Review: CHA: AN ASIAN LITERARY JOURNAL, ISSUE 12
Cha: An Asian Literary Journal | Issue 12 | September 2010
Let’s dive straight in, examining three of the issue’s first poems and their wrestle with words and meanings.
Phill Provance’s interlace poem “St. Petersburg Has Many Churches,” is perhaps the most abstruse, though its diction remains commonplace. The poem’s charm lies not in its form but in its unself-conscious vernacular. Its colloquial voice, inconsistent in a way typical to modern speech, uses contractions here but not there, and lumbers along monosyllabic platforms (many its, thats, and ises). The loftiest word is “ellipticizing,” but this neologism, rather than conjugating the Latinate directly (“ellipsing”), invokes the urban by conjugating gym ellipticals as root. All this results in the naturalization of the poem’s anfractuous form, such that it flows with incidental ease. This is hard to achieve. Provance himself comments that the poem is designed to be accessible despite its layered meanings, which makes it an appropriate gateway poem to the journal. Yet: why is a poem about St. Petersburg, or his second poem remembering lost love, placed as the opening of an “Asian Literary Journal”? The third stanza of “St. Petersburg” describes a vaguely Zen mode of seeing, but the other poem has nothing culturally comparable. We’ll return to this.
Fiona Sze-Lorrain’s “A Talk With Mao Tze-tung,” though also colloquial, achieves a much steadier voice. This poem addresses the quondam Chairman’s mortal absence, because “you are nowhere / until a Swedish journalist recites your poetry / and wonders . . .” Living, and dead, and revived, Mao’s core vitality resides in his words and ideas, which become corporeal by revolutions. Thoughts march, words poison, books are buried. And along the way, vituperation must question itself: “why am I talking to you, dead man?” It seems language persists even when we don’t desire it, and since “history has no last word,” this poem ends in questions, and the talk with Mao must pause until an answer comes alive again.
Kim-An Lieberman’s two poems are among my favorites for their adroitness. “After Ten Years,” a loose-octameter poem, turns list into narrative. The “Because” reiteration chants and expiates, swelling to crescendo; the final line hits the kind of poetic denouement that evokes quiet “hm”s from audiences at readings. In “Harvest,” we begin in miniatures (“single beads, stray buttons, broken twigs”) and end in nature’s enormity. The sound of children’s jubilance masks the tone and the suffocating fish onshore, until the ending when the ominous “sudden true hand” comes forth unveiled. Lieberman distinguishes herself in poetic brevity with truncated phrases like “This is not to sing / a strange-eyed child, some oracular pure . . .” and doesn’t sacrifice clarity for linguistic decoration, or vice versa.
* * *
Most of the poems in this issue fit the “Asian” label easily enough, apprehending in some way the international context of culture. An obvious example features the tourist/outsider as observer. Helle Annette Slutz’s “Another City Which You Leave” triptych takes us through a foreigner’ travels through China: Turfan (mistakenly naming the Mogao caves instead of the Bezeklik caves?), Beijing, and Shanghai. In the first, she vivifies statues as only an outsider’s imagination can: “I watch them unbutton, untie, de-robe / and fold emerald silks and saffron cottons into stone.” This is used to great poetic effect, though the same turn of vision comes cheaply when she concludes self-consciously as a poet writing this poem. Peters Bruveris’s “Notes from Travels in China, I” and Xu Zhimo’s “Farewell River Cam” are two more evidently outsider poems, to which I’ll return when discussing translations.
Other “Asian” poems take Chinese places as their subject. W.F. Lantry’s “Rainbow Bridge” is a kind of translation, deriving from a Song Dynasty scroll painting that, in this case, is evidence of a woven bridge having existed in antiquity. Lantry wonderfully demonstrates the limitations of visual art without language; his poem verb-alizes the painting, not only exalting in the details but animating them and, in the process, expounding instructions to build such a bridge. The attention to detail would be prolix if not for the enjambment and inconsistent rhymes. Another poem, Steven Schroeder’s “You Can Smell Roads,” situates itself in Shenzhen (according to Reid Mitchell’s review), and execrates the urban displacing the rural. Formally it’s pleasant, the first sentence flowing across three stanzas, and the title line melodizing: “you can smell roads / where rivers ran.” But the conclusion is a blunt judgment, and neglects the mixed cultural connotations in “a young city growing old”—as if to age were simply to lose moral innocence.
The poems that don’t immediately fit any distinct cultural categories include Provance’s two poems, Annie Zaidi’s “Diaphragm,” and Marco Yan’s “Remembrance.” Not that an Asian journal has to meet presuppositions about content—but Cha’s self-applied category invites scrutiny. Provance’s “What I Said To Her Was Not A Lie” is an anonymized lost-love poem with no distinguishing context in race, culture, locality, or language. Zaidi’s “Diaphragm” is a heuristic exploration of closeness between lovers. Yan’s “Remembrance” meditates on the lingering destination of breaths belonging to someone deceased or gone away. What pattern emerges from these three apparently inapposite poems? The body. “Diaphragm” touches on this from the start: “If a lover wants to be / close, closer / than skin . . .” Poetry’s bottom line is always a discourse of human language; even if we regard it only linguistically or dialectically, situated between the formally written and the colloquially spoken, we cannot forget the role the body plays. Especially in a sometimes bilingual journal, the body communicates as universally as narrative.
* * *
I laud Cha for being international and diglossic, because the presence—or shadow—of other languages encourages us to confront our own more objectively. One poem in this issue is bilingual, and three are translations (I include “Rainbow Bridge,” tentatively). This is atypical of most literary journals, and for that reason, reading Cha is a great privilege.
Eddie Tay’s “Cities” features an alternating refrain in Traditional Chinese. The footnotes have the translations reversed, a typographical curiosity that turns the Chinese into interjections rather than responses to preceding lines. Read properly, they function as an embedded inner monologue, as though the English were the ego’s narration and the Chinese the superego’s mantra. It isn’t common to see two languages interchanged effectively in poems; one usually commands the other, or the first remedies the second’s insufficiency. In Tay’s poem, disparate languages enter equally from different facets of a single mind. Were the syntax of the lines not interlaced and the first not repeated, the Chinese would be a distraction from the poem. Instead, it holds the poem’s sentiment—disappointed change and resolve—together.
Bruveris’s “Notes from Travels in China, I” is translated by Inara Cedrins. The linguistic transitions are impressive: its short, trailing lines and unconnected stanzas are a fine attempt at a haiku spirit written into (vaguely Chinese) couplets, written in Latvian and translated into English. But the title foretells the poem’s major flaw: garrulous and sprawling in statement, it reads like fragments from a sentimentalist’s journal more than a unified poem. It fails to achieve the ecstatic vision of short image-lines; the narration, self-consciousness, and hodgepodge of articles and prepositions are all supererogatory. For example, “in evening twilight” starts with an unneeded preposition, then iterates the same time of day twice; just “twilight” suffices for the line. But the couplets in the third-from-last section are the strongest, pared down to vivacity:
above Jasper Gate
a fish in the canal
both, with minimal words, leave lasting images and the surprise of movement.
Xu Zhimo’s famous poem, a stanza of which has been memorialized on a monument in the back walk of King’s College, is translated by Clara Hsu in this issue. She takes minor liberties with it, titling the poem “Farewell River Cam” though the original bids farewell to “Cambridge.” But otherwise she adheres closely to the Chinese, quatrain by quatrain. Her major contributions to translations of this poem are tightened language and strong, active verbs. The broken reflection of the rainbow concludes with a wonderful susurrus: “immersed in illusory dreams.” And Hsu’s coinage, “Silence is the wind of parting,” remains faithful to the sense in Chinese while also refreshing our English idiom. All that lacks now for translations of this poem is preservation of rhyme—imperative, I’d argue, since Xu’s purpose was to import Romantic mannerisms to 20th-century Chinese poetry—but until then Hsu’s free-verse modernization suffices brilliantly.
* * *
It’s been a pleasure to read and review this issue of Cha, which has the virtue not only of being an accessible journal representing diverse talents but of being international and thus representing diverse geographical perspectives. If you followed the links to these poems, you’ll know that many are paired with commentary or reviews in the correlating blog, A Cup of Fine Tea, emphasizing the dialogue that small-press literary journals are intended to be.
The blog also regularly promotes the journal’s contributors, and on it you’ll find recent nominations for Pushcart, Best of the Net, and Best of the Web prizes. While confessing that I only read the poems nominated from this issue, I’ll say that the editors do seem to favor poems that employ periphrastic repetition as a means to circle around answers. I won’t agree or disagree with their selections, but I do hold that the power of poetry to move derives from either its narrative force, or its accurate reproduction of the poet’s process toward vision and clarity.
I don’t know how many of us read hard copies of literary journals from start to finish. Online, it’s even easier to skip from page to page. Yet an editorial decision of organization must be made. In this issue of Cha, we begin in St. Petersburg, Russia, ellipticizing. We end in Cambridge, in translated Chinese, waving farewell. Have we been visitors to Europe and England all along? Outsiders to the English language? If so, where do we travel next?