The Elegiac Transnational

Mourning Chinese Poetry

In: Journal of World Literature
Nick Admussen Cornell University USA Ithaca, NY

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This essay is an elegy for the study of a Chinese elegy. Its putative archive is a book of poems printed in Shenzhen by the late Hei Guang, a collection I do not own by a poet who I never got to meet. My pursuit of the collection is hampered by my recent inability to travel to China, by changes in my ability to transculturate, and by the limits on global circulation in the age of climate change. Experimenting with tactics drawn from China’s tradition of lei elegy, I identify the loss of the collection as a disruption of the process of thick translation, of the ethical direction that animates world literature. By mourning the type of interactions that would have allowed me to translate Hei Guang well, I hope to reproduce the desire for heterogeneity and circulation into the post-pandemic, warming world.


This essay is an elegy for the study of a Chinese elegy. Its putative archive is a book of poems printed in Shenzhen by the late Hei Guang, a collection I do not own by a poet who I never got to meet. My pursuit of the collection is hampered by my recent inability to travel to China, by changes in my ability to transculturate, and by the limits on global circulation in the age of climate change. Experimenting with tactics drawn from China’s tradition of lei elegy, I identify the loss of the collection as a disruption of the process of thick translation, of the ethical direction that animates world literature. By mourning the type of interactions that would have allowed me to translate Hei Guang well, I hope to reproduce the desire for heterogeneity and circulation into the post-pandemic, warming world.

1 A Story from the Meadow

My specific ritual of loss begins with a scrupulous, deep dive into the Chinese social media/book review site Douban. I remember Zhang Er 张尔, a poet and editor I admire, I remember him holding a book he’d published about a friend of his who had died, and I think I remember the way he wavered, unsure if I wanted a copy, if the local, private matter of the artist’s death was worthwhile to a person from far away. I don’t remember what I was thinking or doing. I am not sure whether I ever held the book or not. I remember the pen-and-ink drawing of the departed on the cover, the humane style of Chinese line art. And I search through Douban trying to match the memory to a real document. The publisher’s pages have been deleted and so I search for the publisher, the editor, and the bookstore where it all happened. At every dead end, the website takes me back to its home page: one of the pieces of media on it is a flat, transnationally avant style of watercolor depicting a woman turned away from view.

I find the book, I think, listed not online but in a bibliography called LOST BOOKS on my own work computer: it is Although Life is Long《人生虽长》by the poet Hei Guang 黑光, published in 2015 by Enclave Editions in Shenzhen. I am reminded, then, that of course I took all the books that were on offer from Enclave. I remember browsing the shelves in their bookstore/performance space, feeling both the taste and the ambition displayed – for a certain strain of avant-garde poetry, the bookstore held one by everyone and lots of the best. Shenzhen is a place I can’t go to right now. I use Google Maps to trace the track of my last trip to Mainland China – from Hong Kong to Guangzhou and back – and estimate that I must have last passed through or under Shenzhen via high-speed rail in 2019. Google Maps doesn’t give directions anymore about a way to get from Hong Kong to Shenzhen, even though I know it by heart: MTR to Lo Wu 羅湖, across the border, and into the subway station at Luo Hu 罗湖 at the other side. The strange mirror of that border – Cantonese to Mandarin, traditional characters to simplified – is closed to people like me, and besides, my visa to cross it has run out. The bibliography on my computer is called LOST BOOKS because an unpredictably hard freeze and unfreeze at Rockefeller Hall on the Cornell campus released a wave of brown sprinkler system water into my office, and ruined about seventy-five books in 2019, including Although Life is Long by Hei Guang. I am not sure if this sudden freeze was an effect of climate change, one never is – but it was the period around the 2019 polar vortex, during which the jet stream weakened enough to allow cold polar air to escape southward towards places like Rockefeller Hall.

I begin this essay with a personal narrative because it records a deathlike experience that, from my subject position and probably yours, encompasses and transforms the death of the poet Hei Guang from cancer in 2017. Timothy Morton says that catastrophes resemble meadows: they do not announce their borders, you cannot step from the outside to the inside of a meadow. Any time you are inside one you have been there for at least a little while, already (75). The literary dimension of the catastrophe I am inside of is comprised of pandemic travel restrictions, including state-based restrictions and personal safety decisions; of climate change, both in its direct impacts like floods or inclement weather and in the increasingly sharp need to limit transcontinental airplane use, a substantive source of CO2 emissions; it is comprised of environmental threats to life in China that might have given Hei Guang cancer; it is also comprised of political conflicts like the one between the Chinese Communist Party and the people of Hong Kong. What the catastrophe has shown itself able to harm is a certain practice of world literature: the moment in which you and I join a transnational community gathered around the writing of Hei Guang.

In prior research, I’ve argued that world literature’s inclusive breadth as a genre and brand means that some of the most interesting questions associated with it are its norms rather than its boundaries (Admussen 2018). I tried to distinguish the monovocal or small-group polyvocal process of compiling anthologies and writing literary criticism from the more plural, widely distributed constructions of literature across social and linguistic borders that I saw in Taiwanese poetry festivals, where translators were impossible to disappear or ignore, listeners spoke, and languages were subject to constant visual and auditory mixing as social spaces accommodated audiences that were themselves hybrid. All transnational work contributes to hybrid communities, but sometimes that community is as slight as an email exchange between a Chinese informant and an Anglophone editor tasked with choosing a Chinese work for an English-language anthology. Intimate transnational connections require reciprocal communication, in which the object of translation becomes a commentating subject. Even in situations where a world-traveling text is by an author long dead, its transmission should forge a lived connection between one scholarly or other interpretative tradition and another. Many statements of the nature and boundaries of translation imply not a genre, but an ethics: when Wang Xiulu 王岫庐 writes, “Translation is primarily a work of understanding … this understanding is by no means a purely linguistic question” 翻译首先是一 个理解的工作…而这个理解绝不是一个单纯的语言层面的问题 (21), she means to provide a means of assessment: every translation draws on extralinguistic understanding, so the distinction is between translations that evince deep transcultural understanding and those that ignore or fail to connect past the level of the linguistic. Although we now have digital texts and certain opportunities for limited digital presence, the extralinguistic intercultural thickness that keeps world literature from becoming a place for generalization and orientalist fantasy is under attack. For the time being, I cannot participate in the physical and social circulation of people that accompanies world literature. That experience is what I was looking for, what I was attempting to call back by ransacking my office for a stack of paper made and bound in Shenzhen.

As I enter the catastrophe, then, the should of world literature is getting harder to satisfy. I should go to Shenzhen; I absolutely cannot justify translating from a purely linguistic level; I should sit down with Hei Guang’s editor, his fellow poets, his friends. I should watch for the curl or purse of the lips of the men and women who knew him when they say his name: misogynist? Good with crowds? Alcoholic? Kind? All these intimacies are hermeneutic – they open the poetry to view – but past that, they build independent lines of affective and intellectual force, they knit my intellectual practice with that of my counterparts abroad. I remember the intensity of the commerce that was going on at Enclave, which was a design studio, a bookstore, and a publishing house all at once, I remember my mistrust of what seemed like a stereotypically capitalist Chinese media scene, and I remember much later seeing the poet Chris Song 宋子江, himself born in Shenzhen and working in Hong Kong, ending an interview by saying that his goal as a writer was “to survive. The reality of Hong Kong is very harsh to poetry. The goal is to survive uncompromised as a poet and translator. Invictus maneo.” (Song 2021). I remember feeling shocked that he had put such a thing in words, the almost religious force of the Latin, and then after a moment, thinking warmly back to Enclave: they were survivors, too, who understood the protective value of having money in the till. I should go back and figure out how their finances work. I should create world versions of their literature that serve those financials, that build them a reputation on which they can trade. We should be making world literature together.

It is possible, of course, to work on the naked texts – to scrape Hei Guang poems from websites or use a PDF copy from Enclave, and fill in any aporia in my understanding with educated guesswork and prior experience. I could in that way do work that would be categorically accepted as world literature without participating in an ethic of intercultural intimacy. It would also be possible to take my incomplete experience of Hei Guang, in its outline, and use it to theorize something like elegy, catastrophe, or world literature. This would, however, be accomplished through the reorganization of ideas and concepts already circulating in the Anglosphere. I would not be undertaking world literature; I would not be doing China Studies. I don’t want to reread Derrida on hauntology or Goethe on Weltliteratur. They cannot return to me the experience that I am missing. Instead, in holding with a Chinese tradition of political/affective elegy, I will attempt to open and occupy a space of mourning over the lost experience of thick translation: the naked, linguistic translation of Hei Guang that I produce as I mourn will not be a transcultural connection but an expression of the blunted desire to connect.

2 The Lei (诔) and Its Descendants

In or around the year 291 CE, the poet-scholar Pan Yue 潘岳 wrote a lei dirge for his friend and colleague, Xiahou Zhan 夏侯湛, who was a Regular Attendant to the court of the Western Jin Dynasty when he died at the age of 49. In the hands of Pan Yue, the lei is often a formal, ritual genre: of the many lei by Pan Yue collected in the Wen Xuan 文选, there are some that C.M. Lai argues are addressed to strangers, and likely composed for professional purposes (Lai 1990: 80n73). In his famous poems written about the death of his wife, Pan writes in the less ritual fu 赋 and shi 诗 forms (Lai 1994: 410). His lei dirge for Xiahou Zhan contains, by contrast, a self-consciously public-facing history of Xiahou’s official positions, the professional and private decisions he made, and most of all the way his comportment reflected his virtue. Reading the poem, it is palpable that Pan Yue has taken the responsibility of writing the first draft of history:


[The prince] selected you as Secretarial Court Gentleman, appointed you Chief Administrator of Nanyang.


You were tireless in giving the blessing of your teachings, you saw the people as wounded victims.

Pan Yue’s desire to write history, his focus on later generations and the preservation of Xiahou’s story, have structured a community that has protected, explicated, and situated the text in generation after generation. I first read and translated the poem in a graduate class with Professor Wang Ping of the University of Washington, and my colleague Ding Xiang Warner gave me invaluable advice in translating the excerpts seen here. Experts in Six Dynasties and Tang contexts, they each had a sense of the deep intertextual networks that informed and surrounded the text: those two scholars, and many like them, structure and populate the kind of community that allows texts to be meaningfully translated, understood past the level of pure linguistics. The high standard to which their community holds itself, though, already assumes that they are not and cannot be connected to some aspects of the world of the medieval Chinese. They will of course never hear the music of the period, or taste its food. Those losses are accepted, traditional, and the community that reads medieval poetry functions and innovates in a delicate and practiced relationship to its limits.

Pan Yue’s lei about Xiahou Zhan, though, exceeds public history or formal ritual: the poem is written at the very moment in which its own contexts are collapsing. Their loss seems new, raw, immeasurably large. Pan and Xiahou had known one another since childhood: Xiahou Zhan’s biography in the Jin Shu 晋书 says that he was “与潘岳友善,” or good friends with Pan Yue, so much so that they were called “linked jade discs” when they went out into the streets of the capital (Jin Shu, juan 55, line 2). Accordingly, although his lei is written in a stately tetrameter, and the opening of the poem is formal and ritual, Pan Yue’s poem for Xiahou Zhan devolves over its course to a performance of the insufficiency of ritual, indeed of all language:


In life and death we part forever, and the departed cannot be followed.


I look at your old carriage, I scan the clothes you left behind.


My sadness and sorrow have stolen my voice, I wipe away my bursting tears.


If I do not grieve for you, then who shall I grieve for?


Wuhu aizai!

The penultimate line of that excerpt reperforms the Analects, book XI verse 10, which sees Confucius accused of exceeding ritual propriety in mourning Yan Yuan. He says, “if I do not wail beyond proper bounds for this man, then for whom?” The question is, of course, rhetorical, and the answer in Pan Yue’s poem is supplied by the ancient four-character sound of mourning, wuhu aizai, a phrase that is both ritual, likely dating back past the Greater Odes of the Classic of Poetry,1 and also affective, a rupture: a set of vowel-linked sounds that have little semantic meaning, just a tone and a role as a statement in excess of language.

The cycle of this particular lei oscillates between affect and politics: from an intimate relationship, to a political ritual intended to validate Xiahou’s worth, to an emotion that exceeds language, to a reproduction of an ancient tradition of rhythmic outcry. The effect comes from the moment in which the lived feelings of the present are becoming – but have not yet entirely become – the materials from which to make political and personal history. The loss underlying all elegy, perhaps, is the palpable but immeasurable gap between experience and history: a person that can be touched is transformed, is diminished into a person remembered or recorded. This moment of transformation is a radical moment. It is the moment of the 1976 Tiananmen incident, in which supporters of Zhou Enlai 周恩来 (and perhaps more implicitly, supporters of his protege Deng Xiaoping 邓小平) mourned him through poetry in a complexly layered practice that sang his virtues, appropriated Communist revolutionary ritual and language, performed recitation in Tiananmen Square in his honor, and decried the pain of life under leadership that was not influenced by people like Zhou. This last expression of pain, often directed at Zhou’s political enemies, became a legitimizing locus of public feeling during the transition away from the leadership of the Gang of Four and towards the government of Deng Xiaoping (Pan 2014). But the Tiananmen poems themselves are not simply political vehicles: many of them are pitched at a level of stridency and fear that indicates real worry, real personal pain at the loss of a perceived protector.

Scholarship and translation move across just these interpenetrating stacks of affect and politics. Ideologies produce feelings; feelings color experiences; experiences inform political belief; experiences make feelings; feelings motivate political action, including scholarly writing. The ritual of scholarship, its formal footnotes, its recounting of texts, can therefore serve as a ritual of mourning in the style of the lei. In the drafting of history that scholarship can represent, there must also exist some vestige of the loss that takes place when experience becomes history, the dimension of the text that slips away when it leaves its context. We know that excess through our desire for it; we measure it not in terms of its size or shape (to know that would be to know much about what we cannot know) but in terms of our intensity of feeling. This was the message of the demonstrators at Tiananmen in 1976: both that Zhou was a virtuous official and also that it is insufficient to say so, that establishing his importance and praising his name does nothing to protect or support the people as he did. The feeling of loss – translated into the ancient elegiac act of attempting and failing to call back the departed – is the way we sense the abandoned excess around our textual traditions. I wanted to hold a foreign book, Hei Guang’s Although Life is Long, in my hand. I wanted to ask a question about it to a person I thought might have answers. But I couldn’t do either. Pan Yue, at the end of his lei for Xiahou Zhan, writes this:


The sun moves off and the moon arrives, summer retreats as the winter attacks.


Falling dew moistens, then freezes, the gusts are frigid and intense.


Grief-stricken and heartbroken, I remember my good friend.


I go to your simple courtyard, I caress those orphaned there and we cry together.


Before my thoughts can stop, more emotions already gather.


Heaving sadness fills my heart, he is gone, how can I reach him?


Wuhu aizai!

3 Elegizing World Literature

World literature is not, of course, dead. Months from now, I might find myself able to travel and work in Shenzhen. I might get an email back from Zhang Er at Enclave any day, now. But the simultaneous experience of the COVID-19 pandemic, anthropogenic global warming, and the rise of nationalist, border-oriented authoritarianism is transforming world literature in a way that pushes it even further towards meriting Emily Apter’s critique:

Severed from place, thrown into the maw of the global culture industry or survey course, and subject to pedagogical transmission by instructors with low levels of cultural literacy and nonexistent knowledge of a translated work’s original language, local or native literature relinquishes its defining self-properties once it is exported and trafficked like an artifact.


That severing is political and categorical, of course – she is talking about the way world literature can reify the value of the local at the expense of the distant, focusing on the classroom’s imperial, global sweep rather than each text’s lived context – but it is also a practical spectrum. Transnational China scholars, whether they are native speakers of Chinese or not, forget Chinese characters after years spent outside China. Their interests diverge from those of their contemporaries in Asia. Their relationships with active scholars and thinkers in China weaken, they know less about who to ask for help, that help is unreciprocable and is given with less intensity. New contexts and aesthetics from China begin to appear as mysteries or artifacts rather than open spaces for participation and collaboration. The distance opened at the transcultural second origin of a text, the distance between a text’s home context and the life of the person who transculturates it, will accompany that transculturated text wherever it goes.

In the spirit of Pan Yue’s public history of the life of Xiahou Zhan, I will make this process of loss concrete and particular: in my last real visit to Enclave in 2017, I owned a Chinese smartphone that was registered from Taiwan on WeChat 微信, the near-monopolistic social media and messaging platform of the PRC. I exclusively communicated with my friends at Enclave through WeChat; during the trip I added between sixty and eighty contacts to my account. Having been in motion from Taibei to Hong Kong to Nanjing to Shenzhen, I could tell that the air pollution in Shenzhen – always a concern in urban spaces in the PRC – was not so bad by regional standards. I had just done two lectures in Nanjing, one in Taibei, and a bookstore appearance in Guangzhou; my spoken Chinese felt capacious, even if it wasn’t always impressive. None of this was easy: before my scheduled lecture at Enclave, I got lost and very rain-soaked in the anonymous blocks of high-rises among which the bookstore makes its home. I remember Zhang Er speaking very deliberately in a voice message via WeChat: where – are – you? Those experiences are what the poetry could mean: the hiddenness of Enclave, halfway up a skyscraper whose lower floors serve as shipping warehouses, the nouveau riche feeling of a city whose industrial roots are shifting to a cleaner, more comfortable management of capital, the endless stream of poems, reactions, jokes and food pictures that came over my WeChat Moments feed, and the language feeling (语感) that I was accumulating in every waking second of every day. These tools, moreover, arrived partially free of mediation by extant transnational systems of power. Once I was placed in Shenzhen, I could hear what people had to say without a digital platform or a publishing house. By contrast, my Chinese textbooks as a student brought me into Chinese official culture, which erased topolect and presented a basically Deng Xiaoping-centered story of China’s opening to the world. Enclave had its own microlanguage, its hiddennesses, its beautiful and unprogrammatic noise.

Today, though, my Taiwanese cell phone has expired and with it, my WeChat account – after a few months in the US of waking up overwhelmed at the messages that had accumulated overnight, I declined to install WeChat on my new phone, instead putting it on a tablet that itself has now stopped functioning, taking with it the record of my old phone number and password that I’d need to access the account. I occasionally hear that something I wrote has been translated or circulated online, but I can’t see anything on WeChat unless a friend or student holds up their phone; the material can’t be easily saved. I could start a new account, but it wouldn’t have my old contacts. I read a 2021 article about the Enclave bookstore that says that Zhang Er and his team are diversifying into a gallery space, but that the bookstore still operates at a loss, five years after it opened. The article quotes Enclave’s Groups description on the book-oriented social media site Douban: “不仅能深入到我们的文化处境之中,更试图去呈现当下日益漂移的生存图景。” “[We hope to] not only be able to enter incisively into our cultural situation, but also to attempt to reveal our increasingly piaoyi landscape of survival” (Zhang). I can’t tell you what he means by piaoyi. It means drifting, wandering, what racecars do around corners, what migrant labor does when it comes to cities. If I could be there and see the space, I could guess what it means as well as anybody could, but I don’t really know. Is the new gallery space a reaction to perceived official permissiveness around visual art as compared to poetry? Is Enclave drifting between communities? Or is their community scanning the cultural landscape, drifting until they find a place that can serve as an outlet? I can’t WeChat Zhang Er, I can’t WeChat one of our mutual friends and ask, and it’s not the sort of thing one puts in an email. I look up the Douban Group, and it’s defunct, the last message from 2020 reads “飞地怎么了?” or “What’s Up with Enclave?” My language feeling (语感, yugan) becomes a vehicle for pain (痛感, tonggan): I know enough to know that this is past me, for now. Because those are the easy questions, and they are only precursors to the tougher and more subtle questions that might be answered, or asked, by the poems of Hei Guang.

Downstream from the poems, constructed in part by the efforts of thousands of translators like me, there lie the institutions of world literature, and beneath them the unfinished project of world literature. In realizing what I cannot presently do, and in mourning it, it becomes clearer what brand of world literature I and my collaborators in China have been undertaking from the start. I hate not getting it when Zhang Er says he lives in a piaoyi landscape of survival. It makes me feel alone, and useless, and immoral. I am cognizant that for Hei Guang’s book, I can no longer engage in the rich, multidimensional practice of translation and study that placed me physically, socially and emotionally in the context of Chinese literature. Appiah writes that “A thick description of the context of literary production, a translation that draws on and creates that sort of understanding, meets the need to challenge ourselves and our students to go further, to undertake the harder project of a genuinely informed respect for others” (427). In that formulation – genuinely informed respect – there hides a set of utopian concepts, an ethics that structures a way of life. “Genuinely informed respect” asserts the authenticity of the other, the possibility of intersubjectivity and the reality of intersubjective difference, and it valorizes the feelings of respect and connection that result from successfully crossing borders. When I finally, dripping with rain, made it to my lecture at the Enclave bookstore in 2017, and stuttered my way through a discussion of the Chinese influence on American contemporary poetry, I finished by painting a line of informed respect between classical Chinese poets, selected early and mid-century American translators and imitators, the Chinese poets who read and translated American verse, and me, now studying and translating Chinese poetry. That line, I argued, made a circle, and the circle drew an island on which it was possible to reside. What I remember most clearly is poets in the audience nodding – consenting to be described as a part of this process, as I had hoped they would. It wasn’t perfect, and I got plenty of opposition to other presentations and other ideas while I was in China that year, but in that moment, I was honestly happy with my work, my field, and the things we were making together.

The desire for informed respect, the belief in genuine information, and the concomitant position that a language should not be divided from people, places, moments, and experiences, are the core of my acceptance of world literature, even at its worst. When David Damrosch writes that “To read Bei Dao’s poems in English we should be alive to relevant aspects of the context of their production, but we don’t finally need the Chinese context in all its particularity” (22), I see a self-protective excuse for incomplete transculturation that is given in the same moment that the should of thick translation is performed. Yes, translation and world literature will survive even if our temporal limitations prevent current types of “genuinely informed respect”; Damrosch does not need for his institutional or intellectual survival to understand what is happening in China or in Chinese. He knows, however, and accepts that he should have that understanding. And of course as example he uses Bei Dao 北岛, whose work has been thoroughly transformed in reception by what Maghiel van Crevel calls the Western audience’s “overwhelming interest in the poet’s personal history. The poem becomes a metonym for its author, enabling straightforward empathy with a historical human being, rather than interpretation and appropriation of the text by the individual reader” (173). Only millimeters beneath Damrosch’s project of marking the “new life” (24) that global literature enters when it is circulated in translation, there lie political and affective connections, echoes and disputes between contexts, the desire of the Anglosphere to see foreign voices perform local political virtues. This is visible in part because after the adoption of Bei Dao’s work as world literature, even on simplistic or false terms, he gained an enhanced ability to speak, to push back against the terms under which he is read, and to participate in the circling of transcultural exchange.2 The severed text that disgusts both Apter and I is like any limb or organ: we instinctively want to put it back in its place, to find the context in which it fits.

Damrosch’s conception of world literature did not “need” me to attend the 2019 International Poetry Nights in Hong Kong, a biennial poetry festival organized by Bei Dao; it didn’t call upon me to scrutinize the list of poets selected for the undertaking, or carefully read Bei Dao’s introduction to the event, on “Speech and Silence.” Around the dinner table at the festival, though, there were seated many poets, scholars, and translators who had arrived at that moment through the provocation of the expatriate, or by reading severed texts. I read decontextualized selections from the Zhuangzi as a fifteen-year-old in a high school Asian history class; Chris Song, a co-founder of the Poetry Nights, started writing poetry when he met the American poet Steven Schroeder (Song 2021); Bei Dao found the seeds of a post-Mao Chinese language in Western texts translated as “yellow-cover books” (Bei Dao in Larson, 1993). None of these encounters was a self-confident exchange of genuinely informed respect: each was partial, initial, fledgling. The yellow-cover books that Bei Dao read were, in many ways, intended for criticism by loyal Communists; my reading of Zhuangzi was part of an “Asian civilizations” course that reduced literature and philosophy to intellectual history. But each encounter indicated its own severed nature, each one posed questions best answerable by language study and by movement: Chris Song met just one poet at first, but eventually he would read and translate many more. Were I, then, to revise Damrosch’s assessment, I would say this: “To read Bei Dao’s poems in English we should be alive to relevant aspects of the context of their production, but we don’t initially need the Chinese context in all its particularity.”

The experience of loss that accompanies the imperfect, untrustworthy, severed practice of world literature – the encounter with a text that, without its context and its originary world, seems incomplete – is one way in which literature pushed me, and people like me, towards the world. My recent inability to respond to that push, to that social and emotional drive, is what I mourn today. As the thickly translatable becomes the untranslatable, my own intellectual world pulls apart, leaving me able to see its sinews and cartilage, its interior layers and its underlying logics. I can see it, now, because it is in hindsight: as history, as something I was once fully engaged in. My question about Hei Guang is the same question that severed translations ask, and the same question that Pan Yue asked about Xiahou Zhan. How can I reach him?

4 Wuhu Aizai

Helplessly, I revert to the ritual utterance of my kind, the reflexive response to distance that has been handed down to me just as wuhu aizai was handed down to Pan Yue, and I make of this utterance a refrain to formally close my elegy without curtailing or resolving the feelings it contains. My ritual utterance is severed translation, naked of the contexts with which I would prefer it be surrounded: unstably informed, respectful but not genuine. In producing a severed translation I validate the kernel of motivation at the heart of world literature in translation: we read texts outside their contexts in part because we cannot reach those contexts. The translated text has an independent and separate life outside its originary culture because there is no sufficient community of discourse between the originary culture and the translating culture. When Apter decries “transmission by instructors with low levels of cultural literacy and nonexistent knowledge of a translated work’s original language,” that’s a situation that readers find themselves in when movement is difficult, cultural and language skills are insufficient, and resources are thin. What teaches us the desirability of cultural literacy and extralinguistic knowledge is the very experience of attempting to translate and understand literature without inhabiting its contexts. So I tab over to the Douban page for the book, find the table of contents, and start Googling poem titles. I soon find the first five poems from the book posted on a forum/blog, and after attempting and failing to make sure that this is a genuine, word-for-word transcription of the book, I simply dig in:

From tree leaves wind
gets its whistle
From blood a knife
learns the knife’s feel
This life of mine
guards a set of
pure white human bones

I guess most, in this piece, at daogan 刀感, the knife’s feel; in my imagination of the poem I fill in my old reference, to Zhuangzi’s story of Ding the Butcher, who through long experience learns how to carve an ox by feel, without exerting force or dulling his knife. It is suspect that I read the line so, as I have written my own poem, “Parable on How to Carve the Meat,” on the same text (Admussen 2019). If I were able to sit at length with Zhang Er or another initiated reader, and talk about the translation, I would additionally ask about the sound of the poem – its tetrameter – as compared to the visual block of it. Which should I emphasize? I would ask if the final line, made up of binomes rather than single characters, felt enough like an exception to the rest of the poem to allow me to add an extra syllable. I’d ask if inserting human into the final line – a word that doesn’t appear in the original – deformed the line too much, that I could cut the word entirely and then perhaps, if but awkwardly, add a syllable somehow. For such a short poem, I might have given Zhang Er two or three options. Whether the result was more faithful to Hei Guang’s original vision, whether I listened to or ignored Zhang Er’s advice, whether or not the conversation ended in a more beautiful poem, my choices would no longer be isolate and singular, they would be tied by a thread of filiation and reciprocity to the place and people that the text came from. Zhang Er, his friends, and the friends of Hei Guang would know that the translation was happening and my reputation in their circle would rely in part on how well I’d rendered the poem in their eyes. I might have taken three or four more passes at revision – perhaps I could find two two-syllable words to translate the poem’s final line. Finally and most strongly, I find myself mistrusting the new context into which I put the poem: even though it is the first poem in Although Life is Long and was chosen almost arbitrarily, in this essay it seems almost intentionally placed to comment on the distance between a phenomenon (leaves, cutting, bones, literature) and an epiphenomenon (whistling wind, blood and knowledge, life, translation).

But “Song” produces nowhere near the chill that the second poem in the collection does, a poem that seems to envision itself unavoidably being cannibalized, borrowed away by survivors, ceded to people unable to do anything but pursue their own needs for self-expression, for difference, for release. The poem, trapped in this context, marks its own loss, as it is severed, borrowed into another language; I borrow it to mark my own loss of the ability to hold it in common, and to express my desire to inhabit poems together with the people I would like to reach.

Perpendicular to the Earth
I’m perpendicular to the earth
I can move freely
parallel to the trees
intersecting with the birds that crisscross the sky
forgetting all origins and objectives.
Language is a slope I enjoy climbing
language is chess pieces I enjoy moving about
at night I often surround myself
one person interpreted as two enemies
two enemies reanalyzed as three wanderers
three shadows superimposed
blurring the flowers and the blood.
Sometimes I am parallel to the earth
getting some comfort from a bed
sometimes I am with a woman
when I am parallel to her
I’m trying hard to be perpendicular to her too
which is a deeper perpendicularity between me and earth
a deep abandonment of freedom.
Who recognizes the knife wound of time
slowly extruding, a fruit from the flower?
But there will always be those who lament
borrowing the scenery to lyricize
borrowing the sound to make their escape

In the Zhao Min of the Greater Odes, which is a plaint about famine and bad government.


For those who teach and study the poetry of Bei Dao in Anglophone contexts, there are many opportunities to read Bei Dao thinking about his own adoption as world literature: Ratiner 2001 is a strong example of Bei Dao interacting directly with the expectations of an Anglophone reader, resisting the questions that world literature asks of him, and proposing alternate models of reading.

Works Cited

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