Unlock: Poems by Bei Dao
by David G. Lanoue
Poems by Bei Dao
Tran. Eliot Weinberger and Iona Man-Cheong
New Directions, NY
Like life, the poetry of Bei Dao can be confusing. In Unlock, a bilingual paperback with facing pages in Chinese and English, Bei Dao presents mindscapes that feature jarring juxtapositions and stunning shifts in perspective. His friend and translator, Eliot Weinberger, speculates that the poet's restless movement might owe something to Japanese renga: "line B completes line A, but is also the beginning of a phrase or thought that is completed by line C." In this fashion, Bei Dao's verses hopskotch from image to image, evoking an external world of objects--potatoes and wine glasses--and a vibrant life of the mind: an exterior/interior space where books make a racket, angels turn into fish, and "soapy water runs down the drain/like a French horn's/anxiety."
Despite his fame as a dissident in exile--he fled China after the Tiananmen Square massacre of 1989--Bei Dao is not overtly political. He does, however, work sly social commentary into his surreal ruminations. In "Smells" he writes:
arguing with the boss
you see the ad out the window
a bright tomorrow, Tomorrow brand toothpaste
you are facing five potatoes
the sixth is an onion
the outcome of this chess game is like sorrow
disappearing from the maritime chart
A snippet of real life--an argument with a boss--brings into focus a billboard in which the individual and collective future is reduced to an ad slogan for toothpaste. Then, in a wonderfully surreal leap (to borrow Robert Bly's term), the scene glides to five potatoes and an onion. The satire of such a poem is elusive, obliquely suggesting conformity and rebellion (potatoes versus an onion), infinite complications (the war game of chess), and a sad outcome. His comment in another poem, "listen closely to the circuitous paths," is excellent advice for the reader.
Though I can't read Chinese to comment on their fidelity, the translations provided by Eliot Weinberger (based on the transliterations of Iona Man-Cheong) are clean, crisp and efficient. In his translator's note, Weinberger explains that he worked closely with the poet, who, in a few cases, actually changed his Chinese "originals" to conform to the English versions--blurring the distinction between source text and translation in an interesting way. In my own work as a translator of Japanese haiku, I can only imagine the heady feeling of having at least part of an original poem become, in essense, a translation of one's translation!
Unlock is a fine collection of 49 recent poems by one of China's prominent contemporaries. Though he provides no maritime chart for navigating his deep waters, Bei Dao rewards the reader who takes the time to find his or her own way.
BROKEN NEWS || CRITIQUES & REVIEWS || CYBER BAG || CYB FI || EC CHAIR
FAREWELL, GREGORY: A POESY BURST FOR CORSO || FICCIONES || THE FOREIGN DESK
GALLERY || LETTERS || POESY || SERIALS || STAGE & SCREEN || ZOUNDS
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