ASIAN AMERICAN PRESS, February 12, 2014
Reviewed by Bryan Thao Worra
"Across Borders with Xue Di"
I first became familiar with the work of Xue Di through his book of poetry, Heart into Soil.
In the course of his output he has written three volumes of collected works and a book of criticism on contemporary poetry in Chinese. In English, he has three full-length books: Another Kind of Tenderness, An Ordinary Day, and the afore-mentioned Heart into Soil. He has also published four chapbooks, as well as publishing poetry in numerous American journals and anthologies and his work has been translated into numerous languages.
After taking part in the demonstrations in Tian'anmen Square, he left China and became a fellow in Brown University's Freedom to Write program in 1990. He's had an amazing journey since.
His newest book, Across Borders, from Green Integer, uses prose poems to contemplate the nature of many things, in the deepest sense of the term. His subjects nominally range from bubbles and flames, to an eatery and Echo Lake. Of course, as he's demonstrated so often, they are about much more than that. This edition includes both English and Chinese. Green Integer has also helpfully included the essay "Across Borders: The Personal and Political in translating the Poetry of Xue Di" by his translator Alison Friedman and an appendix on the Chinese language that may be helpful for readers to place this volume into context with the rest of his work.
Friedman handily reminds us: "In America, where expressing the personal is less immediately dangerous, at first it may seem that his poems will lose their political impact. I was not sure how the political would come through in my translations, especially because in this manuscript, the messages are personal -- "Eatery" is about disgust with human nature after witnessing a drunken brawl, not about troops beating students in Tiananmen Square; "Gift" is an ode to his mother, not a satire of his "motherland."
For me, that has always been the interesting thing of reading Xue Di's work. To see how many ways it can work, what levels it can be read at, where even the translation becomes a question of very deliberate choices that American poetry rarely grapples with.
Across Borders' first poem, "Shadow" opens with the lines "I can't, I just can't be rid of it." and closes with a conversation: "What must I do to be rid of you?"
"The corners of its mouth rise in a sneer, it points an arm at me and says, 'Go on, go on into the complete darkness.'"
There's a tremendous beauty in this poem even without knowing the author or his background, or pondering what else he could be saying, but when you do understand Xue Di's journey, you see the real hint of the shadow amid all of these lines of ink. "Shadow" serves as an excellent if not essential introduction to the rest of the poems in this volume.
"Eatery" is a poem most critics will turn readers' attention to, but I also enjoyed his evocative lines in "Images." In "Flames" he has many stirring passages, but in particular he writes:
"Poets! Write the whispers of your soul. Write what Power prohibits. Write yourself: your filth, your transgressive desires, our hubris, dreams realized and dreams deferred. Poets, transcribe each breath that carried you here. Write yourself: your blood, your bones, your tattered flesh."
I can only hope many generations to come find his words and their deeper meanings, and, acting upon them, are inspired to create the kind of worlds where it will be even more difficult to understand what kind of a time we lived in.
This is a fine collection for long-time fans of Xue Di, and a wonderful place to start for new readers.