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.
All reviews by Greg Bem unless marked otherwise.
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