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The Crane, Foreword by Liu Xun

Liu Xun introduces The Crane, Selected Poems of Yau Noi (Dedalus Press, 2022), translated by Liu Xun and Harry Clifton

Chinese literature has always been almost too immense to talk about, for myself or for many lecturers working in institutions outside of China. It’s a literature that has witnessed more than five thousand years of social, political, as well as historical change. If a lecturer chooses to lecture on the subject, what must be included on the syllabus? Mythology, classical poetry from ancient times to the 1900s, essays by literates of all dynasties, vernacular novels, modern poetry, contemporary novels? Fortunately, the present project offered a clearer path, as there is no need to scope out such immensity but only to focus on four decades of time.

That said, to offer some context on modern Chinese poetry, I would like to elaborate on its historical evolution and how it relates to classical Chinese poetry, that is poetry written in Classical Chinese and typified by certain traditional forms and genres. As modern Chinese poetry was part of the language evolution, I will begin with a brief introduction to classical Chinese poetry. Classical Chinese poetry is traditional Chinese poetry written in Classical Chinese and typified by certain traditional forms and genres. The existence of classical Chinese poetry can be traced back to 1100 BC, which can be documented by the publication of Shi Jing (Classic of Poetry). Over the ages, various forms and genres have been adopted. Today, the most well-known forms are Han Fu, Tang Shi, and Song Ci (folk ballads, romantic poetry, and poems intended for singing, respectively). Modern Chinese poetry, including new poetry or modern vernacular poetry, mostly refers to post Qing Dynasty poetry. Modern Chinese poetry became increasingly popular with the New Culture and 4th May movements. As an alternative to the traditional poetry written in classical Chinese, experimental poetic styles and ‘free verse’ were adopted by many poets.

On one hand, four decades of time counts as nothing in the grand history of Chinese literature. On the other, four decades can be incredibly important to the story of modern Chinese literature. During these four decades, not only was a country’s destiny reshaped but also millions of destinies were totally redirected. Our poet Yau Noi was one of those millions.

Yau Noi, also known as Wa Lan (a former pseudonym) comes from a small village in Jiangsu Province, Southern China. He was born in 1965; his birthplace, a farm in Linhai, was several hours’ bike ride from the nearest bus station. During his years in junior high school, he fell in love with poetry and excelled in Chinese; the school principal encouraged him to represent his county by participating in the national writing contest. However, this did not change his fate. After graduating from high school, Yau Noi, like all his classmates, was not admitted to a university. Instead, he returned to Linhai and began to help his father to support the family by working on the family farm. He contracted 13 acres of rice fields and raised 8 black pigs. He picked two large buckets of pig food and walked a mile and a half to feed the pigs every day. Despite the exhausting and repetitive labour, he did not give up his dream of becoming a poet and read eagerly anything that could be accessed from an isolated farm. Under heavy manual labour, he was not giving up his dream to become a poet. He was eager to read anything that could be accessed from an isolated farm.

In 1984, Yau Noi finally had the opportunity to escape from farm life to work in a county town. In 1985, he read ‘the Misty poets’ (*1) for the first time. Drawn by the fascinating world of poetry, he decided to quit his job to write. Later that year, Yau Noi went to Beijing. In Beijing, he joined the circle of poets and met Xuedi, Xing Tian, and Wei Mang, the main members of the ‘Yuanmingyuan Poetry Society’ (*2). His encounters with the Beijing poets during this period had a profound impact on him.

In terms of poetic content and aesthetic tendency, Yau Noi’s poetry preserves the temperament of ‘Misty Poetry’, as well as the seeking of an ideal world. He also claims that he has been deeply influenced by Paul Celan. It was Celan who encouraged him to draw strength and poetic inspiration from suffering. This influence can be seen when we read his poetry recalling his childhood memories, especially from the lines talking about freezing winters and deformed body parts. Besides, from Celan’s introduction, Yau Noi became interested in ‘Russian poetry from the Silver Age’ (*3).  He once revealed his love for Osip Mandelstam. After leaving Beijing, Yau Noi met Cheng Shang in Nanjing. Under the influence of Cheng Shang, his poetry gradually developed a surrealist style, as we read nowadays.

For myself, I did not directly witness those great changes. When taking on this poetry translation, I felt I had to travel back with our poet to the winters of rural China, then to the exciting years in Beijing of the ’80s and after, following a solo cosmopolitan wanderer to explore his world.

I often worked late into the night. Yau Noi is a poet of the emotions, but always grounded or earthed in his work. We have divided the poems of The Crane into three sections which, loosely, follow the three main ‘movements’ of the poet’s writing life, ‘Before’, ‘During’ and ‘After’, the ‘During’ section inspired by and describing the profound changes that took place in China during the poet’s early years. For me, the intensity of the emotions evoked was almost beyond my experience, especially in the poems from his early period. The three periods together describe a journey from ‘the unbearable heaviness of being’ to ‘the unbearable lightness of being.’ From the perspective of Yau Noi, life can be as suffocating as the dense wintery fogs or as light as the cooking fumes above a heated pan.

In this sense, for me Yau Noi’s The Crane is a history book. I was not so much a translator of words as a storyteller charged with retelling history for a new generation. I am obliged to my co-translator Harry Clifton for his help in ensuring that these stories are well retold.

FOOTNOTES
1. The Misty Poets (Ménglóng Shīrén) are a group of 20th-century Chinese poets who reacted against the restrictions on art in the 1970s. They are so named as their works were officially denounced as “obscure”, “misty”, or “hazy”.
2. Yuanmingyuan Poetry Society, a modern poetry society founded in 1984, Beijing.
3. The Silver Age of Russian poetry is an artistic period, it dates from late 19th century to the 1920s. It implies a wide range of poets, genres, and literary styles. It was an exceptionally creative period in the history of Russian poetry.

ABOUT THE TRANSLATORS

LIU XUN is currently pursuing her Ph.D. degree in linguistics at Trinity College Dublin; her research mainly looks at cognitive metaphors in Chinese vernacular novels of the 18th century. She is a freelance literary and academic translator in her free time. Her interests lie in Chinese modern poetry and academic publication on Chinese classical literature. Xun is also engaged in giving public lectures about Chinese vernacular novels and the literary history of the High-Qing period.

HARRY CLIFTON is one of the best-known of his generation of Irish poets. The Holding Centre: Selected Poems 1974–2004 was published in 2014, and Ireland and its Elsewheres, his lectures as Ireland Professor of Poetry, in 2015. More recently, he has published Portobello Sonnets (2016) and Herod’s Dispensations (2019). He teaches at Trinity College Dublin and is a member of Aosdána, the affiliation of creative artists in Ireland.

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Leeanne Quinn’s Some Lives

Circling the Subject: Leeanne Quinn’s second collection of poems, Some Lives, introduced by Aoife Lynch

 

Leeanne Quinn’s second collection, is a rich and generous exploration of how poetry is made and how it makes meaning. Simultaneously intimate and outward-looking, Some Lives celebrates the collaborative and open-ended nature of art. In this collection, Quinn takes on some of the giants of 20th century Russian poetry: Anna Akhmatova, Osip and Nadezhda Mandelstam, Marina Tsvetaeva. These writers, whose work has become shorthand for the power and agency of art, prompt Quinn to ask: what about here? And now? In a time of personal crisis or stasis, can poetry still be effective? And what are the implications and limits of connecting these very different lives and circumstances?

Some Lives is characterised by a paradoxical sense of simultaneous stasis and movement. It’s Quinn’s impressive use of repetition that enables her to balance these oppositional states so expertly. The subtle but significant adjustments which occur throughout the collection are brought about by Quinn’s use of repetition as a source of both sameness and difference. The collection is structured around metamorphosing repetitions, with rhyme, alliteration, and recurring phrases enacting subtle transformations.

Several poems circle back on themselves, repeating words and phrases.

The opening poem, “September”, begins in sibilance: “Wasps, then rain. Below, streets clear / to a silent siren. Some citizens scatter, / others stand looking upwards.” This poem’s sibilance, and its heavily accented style, slow the reader’s pace so that the movement of leaves “beginning to fall” at the end of the poem seems particularly significant, despite the slightness of their movement.

Several poems circle back on themselves, repeating words and phrases. “Precedence” does this particularly well. Quinn creates a stasis in constant movement through her insistent repetitions:

in the city where the trams still
run and we greet each other
with smiles and greet each other
with smiles while the trams still

run …

However, “Precedence” ends with the observation that even “where nothing // appears to move it is moving”. Even in a poem where stasis and motion are one and the same, Quinn indicates that change is constant.

Moving towards the later poems in the collection, Quinn creates a sense of physical and emotional stagnation that cannot be alleviated. In “Any Weather”, the movement “from one room / to another” that opens the poem begins a process of compression – what Quinn calls a “reducing / down of myself to negatives”. Poems become letters, which become postcards, and Quinn writes: “I used to have quite a cheerful nature, // would go out in any weather, now / I don’t think to go out at all beyond / necessity, which is now my only state”. Quinn suggests that the transformative repetitions which energised earlier poems are no longer enough to propel some of these later poems into hope.

However, only a couple of pages later, the title poem reinvigorates the processes of repetition and transformation which drive Some Lives. This 19-page poem has three modes which recur in sections, all of which are interested in intertext and influence. It’s set into motion when Quinn writes: “I read a poem. // I read a poem about the end of the world”. This poem is “Weltende”, an early expressionist poem by Jakob van Hoddis. One mode of “Some Lives” consists of translations and re-translations of sections of van Hoddis’s poem. Another mode places fragments of previous poems in the collection alongside one another in new orders, to create new meanings, and another mode consists of documentary-style explorations of moments and observations pertaining to the life of the speaker and the lives of the writers who influence Some Lives.

Each section emphasises the time-disrupting power of poetry to enable dialogues simultaneously across years and decades, and across a single moment. Quinn links the drafty provisionality and elusivity inherent to translation to the creation of her own poetry. Here, a poem written a hundred years earlier transcends time, language, and circumstance to accumulate new relevance and resonance, in its uncannily familiar evocation of an apocalyptic world in which “(t)he tides are rising”. In a poem so interested in writing which could be classified as modernist, Quinn rethinks the modernist call for the new. Instead, “Some Lives”, and the collection as a whole, argue for the importance of precedence, and the open-ended, intertextual, collaborative nature of creation. Here, stasis and movement, tradition and change, exist alongside one another rather than in opposition. This collection is a nuanced, thoughtful meditation on poetry’s possibilities.

 

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Poetry and/for Jam

Poetry publishing is an odd business at the best of times. But yesterday’s unusual exchange with a customer was of the kind that makes the more difficult parts worthwhile.
 
In the late morning I received a call from what looked like a local number. A reader was looking for a book from the Dedalus backlist. She had, she explained, already been in touch with a major book chain in the city who told her they’d be happy to order it for her but it might take a while.
 
(For reasons that make little sense to anyone outside of the book trade – and to few inside – some larger bookshop chains manage orders through UK HQs which means that, though Dedalus Towers (ahem) could despatch a copy in the post and have it anywhere in the city, or the country, overnight, we’d first have to wait for an official order (from HQ) to be sent to our distributor, who would then have to order the book from us in turn. Sometimes it’s hard to credit how complicated the world has become.
 
Anyway, having thanked our caller for going to the trouble of finding the publisher (i.e. ourselves) online, I checked to see that she was indeed in the general area, and, discovering that she was barely a mile distant, offered to drop her over a copy of the book in question later in the day.
 
‘Oh that would be great,’ she said, delighted at her good fortune. ‘It’s for a friend who is visiting this week. But how will I pay you?’
 
While I wondered about the kerfuffle of powering up the credit card reader for a single sale, and whether it wasn’t a better and nobler thing to make this the morning’s random act of kindness, she seemed to sense my hesitation and jumped in.
 
‘Do you like jam?’ she asked brightly. ‘Home-made jam?’
 
‘I love it,’ I said.
 
‘Blackcurrant.’
 
‘Even better.’
 
A half hour later I was in a beautifully managed front garden about a mile from base camp, discussing a number of apparently unconnected matters with a perfectly charming perfect stranger: among them the growing of berries and the ‘rolling boil’ necessary to transform the freshly picked fruit into jam …
 
At last we finished up, as you do on a good day in the world, by exchanging poems for jam, a reminder perhaps of how the making of each is itself a vote of confidence in the local ecology.
 
– Pat Boran, 18/08/2020
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Mysteries of the Home: 3 Poems by Paula Meehan

Mysteries of the Home - Dedalus Press, poetry from Ireland and the world

The following three poems are taken from Paula Meehan’s Mysteries of the Home (Dedalus Press, 2013). The volume gathers together the poems from her two seminal 1990s collections The Man Who was Marked by Winter (1991) and Pillow Talk (1994).

Included  are some of her best-known and best-loved poems — ‘The Pattern’, ‘The Statue of the Virgin at Granard Speaks’, ‘My Father Perceived as a Vision of St Francis’ and ‘The Wounded Child’ among them. They show an artist at the height of her powers producing work of “remarkable candour and … stunning lyricism” (The Colby Quarterly).


Well

I know this path by magic not by sight.
Behind me on the hillside the cottage light
is like a star that’s gone astray. The moon
is waning fast, each blade of grass a rune
inscribed by hoarfrost. This path’s well worn.
I lug a bucket by bramble and blossoming blackthorn.
I know this path by magic not by sight.
Next morning when I come home quite unkempt
I cannot tell what happened at the well.
You spurn my explanation of a sex spell
cast by the spirit who guards the source
that boils deep in the belly of the earth,
even when I show you what lies strewn
in my bucket — a golden waning moon,
seven silver stars, our own porch light,
your face at the window staring into the dark.

 

My Father Perceived as a Vision of St Francis

for Brendan Kennelly

 

It was the piebald horse in next door’s garden
frightened me out of a dream
with her dawn whinny. I was back
in the boxroom of the house,
my brother’s room now,
full of ties and sweaters and secrets.
Bottles chinked on the doorstep,
the first bus pulled up to the stop.
The rest of the house slept

except for my father. I heard
him rake the ash from the grate,
plug in the kettle, hum a snatch of a tune.
Then he unlocked the back door
and stepped out into the garden.
Autumn was nearly done, the first frost
whitened the slates of the estate.
He was older than I had reckoned,
his hair completely silver,
and for the first time I saw the stoop
of his shoulder, saw that
his leg was stiff. What’s he at?
So early and still stars in the west?

They came then: birds
of every size, shape, colour; they came
from the hedges and shrubs,
from eaves and garden sheds,
from the industrial estate, outlying fields,
from Dubber Cross they came
and the ditches of the North Road.
The garden was a pandemonium
when my father threw up his hands
and tossed the crumbs to the air. The sun
cleared O’Reilly’s chimney
and he was suddenly radiant,
a perfect vision of St Francis,
made whole, made young again,
in a Finglas garden.

 

Seed

 

The first warm day of spring
and I step out into the garden from the gloom
of a house where hope had died
to tally the storm damage, to seek what may
have survived. And finding some forgotten
lupins I’d sown from seed last autumn
holding in their fingers a raindrop each
like a peace offering, or a promise,
I am suddenly grateful and would
offer a prayer if I believed in God.
But not believing, I bless the power of seed,
its casual, useful persistence,
and bless the power of sun,
its conspiracy with the underground,
and thank my stars the winter’s ended.

 

 

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Piano: 3 Poems by Eva Bourke

Eva Bourke by Miriam Bourke. Dedalus Press, poetry from Ireland and the world

The following three poems are taken from piano, Eva Bourke’s 2011 collection of poems.

“In these new poems Eva Bourke leans into what she calls the “heart of things,” discovering for herself, and us, time and again that there truly is a heart of things, and to things, and that it might well survive all that conspires against it, even in the most war-broken, besieged, and harm-full places on earth. These poems suggest that the soul is an enduring gentleness in us, in others, in perhaps everything, and that it needs us to release it, to let it breathe, to nourish it with what we create rather than destroy. That gentleness is what we hear throughout the ample and beautiful margins of this book, the notes of its music being played with such care, and played softly, piano.”
—Fred Marchant


August Near Südstern

 

The sturdy gentleman outside
the Café Lux devours his meal, his dog
takes careful note of every bite.
The red and white umbrellas flog

high garden spirits, and the sunlight passes
through empty pools of mirrors in the bar,
each green-blue vein in cocktail glasses
a drunken streak. August, a shaggy beast,

sleeps stretched full-length beneath
dead leaves—they’re this year’s first—
and an unseasonal tristesse
creeps grey and cold among the trees

inching past couples in the shade,
until at last it settles down
next to a woman on her own
talking in whispers to herself who tries

recalling what she had known best
in all the years: the names and faces
of friends and lovers, the familiar places
so dear to her, all gone, all lost.

 

The Garden at the Road’s End

 

Turn left at the elm with the heron’s nest,
go past the Forbidden Village sign,
then right where the two thieves on the cross hide
under mounds of mildewed brambles,
take the long and narrow path for a mile or two
till you come to the garden at the road’s end.
Three magpies, those bêtes noirs in their chalk
and ink plumage will spy you first,
cackle and mock you, trotting around on the grass
over flinders of eggshells—relics of a recent
murderous foray—then flap onto the thatch
for a better view. A wren seizing his chance
will speed into the white thorn hedge.
The sun will stare through the spokes of an old motorbike
parked in the yard, nettles and dandelions open
green telegrams beneath the trees that stand
in a circle around the house, stiff and tight
as police cordons. Silence and absence.
Go up close. Your heart in your mouth.
Pressing your ear against the door, listen
to spiders glide across the black and white
piano keys, the hammers softly touch the strings,
the pedals—or somebody’s breathing—rise and fall,
the wind play funeral marches on a minor scale.

 

Four People on a Lake

 

Three hundred and sixty-five volcanic islands scattered
along the shore of Lake Nicaragua, each
with barely enough room for one house.

No human is an island perhaps, but each of these isletas
possessed a soul behind fringes of bougainvillea
and tropical green.

There was a small church on one, it glinted
in the sun, just discernible
between tree tops,

on another a school, a corrugated roof
on a few posts where wisdom could
come and go as it pleased,

on a steep rock in splendid isolation a villa—the flag
of the most powerful nation rose stiffly
in the breeze above it—

and on an island with a landing pier of rough planks
tables were set offering food and drink
in the shade of a mango tree.

Our boat glided along narrow channels through
the reeds. We sat in silence, four people
from four different countries.

White herons stood sentry-still, in the shallows.
Forgotten were sleepless nights, regrets,
worries, heart-ache.
A jewelled bird swayed on a branch, water lilies
dallied in yellow birthday hats, sea lettuce
was everywhere, rootless, adrift

on the glittering surface. The Danish woman stared
through the lens of her camera, unable
to believe her own eyes.

The young boatman who ferried us asked her politely
to post her photograph of him
to the second last house

before the old jacaranda on the León road. All this time
islands, boatman, ourselves and all else on the lake
the lake itself and all its creatures

the trees, plantations, fields and deserts around it, the far-away
coasts of  two oceans, dusky cordilleras, cloud forests,
volcanoes beneath smoke rings

farms, villages, cities, people and animals were
held in the dispassionate gaze of a pair
of maritime eagles that circled

and cruised overhead, air-lifted by the thermals
into a blue way beyond
our mortal vision.