EILEEN TABIOS Engages
SALSA by Hsia Yu, Trans. from the Chinese by Steve Bradbury
(Zephyr Press, Brookline, MA, 2014)
I really really like these poems, I began to think after the third poem in the book. Finishing the collection just affirmed: I really really like these poems.
First, the caveat that I am not fluent in Chinese and my read of Hsia Yu’s poems are based on the English translations by Steve Bradbury. That aside, poet and/or translator have presented poems that are deceptive in their narrative simplicity. By such, I mean that the writing is straight-forward, but by being so, only heightens the profundity of what the poems are considering and offering to the reader. For example
You’ve All the Time in the World to Kill
and I’m so Very Beautiful
Only a spell can remove a spell
Only a secret be traded for a secret
Only a mystery arrive at another mystery
But I neglect the importance of health
That waiting can be harmful
And that loving makes for a harmonious life
Apart from suggesting we have a child together
No idea is worse than this
You’ve all the time in the world to kill
And I’m so very beautiful
It’s just as well, really, as linguistic acrobatics would, I suspect, get in the way of the mental acrobatics in the poems, or tip into over-the-top the finely-tuned balance managed by the poems. For instance, “The Sans-Feelings Band (Plus Circus Sideshow) and Vertigo That Comes With It” is an energetic, longish prose poem that ends with
… And so our band continues to exist through a kind of monumental force of will it continues to exist but whether the circus sideshow will depends upon the performers’ state of mind when they awake each day he at any rate has decided he will continue writing leaflets to hand out along the way I see the sentences are relatively less intense like this: “Form. Deep form. Closed. Ready to collapse at any moment. Anonymous form.” Some people in a word make much of form while taking pride in making light of the particular. Harmonica in hand I finally succeed in pulling off my vanishing act and reappear in a riot squad a hundred miles away and with pride and bottled-up emotion I swear on my hourglass timer I am reeling with vertigo, I know some mushrooms that can leave you
can really give you vertigo, a vertigo to go
The lack of punctuation enervates the prose poem into a manic sort of run-on, and contrasts with the verses that often utilize lines that make their end-stops synonymous with individual thoughts (as in the above “You’ve All the Time in the World to Kill and I’m so Very Beautiful”).
There’s an is-ness to these poems. It’s an effect facilitated by how many (not all, but many) lines contain individual thoughts. Thus, the effect of Read-a-line: boom, Read-a-line: boom, etc. is perfectly pitched, the boom effect on the reader not elongated onto the next line. For example, these stanzas from “Continuing Our Discussion of Tediousness“ which also serve as ars poetica:
And so we must continue our discussion of tediousness
Tedious things are all so very tedious
And every tedious thing is tedious too
Actually it takes a tedious to be
Tediousness doesn’t need to be discovered, its simply there.
How can you describe the taste of tedium?
Only the most experienced and prudent waiter would say:
“How can you describe the taste of oranges…
We can only say there are certain tastes like oranges.”
Form, of course, is just one aspect of the poetry. But the manner of Hsia Yu’s writings often stress the questions they raise. For instance, the last stanza of the same poem:
Who is on the verge of the perfect washroom
Who is comparatively more a tub
You cannot determine if it’s ecstasy or tedium
Who is the axis who the revolution
It’s subversive—how the poem ends on that last line so that, if one does a close read—so as to avoid “making light of the particular”—one can question, say, the ongoing existence of wars that don’t end but where the dominant, at certain points of time, shifts positions. I would also think it easy to consider the first two lines of that stanza to be feminist, if one wanted to deep read such in that manner.
That I called the writing earlier to be “straightforward” does not mean the poems are not strong with the usual poetic tools. I like the Monday metaphor here, in the last stanza of “And You’ll Never Want to Travel There Again”—
And so listen when I say
It will then be October
And you’ll ever want to travel there again
You’ll be like a Monday
The first Monday after a wild and crazy holiday
There is an old rose red
That becomes you very well
I felt many of these poems to be conversations seeking to involve me as reader. In that position, I as reader (1) would become impatient with (too much) dissembling, and (2) care as to the topic being presented—yes, what the poem is about. That I was quite taken by these poems means the subject matter was interesting and the language served the subject matter well. Ultimately, therefore, I conclude: whoever wrote these poems possesses a beautiful brain. For example, enjoy the twists-that-end-in-mystery offered by this last example-poem which manifests well the strength of this collection:
The cat in the bookstore.
The dog in the bistro.
The plate-glass window clouded with steam
So it can be wiped off.
So I can be seen going by.
So we can have this speechless blind exchange of glances.
Is it possible we all once died together.
Everyone looks so familiar.
There are people going up the stairs.
There are people coming down.
They all know exactly where they’re of to.
Some argue it’s an artificial death.
It’s raining on the Rue des Abbesses.
The bistros ring with smoke and conversation.
These buildings and windows are all façade.
Someone’s bound to prop up a ladder.
Rolls them all up.
Carry them away.
I dash through the square and cross the street.
My hooded sweater’s soaked with rain.
A man who crossed ahead of me turns.
Utters a few words.
Just so I can hear the once again.
I follow him into a shop where they cut keys and resole shoes.
I ask him: what did you just say to me.
He repeats it.
Knowing that repetitions please me.
It’s a cool effect: the way the man at the end may not be a stranger after all despite being referred to as “a man” versus someone known with a name. It dovetails neatly with the thoughts of the second stanza.
I called it “twists.” I guess, I meant “salsa,” as the word is defined for spice and dance. As the ending of “In the Beginning was the Written Word” notes:
I discover they’re always changing with the light
Like the eyes of a cat
They’re always scurrying off
They also draw near
When they really want to
Recommended for their wit, vigor and understanding that the reader completes the poetry experience such that enough mysteries were allowed to exist despite forthcoming narratives.
Recommended, too, for the Translator’s Notes whose erudition and care can be seen in the first two paragraphs (apologies for lack of accent marks—I’m technologically deprived):
Now in its tenth printing, Salsa, which was first published in Taipei in 1999 on the verge of the new millennium, is arguably the most engaging of Hsia Yu’s six collections of poetry. Many of the 46 poems in this volume are deliciously visceral, linguistically suggestive, and seem designed, as it were, to invite diverse interpretations. “The Ripest Rankest Juiciest Summer Ever,” which is among the many Hsia Yu wrote in “Cezanne country” (the others were written in Paris) can be read as a flash history of post-impressionist art, a Proustian “poeme a clef” on life in southern France, or, alternatively, a parable of the decline of the French Left in the face of consumer culture and the rise and triumph of what Guy Debord has aptly called the “Society of the Spectacle.” I am not suggesting that this poem means any of these things, only that it lends itself to these and other equally imaginative readings….
Twelve years ago, when I first began translating poems from Hsia Yu’s Salsa collection for my early sampler of her work, Fusion Kitsch, I often took an overly bold approach, to the point that some translations, such as “Tango,” which I recast as a film scenario, were more on the order of a poetic adaptation. With other poems, whose meaning was ambiguous or syntax was confusing, I tended to translate what I thought the poet said rather than what was written on the page. With the volume you hold in your hands, however, I have taken a much more faithful approach even at the occasional expense of clarity. As the poet has often reminded me, readers deserve the freedom to engage her poetry in ways that please them, and translators should not get in the way of that pleasure by narrowing the semantic space or resolving syntactical ambiguities.
A well-considered book offering much to satisfy the reader.
Eileen Tabios reveals something about herself in ARDUITY'S interview about what's hard about her poetry. Her just-released poetry collection, SUN STIGMATA (Sculpture Poems), received a review by Amazon Hall of Famer reviewer Grady Harp. Due out in 2015 will be her second "Collected Poems" project; while her first THE THORN ROSARY was focused on the prose poem form, her forthcoming INVEN(S)TORY will focus on the list or catalog poem form. More information at http://eileenrtabios.com