THE CHANGING ROOM by Zhai Yongming

Review by Art BeckThe Changing Room by Zhai Yongming

by Zhai Yongming
tr. by Andrea Lingenfelter

The Chinese University Press of Hong Kong
& Zephyr Press
50 Kenwood St
Brookline, MA 02446
ISBN 978-0-9815521-3-2
2012, 163 pp., $15.00

… You can kill without meaning to make it a habit
Swallow poison without thinking of death
Fall in love and never wonder what the year might bring
—Zhai Yongming from “Things Are Always Like That,” tr. by Andrea Lingenfelter

There are two ways to read translated literature. One is in the context of the source culture: What does/did the work say to its original readers? What is/was its historic dynamic?  But there’s a second focus: What does the work say when transmuted into a new language and culture? Consider, for example, Oedipus Rex. For Sophocles and the ancient Greeks, Oedipus is one man trapped in a unique situation; for Freud, he’s become everyman. Or perhaps, more pertinent to the material at hand, there’s the I-Ching as resurrected by Richard Wilhelm and Carl Jung from ancient arcane cosmology and divination, into an intuitive touchstone for exploring the modern unconscious.  It’s a truism that culture mutates into multi-culture as it travels.

In the case of The Changing Room, Zhai Yongming’s poems, while referentially intensely Chinese, seem also immediately cosmopolitan. Some of this is, no doubt, due to Lingenfelter’s elegant translation which won last year’s Northern California Book Award for poetry in translation. The bilingual publication partnership between the venerable New England, Zephyr Press (which specializes in translated poetry) and the Chinese University of  Hong Kong, also imparts the expectation of an international audience.  The volume is, in fact, a short “selected poems” marketed to both Chinese and U.S. readers.  So perhaps it’s worthwhile to look at the poems in The Changing Room  from both  Chinese and translated perspectives.


A Chinese Introduction

Zhai Yongming was born in 1955. As the introduction by the expatriate Chinese writer and poet Wang Ping enumerates, she’s endured the difficulties of being “a Chinese woman poet who has survived drastically different eras in Chinese modern history; the Cultural Revolution, ‘educated youth in the countryside, Post Cultural Revolution … New York City Diaspora, and China’s current economic reform and boom. Zhai Yongming has lived through all these historical eras, and her poetry vibrates with an energy born out of the tumult.”

Zhai is a few years younger than most of the poets of the “Misty School.” This is  a movement originally pejoratively named due to its perceived self-absorption and hermeticism. A departure from the socialist realism that had officially dominated Chinese poetry since Mao, and persisted even into Post Cultural Revolution reformist “scar literature.” The name stuck as a compliment, while many of the “Misty”  poets, including the exiled Bei Dao and the exophone, Ha Jin, made their mark as expatriates. Unlike her somewhat older Misty siblings, Zhai Yongming’s reputation flowered primarily domestically.

But perhaps “flowered” is too mild a word. In a 2004 article on American and Chinese Confessional Poetry in the Canadian Review of Contemporary Literature, Jeanne Hong Zhang recounts how random translations of Robert Lowell, Anne Sexton, and Sylvia Plath by Chinese poets began appearing in both “official”  and “semi-official” student or informally circulated journals in the early ’80s. The fractured psyches and wounded imagery of the American Confessionals seemed to strike a fertile, timely chord when transmuted into Post-Mao era Chinese. That influence seemed to coalesce when, as Zhang notes,  Zhai Yongming’s 1986 poem sequence, Woman, received an “overwhelming nationwide response” spearheading a feminist/confessional poetry movement characterized by Zhang as “the Plath Tornado,”  and by Zhai as a “ Black Whirlwind.”

The Confessionals influenced both men and women Chinese poets, but Zhai staked a (for China at the time) novel feminist claim and still often evokes the sobriquet of China’s “foremost feminist poet.”  She is also a noted essayist, has travelled widely and was recently honored with a regional Italian literary festival prize. Along the way, the Chengdu cafe’ she started in 1998, has evolved into a trendy gathering place for the arts.

In the early ’90s,  Zhai spent some time in New York accompanying her artist husband. An attempt by Wang Ping to have her poetry translated by Anne Waldman proved frustrating. According to Wang Ping, who got to know her well during that period, Zhai struggled with English, had a hard time fitting in, and eventually returned to China, where she “split up” with her husband and opened a bar, the White Nights Cafe in Chengdu.  At the time, Wang “wondered if (Zhai) had ‘plunged into the sea,’ a euphemism for those who abandoned their previous profession to become business people, a tsunami that had swept the whole of China.”

But Wang was sure Zhai would continue to write and her faith was confirmed when in 2006 she found Zhai’s poem “Child Prostitute” in a Chinese journal forwarded to her by Bei Dao:

I read it, again and again as tears streaked down my face … a devastating poem about a little girl kidnapped … The voice definitely belonged to Zhai Yongming—dark, hauntingly beautiful, but it was also the voice of a lioness that had come out of her maze and was now roaring with indignation and grace …


The Translator’s Preface

For Wang, the early Zhai seemed most influenced by the “Misty” poets, and their “dark, heavy, collage—like imagery that reflected the influence of French Imagism. But what made Zhai’s poetry really stand out was the complex maze of her interior world—a world filled with darkness, water, moon, mystery, courage and a will to live …”

But Lingenfelter, the volume’s translator, is also aware of the above-mentioned American Confessional poetry influence. Lingenfelter notes that beyond being grouped with the “Misty” poets and the successor “Newborn Generation,”  Zhai Yongming has been categorized as a “stream of consciousness” poet: “Like others of this group she drew inspiration from the American confessional poets … Plath’s early influence is palpable, particularly in the groundbreaking 20-poem sequence Woman, in which Zhai forcefully articulates women’s subjective physical and social experiences …”

For the reader of Zhang in English translation, I think this is, indeed, a useful frame of reference.  Perhaps not so much for similarity, as for richness of contrast. The first poem in the selection is “Premonition,” from her Woman sequence. It begins:

A woman dressed in black arrives in the dead of night
Just one secretive glance leaves me spent
I realize with a start: this is the season when all fish die
And every road is criss-crossed with traces of birds in flight

A corpse like chain of mountain ranges dragged off by the darkness
The heartbeats of nearby thickets barely audible
Enormous birds peer down at me from the sky
With human eyes
In a barbarous atmosphere that keeps its secrets
Winter lets its brutally male consciousness rise and fall

I’ve always been uncommonly serene
Like the blind, I see night’s darkness in the light of day …

And ends:

Fresh moss in their mouths, the meanings they sought
Folded their smiles back into their breasts in tacit understanding
The night seems to shudder like a cough
Stuck in the throat, I’ve already quit this dead end hole.

For me,  the funereal feminist imagery of “Premonition” seems eerily reminiscent, not so much of Plath, but of a short poem by Anne Sexton, “The Moss of His Skin,” which opens with the epigraph: “young girls in old Arabia were often buried alive next to their dead fathers, apparently as sacrifice to the goddesses of the tribes …”  The Sexton poem contains lines that resonate with Zhai’s: “… the black room took us/ like a cave or mouth/ or an indoor belly/ I held my breath/ and daddy was there … I lay by the moss/ of his skin until/ it grew strange …”


Two Kinds of Dark Sides

Zhai’s long sequence “Fourteen Plainsongs for my Mother,” which looks back from the age of 40 to her conception, birth, adolescence and genetic heritage might similarly be a compatible anthology companion to Sexton’s “The Division of Parts,” set not long after her mother’s death. Although Sexton’s poem delineates various inherited items, including jewelry, clothes and a fur coat,  her real inheritance is the morbid pull of death: “Mother, last night I slept in your Bonwit Teller nightgown …” Years later, in real, not poetic, life she dressed in her mother’s fur coat to gas herself.

And perhaps, for English speaking readers, this points up a useful contrast between Zhai and the Confessionals, so many of whom were consumed by their own darkness.  In Zhai’s “Plainsongs,”  her young mother visits her in the night, not as solace but as insomnia, and death is inseparable from ancestry:

Head bowed, I listen deep underground
bones are talking with other bones
glittering eyes dart around
like the spirits of the soil
listening to daylight
from any dark place
a rooster pecking at grain        as if it were alone

Zhai’s sense of darkness is undeniable. But unlike the dark chasm that ultimately swallowed up poets like Plath, Sexton, Berryman, and so many of their generation, Zhai’s shadow seems to project a generative energy. Wang’s preface refers to “yin” forces in Zhai’s poetry—“feminine, moon, water.” And Lingenfelter quotes from an essay in which Zhai herself references:

An individual and universal inner consciousness—I call this Black Night Consciousness … female consciousness, beliefs and feelings … As one half of humanity, from the moment of her birth, a female faces a completely different world. Her first glimpse of this world is of course colored by her individual spirit and sensibility, and possibly even by a psychology of private resistance.

On surface, a feminist statement that many Western readers can easily relate to. But, if you turn her words over a bit, there’s a difference. This seems an organic femaleness, not just social feminism. It’s not the organization of society, but the dynamics of nature that evoke her “private resistance”. Being a Westerner my concept of yin/yang is  probably more Jungian I-Ching than Chinese, and for me Zhai’s “psychology of private resistance” evokes Jung’s “individuation”.  A wholeness with nature that can only be attained within one’s unique self.

The Confessionals were plagued by the depression side of the manic-depressive coin.  But what Wang Ping characterizes as Zhai’s “will to live” seems to imply an elemental yin aspect in her “darkness.”  Wang, in fact, ends her preface by saying about Zhai’s development: “Her journey from interior to exterior, from self to world, from yin to yang, had finally come full circle.”  And of course, Zhai, whose adolescence coincided with the Cultural Revolution and rural “re-education,”  had to forge and protect her “interior world” in circumstances far different than those of Lowell, Sexton, and Plath’s formative years. The 14th  and last “Plainsong for my Mother” (set in boldface in both Chinese and translation) seems to finally complete the process and mark a readiness to move on to some still unattained but necessary somewhere:

So when we speak of poetry           we no longer waver:
____it’s like stirring ice cubes
it’s like pairs of cymbals crashing into each other’s faces
Wounded       suffering like glass____
words, fair faces and love at an impasse.


From Yin to Yang

The order of the 40-some poems in Lingenfelter’s selection is roughly chronological, and there’s a sense of slowly moving from interior to exterior. Lingenfelter confirms that Zhai was closely involved in the editorial and selection process, so it’s valid to intuit her voice in this. And as you pass the halfway point, the poems seem increasingly less self-absorbed and more socially and/or societally absorbed—as if the need to protect a sensitivity steadily grows into the ability and need to impart it.

There are sardonic dialogues with lovers—“I’m Drunk and You’re Dry,” “Daylight Slumbers,” “In the End I Come Up Short”—in which the poetic dynamic is as much a certain quizzical detachment as sensual inhabitation. A sensibility that sometimes seems an almost surreal blend of Dorothy Parker and Emily Dickinson as in “I’m Drunk and You’re Dry”:

… suddenly I’m flushing red
but you get bluer all the time
if it isn’t alcohol it must be
a wound
shoring up the strength
your sobriety softly sucks away …

There are poems like “Lightly Injured People, Gravely Wounded City” and “The Language of the ‘50s” in which social commentary is personal and slightly surreal. But others—“Report on a Child Prostitute” and “The Testament of Hu Huishen,” taken directly from local news reports—in which Zhai abandons her naturally intricate aesthetic and speaks wholly within the perspective of child victims.

And in yet other “historical”  poems like “Climbing the Heights on the Double Ninth,”  she revisits recurring themes of Classical Chinese poetry and seamlessly breathes them in, then out in her own present day, consciously female, voice.

… Beyond the North Bank        are beautiful women without number
Every man who climbs these heights               will think of them
Even if in the next thousand years                  mammals
And humans               merge into one …

… Today I raise a cup alone                  while River and mountains change color
The green months of spring depleted me …

… Faraway peaks above and below

Plunge naked into my heart …

Longing is miserable                Being drunk is miserable too
How many sighs in the soughing of the wind Who will answer
my echo?
Wine poured down the throat             flows into the body’s deepest reaches
Problems of desire and mortality
Problems of separation and health
Also change inside the throat              and flow into the body’s deepest reaches
They become nimble                yet meticulous
They’re drunk             and they’re everywhere.

As an oenophile, I’ve often wondered what the “wine” those old Tang poets drank was made of. Probably something closer to sake’?  One thing that makes Zhai “contemporary” is that her White Nights Cafe in Chengdu (named after the Baryshnikov/ Gregory Hines movie) is a wine bar. So we do—probably—know what she’s drinking.


An Exchange of Gifts

Of course, all the lines I’ve quoted above aren’t really Zhai Yongming’s, but the English translations which accompany her poems in Chinese on facing pages.  Like Lowell or Plath speaking Chinese, they’ll strike different chords than they did in their native tongue. This volume may attract its share of bilingual readers, but few of them will be equally at home with both sides of the facing pages. And, unlike European poetry, the difference between alphabets will preclude those with no Chinese from sounding out the Chinese lines. So, the English-speaking reader owes a great deal to Andrea Lingenfelter’s ability to translate poetry into poetry. An act of re-creation that—beyond linguistic knowledge—can demand almost telepathic, intuitive skills and an inborn ear/eye for poetic equivalence.

Other English versions of some of these poems are accessible on the internet. Lingenfelter cites Michael Day’s. And the Poetry International Rotterdam site has a number of translations by Simon Patton along with links to other translators. Various readers may prefer various translations of various poems, but Lingenfelter’s volume provides an added plus in that she worked directly with Zhai. The reader has the benefit, not only of Lingenfelter’s bilingual skills, but of being invited to share a long, ongoing conversation that took place in life as well as on the page. In Lingenfelter’s words: “I could not have completed this project without the gracious help and encouragement of Zhai Yongming herself, who has shown me around Chengdu … taking me to (historic) sites … all the while placing everything we were looking at in a larger context. She has also treated me to many memorably wonderful meals …” Translation is, after all,  a matter of the tongue, and, ultimately, nourishment.


An interview of Zhai Yongming by Andrea Lingenfelter, including several poems from the book, can be read online at Full Tilt.


Art Beck is a San Francisco poet and translator who’s published two translation volumes: Simply to See: Poems of Luxorius (Poltroon Press, Berkeley, 1990) and a selected Rilke (Elysian Press, New York, 1983). Beck’s translation of the complete poems of Luxorius, a Roman poet whose 90 extant poems were literally lost for a thousand years, was recently published by Otis College Seismicity Editions.

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