Panax Ginseng: Poems, Places, Habitations
Panax Ginseng is a monthly column by Henry W. Leung exploring the transgressions of linguistic and geographic borders in Asian American literature, especially those which result in hybrid genres, forms, vernaculars, and visions. The column title suggests the congenital borrowings of the English language, deriving from the Greek panax, meaning “all-heal,” and the Cantonese jansam, meaning “man-root.” The troubling image of one’s roots as a panacea will inform the column’s readings of new texts.
“The China Issue” of Cha: An Asian Literary Journal presents itself with an ambiguous title. It is the journal’s literary issue on China, but it might just as well be ‘the issue of China,’ i.e. the problem of it, a claim to authority and singularity; or simply ‘the issue of representing China,’ the question of it, the difficulty. ‘China’ as a thematic boundary is naturally complex for a journal based in Hong Kong—but virtually, over the internet—and presented in English. Most of this issue’s poems are translations from the Chinese, with the originals preserved; of these, few refer explicitly to or narrow themselves by locality—except where those locations become outside points of reference (i.e. Zang Di’s “History of Daffodils” referencing Fukushima, or Zhai Yongming’s “Climbing the Heights on the Double Ninth,” which is self-conscious about the literary tradition of hiking on a traditional occasion). Some of the poems written in English, however, announce their ‘Chineseness’ with archetypal localities, such as romanticized pastorals of farmland China, or romance recalled as manufacture in Sumana Roy’s “Love: Made in China,” or the two poems with Beijing in their titles.
Place is fascinating and troubling to define. Is place a city by name, by reference, or by index? Or a collocation of buildings and objects seen as an outsider might see them, or as an insider might? Within the spaces shaped by buildings are cultures and languages—both mainstream and marginal—and the subjectivity of people and their relationships to history and memory.
Appropriately, a few of the poems in this issue deal with houses and architecture. From the English selections, Arthur Leung’s “Earthen Houses” is a poem finely wrought to formally mimic the tulou buildings of which he writes. W.F. Lantry offers a close reading of the poem’s rhythmic structure here, discussing the way earthen houses are constructed and making the general argument that poems are spaces of empathy allowing us to dwell in the poet’s mind. I wish to push his argument further and add that all architecture, real and linguistic, serves a rhetorical function. When Hisham Matar gave his recent Hopwood Roundtable Craft Talk in Michigan, he talked about his previous career in and passion for architecture; he said that architecture is not about geometry or numerical efficiency, but about people. The way a building is designed—round table or long table, restaurant booth or bar counter, high ceilings or low, windows and exposure to light, door handles—all of that affects the way people feel about themselves and the way they interact with others. Place is psychosomatic (in the old sense of the word, though the medical sense applies as well). He commented, therefore, that writing is not a ‘thing’ we do but a space we construct and enter. After all, what are buildings but walls—boundaries carving the abstraction of empty space, narratives framing chaos?
Arthur Leung’s poem, in addition to the imitative form Lantry lauds, transforms the communal nature of earthen houses into voice and persona. It begins, “Perhaps you wonder how mud fortifies,” addressing the reader as a stranger to the buildings but not as a tourist, not as a consumer. It is campfire-conversational. The next line gestures at the physical in close proximity—“rammed earth walls like these”—and the third line has a first-person plural that merges the speaker with the houses: “as though our wood frame tulou treads against / the weight of mountains.” This fourth line continues into the fifth to speak directly of coalescence: “We blend with stones, branches, / bamboo chips and let gravity push together . . .” That fifth line has no punctuation to separate one sequence of verbs and objects from another. These are intimate pronouns. The poem has no single “I.” Even the blending of languages can be seen in the italics: first “tulou” is italicized to distinguish it as a Chinese romanization, then “eat rice” is italicized to give a transliterated Chinese idiom, chifan, to commence a meal in welcome and good faith. Italicizing foreign words often serves to alienate them from the rest of the text, making them non-diegetic. But the italics here are a blend that makes the strange familiar just as much as it renders the familiar strange. We might even read it as the transformation of languages into objects—as an analogue for immersion in a good poem, in which we experience information as material.
W.F. Lantry’s poem “Forever Lasting Love,” similarly has a tri-stanzaic structure imitative of Zhang Xiaogang’s triptych panel, “Yongyuan Chijiu de Ai.” He “reads” the painting from left to right, describing the scene in a present tense into which we are flung with a spondee: “Now early April . . .” Unlike paintings, poems are inevitably sequential. We have to see the images as they are concatenated in words; thus the speaker of the poem explains as much as describes, for instance prioritizing “breasts and leafless trees” as the first painted image and establishing “this triptych’s wings” as a thematic frame which narrows into the birds and absence of birdsong this poet imbues into the piece. Thematic representation is the mode by which Lantry accomplishes an impression of visual synchronicity: echoes and the expanding ripples of naked figures and bare breasts, curled or bent forms, voicelessness, crocuses, birds. The stanza breaks indicate the panel folds, but by enjambing verbs along those spaces the poet keeps us suspended in two kinds of movement: linear travel (“while foreign birds // move from the center”) and motionless vitality (“those trees, dark stems uprooted, still survive / since in the final panel blossoms thrive”). This poem, like “Earthen Houses,” sets its boundaries and then navigates between them. The process of the poem is an instruction in its own logic, and a constant movement between sound and sight, synchronicity and linearity, the thing heard and the thing witnessed.
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Exile is a prominent theme among the poems translated from Chinese. Zhai Yongming’s “Abandoned House” looks at a house as an object for empathy, a double for the speaker’s own sorrow and isolation; house and person become reflections of each other, both in gesture and perception:
I often pass by there
In a variety of nervous postures
I’ve always been feeble come dusk
And that abandoned house shuts its eyes tight
As I stand and stare
Duo Duo’s “Night” begins in what seems to be a traditional meditation on the moon and its metaphors, then ends with a sudden self-revelation: “Ah moonlight, hinting at the clearly seen exile…”
And Wang Jiaxin’s long poem, “Commemoration,” deals heavily with solitude and alienation. In the second section, the poet writes: “ ‘In dream, you don’t know you’re a guest,’ you try / Repeating it in a different language.” In the fifth section there is the question of being “sarcastic in an alien land,” and in the eighth, the poet now asks, “What kind of fear needs to be quelled, so that alone / One can become?”
But these are loose interpretations of exile, in Albert Camus’ sense when he argued again and again that we are existentially exiled from ourselves, from the nations in our bodies. Here is Camus in The Rebel, explaining our impulse toward literature and so-called escapism: “Far from always wanting to [escape the world, men] suffer, on the contrary, from not being able to posses it completely enough, estranged citizens of the world, exiled from their own country.”
It is this universality of exile that leads me to read some of the other translated poems as engagements with the alien self. Xiao Kaiyu’s “A Telegram” confronts the slippery facts of memory, beginning with a date, “November 6, 1986,” then moving into a retrospective issuedfrom the future, then returning with uncertainty to 1985. The location and destination fluctuates from Harbin to Xining to Qaidam, none of them certain until a grave and life-altering telegraph arrives from home in Sichuan. The speaker of the poem is both subject and object, a fixed point of view that is yet rotating in the attempt to encounter the self.
Zang Di’s “History of Daffodils” sets off gargantuan, eschatological vibrations with the line, “The aftershocks continue in Fukushima” and references (to) maelstroms and extinction. Then our attention is diverted to the small, the local: daffodils. They are mirrors or refractions: “They are prepared / for us to see the different us.” And in “Rise Up Like a Snow Mountain,” we read:
On the window is a piece of paper
that tells fortune, but it will say the same thing whether you poke it
or not. On the paper is a small hole of poetry.
The ending note of poetry in this stanza points us toward fortune not as chance but—as is often the case in literature—as character, as inevitability. The unalterable fate, the unchangeable self: the poem as the process and attempt of transgression, perhaps as a way to see a different us.
Lastly, Zhai Yongming’s “Climbing the Heights on the Double Ninth” takes up the long, solitary tradition of poets ascending peaks and writing about the smallness of man in a hulking, beautiful world. “Today I raise a cup alone,” she writes. “Who will answer my echo? / Wine poured down the throat” flows into the body. Here is where she does something different: “Problems of desire and mortality / [of] separation and health / Also change inside the throat” and these problems “become nimble yet meticulous.” Transformation occurs in the passage of the throat, downward with the wine and its troubles and simultaneously upward with the voice of the poet.
The body as a site of passage. The poem as a site of entry, where understanding changes into vision. I’m reminded of the ancient Greek sophists and their technique for memorizing speeches: by associating each section of the argument with a different room of their houses, such that their recited language was an enacted walkthrough of the home—every outward expression also an inner journey. And I think again of the fifth section of Wang Jiaxin’s “Commemoration,” where he asks:
(But should Homer revise that flimsy ending
To the epic?) You put down The Times
And your mother tongue comes out in tears. . . .
And earlier, in the fifth section: “Buy a copy of The Times, not to read / But to bury one’s face into.” He points us to the timelessness of language as emotion, of authorities and canons as things we reconfigure and engage with personally. History is a site to inhabit, too. When we narrate our dreams and say, “I open the blinds and now I’m in my parents’ house,” what we really mean is, “Now I think or recognize that I’m in my parents’ house, that I’ve been in it all along, and yet I haven’t been in it at all because that’s not all it is.” We overlap everywhere with poems, with languages, with memories, with spaces of imagination and solitude across continents and times.