Mystery and Surprise: Two Chinese Poets; reviewed by Alexander Dickow

Mystery and Surprise: Two Chinese Poets; reviewed by Alexander Dickow
November 24, 2018 Dickow Alexander

Mystery and Surprise: Two Chinese Poets

Li Shangyin, Li Shangyin, trans. Chloe Garcia Roberts, A. C. Graham and Lucas Klein, New York Review Books, 2018. 155p.
Mang Ke, October Dedications, trans. Lucas Klein, Huang Yibing and Jonathan Stalling, Zephyr Press and the Chinese University Press of Hong Kong, 2018. 131p.

The contemporary Chinese poet Mang Ke and the Tang dynasty poet Li Shangyin (9th century) could hardly be more different. The former, particularly in the later poems of the chronologically arranged collection, seems fresh and spontaneous, capricious; the latter hermetic and mysterious. The contrast lends itself to an examination of what makes both poets’ work alluring. Li Shangyin seems to offer the mystique of an authentically coded poetic language. While both Mang Ke and Li Shangyin are highly allusive, Mang Ke feels bright and sensuous, Li Shangyin dark and richly layered.

Readers well versed in Chinese literature have professed their bafflement before the poems of Li Shangyin, as Theophilus Kwek recently noted in his own review of these new translations (1). But I found myself considering these poems in light of certain European traditions, notably French ones, with which I am far more familiar. While I’m aware of the limits of such comparisons, I think they sometimes have some limited insight to offer, in this case into what has made Li Shangyin’s poetry so enduringly fascinating to his centuries of exegetes.

I would like to suggest that the obscure, coded layering of Li Shangyin in fact has its own paradoxical immediacy, and that it does not require special knowledge to appreciate, contrary to conventional thinking about how secret poetic languages work. In some sense that I’ll try to explain, Li Shangyin is just as immediate as Mang Ke, in spite of their evident poetic differences. Only the immediacy of Li Shangyin paradoxically expresses itself as a secret, while Mang Ke’s expresses itself as candor, full of surprising swerves and unexpected gestures.

Professors in introductory literature courses quite rightly do their best to chase away the notion of “hidden meanings” at work in literary texts. Few literary texts deal in true codes and ciphers properly speaking, especially at the broad level of entire discourses. Those few that do, however, have sometimes exerted a remarkable power of attraction on certain imaginations, and to some extent on the broader culture—as the minds of misguided undergraduates indeed demonstrate. Such, for example, is the allure of François Villon’s poems written in the robbers’ cant of fifteenth-century Paris, over which scholars and writers alike have pored a great deal: to anyone familiar with medieval French, Villon’s “poems in jargon” look like gobbledygook (scholars generally agree the subject matter involves various criminal matters). One appeal of Villon’s language is its evident capacity for multiple layers of meaning: the term “bisans,” used in one poem, for instance, could designate the north wind, or else a certain torture device (2). The troubadours of the 12th and 13th centuries also engaged in some coded language. The following envoy-dedication comes from the first (recorded) troubadour, William IX of Poitiers:

Fag ai lo vers, no say de cuy;
Et trametrai lo a selhuy
Que lo’m trametra per autruy
Lay ves Anjau,
Que’m tramezes del siev estuy
La contraclau.

I attempt the following translation:

I’ve made my verse, I don’t know about whom (3);
I shall give it to the one
Who will transmit it through another
Somewhere near Anjou,
And who will send me from his little case
The Counterkey.

The transmission of whatever this “Counterkey” might designate seems mediated by several individuals, just as the language is mediated by some code for which we do not have the…key. Jean de Poitiers, a middle French translator of the poem, simply leaves the term “Contraclau” untranslated, perhaps supposing it some kind of proper name, perhaps designating a place. But the notion of the key contained in this remarkable final word clearly suggests a deliberately coded discourse. William of Poitiers is winking quite noisily at the reader.
I couldn’t help but think of William IX’s obscure envoy when reading lines like these in Li Shangyin:

Blue Woman, Lunar Maiden,
Both immune to the cold.
In moonlight, in frost,
A war of radiance and grace. (79)

At first blush, of course, the Blue Woman and Lunar Maiden must refer to the “Frost, Moon” of this poem’s title, elements which seem to do battle: “A war of radiance and grace.” But one can hardly resist the feeling that the poet has chosen these expressions as monikers for people of whom he is thinking, maidens “immune to the cold,” beautiful and icy like Mallarmé’s Hérodiade. And indeed, in Lucas Klein’s translation of another poem, ‘Twists of the Drug’ the poet notes that “These lines come from thinking of these people and events” (113) as though to underline the circumstantial and situational nature of his poetry generally.

The existence of a tradition of commentary on these poems is hardly surprising, given these innumerable allusions. This new translation provides a few notes—enough to hint at the historical richness the criticism might reveal—but in the end, the anecdotal content seems of relatively little interest (at least without a much heftier critical apparatus), except for the occasional elucidation of mythological tales (some of these are very interesting). It hardly seems of imaginative interest, for instance, to remark that “the Furred Woman” is “a reference to a courtier in the service of the First Emperor of Qin” (5, 147). Far more valuable is the image itself of the Furred Woman, and the mystery of her identity, which persists in spite of the supposedly elucidating endnote. Explicating the anecdotes at the “source” of the poems can lead to regrettable dead-ends, such as those that have long plagued the study of Villon’s work. As in William IX’s poem, the key matters far less than the lock; the question and its mystery matters more than the answer, which often seems trivial. One senses the mystery immediately: it exerts its aesthetic effect instantly and powerfully.

The variability of the translations adds to this mystery; Klein and Graham translate the poems much more discursively (and sometimes more light-heartedly) than the principal translator, Chloe Garcia Roberts, who prefers an extremely compact and elliptical mood. Here is Klein’s very different rendering of the lines I just quoted from “Frost, Moon,” which Klein instead calls “Frost and Moon”:

The Bluegreen Lady and the Pale Fairy don’t mind the cold;
that’s just the moon and frost bickering over who’s prettier. (121)

The differences—between the Pale Fairy and the Lunar Maiden, or between Roberts’ almost hieratic “war of radiance and grace” as opposed to Klein’s irreverent evocation of “bickering over who’s prettier” —communicate how multiple these poems must truly appear in the Chinese. The multiple translations of some of the poems seemed to me one of this edition’s greatest strengths, and one nearly regrets that every poem did not undergo the same manifold treatment.

Li Shangyin’s furtive clues and slender intimations appear constant throughout Roberts’ selections, and are mostly maintained in Klein and Graham’s versions in spite of the difference in tone and rhythm. But in Mang Ke’s October Dedications, the poet’s style undergoes considerable transformation. As the pages pass, the poet seems less serious and more supple, more willing to play. The earlier poems have more density, and seem somehow closer—at least to some small degree— to Li Shangyin. These early lyrics are often very short and elliptical:

people pursuing each other
leave colors for their descendants
children returning from the sunlight
bring back love for their mothers (“City,” 7)

This poem contents itself to juxtapose two parallel propositions; the analogy between the “people” and their “children,” and therefore between the “colors” and “love,” are suggested by the parallel syntax, without any explanatory or hypotactic material to make the analogy explicit. In Lucas Klein’s introduction, he demonstrates with one poem how his translation process worked to emphasize just such elliptical effects (xiv). This is not so far off from similar effects in Li Shangyin:

At the head of the Southern River:
Endless trees.
At the Western Tower:
Shifting haze. (“Xie Fang of the Senior Examination Class,” 31)

But in Mang Ke’s later work, the tone and rhythm accelerates and loses its sometimes enigmatic quality in favor of fast-moving bursts of imagery, sometimes erotic, often almost surrealist in character:

maybe you will cautiously lock the door
maybe you are busy trying to catch
the lips that fly around
always to land on the bed in the end
maybe you are patiently waiting
for the arrival of those
ripe breasts which never arrive
before your face (“Yesterday and today,” 81)

This translation seems to adhere closely to colloquial language, preferring “maybe” to the more refined “perhaps,” avoiding rare words or complicated syntax, and almost devoid of real disjunctions of the kind observed in the elliptical poems above. One passage in Mang Ke’s later work is so close to surrealist eroticism that it appears to reference a famous image by Belgian surrealist René Magritte, “The Rape,” in which a woman’s genitalia become her facial features. Here is Mang Ke’s apparent allusion:

I want to keep sleeping, go back to sleep
do not open that great navel of your mouth
toward me
and stare with the grand breasts of your eyes (“Time Without Time,” 101)

A nimble transparency gives these images freshness and sensual power, particularly in the easy delights of the excerpted long poem “Time Without Time,” the volume’s most recent work and last in the volume (and to my mind, Mang Ke’s highest achievement, at least on the basis of this volume’s selection). From the sober density of the early work to the happy agility of this final poem, the volume as a whole provides a precious sense of trajectory that preserves and valorizes the poet’s multiplicity: where Li Shangyin has one consistent style, Mang Ke has several stylistic periods. In all events, the mystery at work in Li Shangyin’s work has no less impact than the later Mang Ke’s immediacy. And in combination, the two volumes, more than a thousand years apart, offer a seductive glimpse into the Chinese poetic tradition, a brilliant introduction I look forward to prolonging in further reading.

–Alexander Dickow

(1) Theophilus Kwek, Asymptote, Summer 2018.

(2) François Villon, Poésies complètes, ed. Claude Thiry, Le Livre de Poche, 1991, p. 324.

(3) I’m not certain why several translators render « de cuy » as « about what » rather than about whom, particularly since the envoy is the point at which dedications were typically declared by the troubadours: the implication of « about whom » is that the poem encodes a secret dedicatee. William isn’t telling who he wrote the poem for, but if you have the « key », you might be able to figure it out. Although not a scholar of old Occitan, all the glossaries I consulted give “qui” (who) as the proper translation for “cui,” while all dictionaries providing examples translated those examples of “cui” as the modern French “qui,” never as the inanimate “que” or “quoi”. “Cui” is derived from a latin dative used without prepositions, but is often used in Occitan with prepositions, as in William IX’s text. See for instance Henri Pascal de Rochegude, Essai de glossaire occitanien pour servir à l’intelligence des poésies des troubadours, Toulouse, Bénichet Cadet, 1819, p. 80,, consulted on November 17, 2018; see also the various glossaries and dictionaries at Lexilogos,, consulted on November 17, 2018.

Alexander Dickow is a poet, translator, and scholar, and an associate professor of French at Virginia Tech. His books include Trial Balloons (Corrupt Press, 2012) and Appetites (MadHat Press, 2018).