in the span of just a few days.
(from the book’s introduction)
Much of Zhang Er’s poetry is personal, and there is no exception here. The book feels pacing, tension, intension, and trepidation at the process of returning to the Chinese homeland her family still occupies and knows. Lives through. Socializes within. The book documents these feelings of transience and transfer: an intentional moment replicated in a conceptual book during and beyond the journey.
Mountains can be and have been many symbols. The height of them, as one that may be discovered and endured by human movement, represents a feeling of passing, and in First Mountain there is the first passage. Zhang Er’s expressions and exhibitions ultimately feel primary, feel “first” here, feel as though this set of experiences may be archetypal, may be Aristotelean, may be neatly packaged in a cradle of the world return.
And passage is return. Passage is return to the memory of movement. Perception of a reality that may be traversed elevates the delivery. For Zhang Er as the poet exacting the return, the return to the extremities of the symbolic heights, both literally and figuratively, results in a flourishing and immediate beauty of the bounty that is within this book.
The poems here, collected pauses and spirited moments of grace, are intensely immediate, actually. They are at once stapled marks and fourth dimensional in their temporariness. There is relativity. There is collectivity. There is the breeze forward, forward, forward.
A desire to trace the cheek bones with a finger
to cup with both hands
the curves of the chin, a petite nose
round moist lips,
to feel the glow of health,
the beauty of a daughter,
as I might feel the clear stream of the Apricot River.
(from “My Grandmother’s Village”)
The passage forward is worldly. Though Zhang Er is Chinese American, this identity marches forward and merges well with her visit into a historic, uniquely present China. She brings into her work references and allusions along the path, and these integrations rarely feel forced. They feel as all parenthetical experiences and qualities feel: wholesome and encompassing. Holistic.
Ancient Chinese stories. Notes on funerary colors and processes. Genealogical and familial rules and norms. The anthropology within First Mountain is supplemental and intelligently low-key. It adds and remains profound. The layers of culture contained within this explicitly autobiographical collection reflect upon a poet’s center of self as a center contained within a whole. And that whole gets built, and gets finished.
Heavenly blue eyed, gold-beaked crane.
Where are you going?
To harvest stars?
To cup the moon? To fly
naked to the naked sun?
Strong wings, paper wings.
(from “Paper Craft”)
Though I would argue the epic quality of Zhang Er’s book does provide a strong linear narrative that allows for traditional modes of drama, emotional tension and release, and thoroughly controlled pacing, I would also argue that this book has a healthy distortion through its main theme: death. The book follows the programmatic representation and homage to the deaths of the poet’s grandparents. Death, end, completion. And also: cycle, reflection, repetition. The act of dying does not complete the person’s existence; the subject continues, sensibly vicarious, through the acts and respects of their family.
I have always found cultural understanding and examination and processing of death to be fascinating, and there is much fascination to be had in First Mountain. The book contains such severe reverence that it, as an extension of Chinese traditions, could serve to powerfully impact the readers and their cultures across the globe.
How does time pass?
Day after day,
a stream flowing in curves dislodges a pebble,
cracking open one’s own head.
A flower falls.
An army retreats,
(from “A New Research Project”)
Zhang Er’s renditions of translating these experiences are powerful and empowering; they afford the reader the opportunity to reflect and examine as personally. A modeler of this introspective finesse, Zhang Er combines the grave, the serious, the challenging with the superficial, the noise, that in life which offers counterpoint. From unnerving conversations with family members to analysis of the society and built environments of China, Zhang Er intersperses this layer as well. Another level of the mountain. Another subspace to form and stabilize the whole.
The balance throughout is also mirrored through one of the most powerful moments in the book: a reflection on marriage and the romance between Zhang Er and her husband. This sequence of musings provides a mature position of a writer who has multiple priorities and exhibits complexity through her structuring of the book.
You follow the teachings
yet still can’t distinguish those
wild flowers in your heart,
their names, their looks, even when they appear
as photos in the evening paper.
(from “Secret Words”)
I found the intimacy of a totally “other” piece of existence, a piece not of the book’s primary mode, to give the book, and Zhang Er, a significant pose. It challenges the book’s forward momentum by creating fracture and breaking off, forking, into a humanistic reality: the tangential is quintessential to each of us. Through our daily lives. Through our constructed representations. Through our art. As with staring through a series of pools of water and catching otherworldly levels of reflection, so too is the effect of the astounding and poly-breath here. And it gives First Mountain a stunning inwardness.
A Drink of Red Mirror by Kim Hyesoon and Translated by Jiwon Shin, Lauren Albin, and Sue Hyon Bae (Action Books, 2019)
With a long tongue I’ll suckle all your milk
and slurp up your brain
Two sheets of tongue like death
whine until the night wears out
and even without bodies
we flicked only our tongues
(from “Two Sheets of Tongue”)
Relentless. Gloriously grotesque. A statement on figure and body politics. Relationships, perceptions, and control. The new English translation of the incredible feminist surrealist approaches boundaries and absconds them. Her work is approachable and reproachable; an embrace of fascination and a rejection of horror.
These poems are bounties of binding and explosion, carefully considered expressions of crystalline order and salvaged wreckage. They are juxtapositions of voice, fields of life in decay, and a captured layering and distribution of the soulful human embodiment cum imprisonment. And answers of what it means to fully exist and fully break open into the ravings of liberty.
When you asked me What are you thinking?
I quickly pushed an earlobe dripping with blood
between your lips and said I’m not thinking of anything
Under the streetlamp two lilac trees recklessly tremble
(from “Weather Update”)
Unlike the previous Kim Hyesoon collections available in English, mostly done through the intensive and intense translations of Don Mee Choi, A Drink of Red Mirror is the result of a translation project. The cohort responsible falls under the guidance of Arizona State’s Professor Jiwon Shin. The book is a result of that cohort’s leading MFA students Lauren Albin and Sue Hyon Bae. The other contributing translators are students Rebecca Teague, Dakota Hale, Kevin Salter, Sierra Hamel, and Nicole Lindell.
This book is about the combing of translations in collectivity to find the sweet treasure of collaboration. Each poem in the book has its multiple translators identified. The weaving together creates a harmony in the tonal scope of the book. The book reaches extreme ends undeniably Hyesoonean, and the book falls in line through an integrity of language. There is an underlying flourish and roughness to these translations I don’t recall as present in Choi’s work. The result is an enjoyable satisfaction of grit.
When I enter the gorge of dreams
there’s that women, always waiting for me,
the woman who wanders the night of the ball
This morning she’s rotted black and smeared of asphalt
(from “Something Like a Poem”)
These poems fling and flail and ring and rail across the page. They are mesmerizing and filled with sublimity. They are at once the cacophonous crowd’s compounded tongue and the euphonic chorus. The speaker of each poem is the symbolic feminine extremely extended, hallmark protagonist of Hyesoon’s ongoing work. Translational differences, nuances, blemishes, uniquenesses aside, this book fits into the English canon of the brilliant South Korean poet. It is fascinating to imagine the choreographed poetics of a group whose shared goals plaster the space of knowing and fixity, and witnessing the emerged Hyesoon, the literary Hyesoon, Hyesoon-as-poetry, emerging forth, gaseous and spectacular upon or beside the anti-pedestal.
As mentioned, these poems are bodily-formed and focused. They feel prepositional. Concepts and identities within, and without, and between. They are transitory and trans-positional. They are poems that deal with self and other in a profound and provocative balancing act. The act is the initiative, and the initiative is the poet’s rhythmic awareness. This fortitude, this acute intuition, is represented through blazingly complex metaphor and nearly-mystical convergence of image and method for understanding. The voices of the speakers blend into the foreground and background of each poem’s narrative.
a child with a crushed chest a child whose lung at every breathing hole is filled with stones a child with ten fingers tattered like a folding fan a child whose two lips are stuck together a child whose eyeballs have melted a child whose teeth have been ground away a child whose ribs have been smashed away a child whose every strand of hair has been plucked a child whose blood among other things has been sucked into the drain a child whose tongue has been stretched like chewing gum a child whose brain has been sucked dry by a cat
(from “Eye of a Typhoon”)
There are subjects and spaces that these poems and their messages occupy, only to break down and mutate into other grounds, other centers, other platforms and placements. There is a sense of the futurist’s rapid positioning. A literary monstrosity born out of a 21st Century system for movement of tongue and text. A fluidity through the urgency of the present’s unknown, of the future’s distortion, of the demand for presence and a global-meets-personal actualization.
Unlike some of Hyesoon’s other English editions, A Drink of Red Mirror often feels situated and comfortable. I acknowledge a potential bias (I have read most of the other books too, and might simply be accustomed as an ongoing reader), and also believe that the works here do find a sutbtlety that reduces the Hyesoonean absurdity and extremity from eruptive splash to gurgling bubble. That is not to say these poems find softness or fragility; no, it’s quite the opposite—the levels of micro articulation and an incising examination make for significant complexities previously hidden.
The you inside you has a tight hold on your body that’s why your fingernails curl inward, the shell of your spiraling outer ear also gets sucked into your body if the you inside you lets go of its tight hold on your hand probably at that moment you will not exist in this world
This collection and these translations echo Don Mee Choi’s work—the fun and obsessively-ridiculous contexts and images—while ascribing more thoroughly examined scrapes and chiselings. The poems, many quite lengthy, take their time to flip through each setting and situation to grind the reader into the book. I felt, reading this, significantly displaced from stanza to stanza, often feeling pulled into a powerful current, a central energy (like a whirlpool, or flight through gravity), again and again.
Exhaustion and fatigue and a sense of the overwhelming. Pause and release and re-engagement. The track through worlds upon worlds calling forth rests upon rests. Each step forward through the 57 poems (broken into the book’s three sections) is astonishing and alleviating all-the-same. It is the smash of glass into ground. The overflow of water from basin to counter. The sun pressing outward from a rocky horizon. The veil forming and parting through a fogged-in plain.
The body of this book is filled with microcosmic interiors that range from close to far and all of in-between. An exploration of this text is a commitment to the tense and swollen core of existence and beautiful fractures of the individualized experience.
All reviews by Greg Bem unless marked otherwise.
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