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Across Borders

Xue Di

Translated from the Chinese, with a Preface and Afterword by Alison Friedman

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Xue Di
Across Borders
Series No.: 204
ISBN: 978-1-55713-423-3, Pages: 143
Chinese Literature, Poetry

The Chinese poet Xue Di came to the United States immediately after the Tiananmen Square Massacre in 1989 in Beijing, becoming writer-in-residence at Brown University in Providence, Rhode Island, and was a fellow in Brown's Freedom to Write Program.

Born in Beijing in 1957, Xue Di is the author of three volumes of collected works and one book of criticism on contemporary poetry in Chinese. In English translation, he has published three full-length books, Another Kind of Tenderness, An Ordinary Day, and Heart into Soil. He has also published four chapbooks, as well as publishing poetry in numerous American journals and anthologies as well as being translated into several other languages.

In his newest book, Across Borders, Xue Di writes marvelously rich prose poems on a large variety of "things"--in the sense of the French poet Francis Ponge's Le Parti pris des choses--both specific and abstract. From highly poetic confrontations with "Shadow," "Music," and "Bubbles," the poet faces very specific and contemporary concerns such as an "Eatery," a "Gift," and a longer work on "Blue White Water."

Xue Di's work literally shimmers with dream-like detail as he struggles with the world around him: "Flustered, I start to look for a place to murder my shadow" ("Shadow") or "On Main Street fingertips grab at each other. Finger nails' / faces venomously drop to the ground" ("Images"). In the works of Across Borders it is as if the poet was tactilely experiencing everything about him, resulting in emotional and temporary instability. In his very honest expression of his fears and terrors, however, Xue Di reaches out to all of us: "I weep. My poems grasp for others like me--if but to hold them."

What the poet has said of his earlier book, Heart into Soil, is equally true for this powerful new collection: "It is about understanding a journey of my inner life, covered by daily details, and layers of emotion, a record of visioning outwards--in contrast to when I lived in a communist society and was visioning inwards--as I live [now] in a free country. It is about understanding the connections and knots within a man in relation to societies and time."

Book Review(s)

ASIAN AMERICAN PRESS, February 12, 2014

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.


by G. Wayne Miller

"A Moving Collection from Chinese Poet"

Reading Across Borders, the latest collection of poems by Chinese expatriate Xue Di, a fellow in Brown University's Freedom to Write program, is like passing a night with a succession of elegant, brooding, atmospheric and sometimes disturbingly realistic dreams. Your emotions have been moved, and they have pulled your intellect along. You return to the here-and-now with powerful impressions, your mind reflecting on what you have experienced. You have been somewhere you have never visited before, and you hope someday to return. Perhaps you will have to return several times before true meaning is yours.

Born in Beijing in 1957, Di came to America in the wake of the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre -- a protest he supported, at peril to his life, through his leadership of the Chinese Writers' Association. Given the fate of other protesters -- recall the iconic image of the man in the path of the tank -- the fact that he escaped is itself remarkable. So, too, is Di's earlier life: a harsh childhood during which he lived in substandard conditions and was punished for his parents' divorce. He found spiritual salvation as a boy when he found and clandestinely read a collection of Russian poet Alexander Pushkin's work.

This early influence is evident throughout Across Borders: in the poems "Bubbles," "Shore," "Gift," and especially "Echo Lake," whose surrealistic landscape also captures the sense of isolation Di must have felt on leaving China for America and eventually Providence.

That poem begins with immersion in the lake, whose "tinted water swallows my skin inch by inch." A "strange and distant memory" is awakened. We feel it, and then it ends, the sensations giving way to a vow:

"My lips will never recount anything. The world will not pour in or out of them. They sink into the water and kiss the fish in the weeds. Like time, they take on a cold and lasting silence. Mysterious lake, let me enter you naked. Let my feeble song fall into your grasses like a length of yellow ribbon…

"All the misunderstood, let me distance myself from them. Distance, what a pretty hoax. I have lived a brief time and in a frenzy. I loved poetry with my life. Was that not enough?"

Published after Di's Another Kind of Tenderness, An Ordinary Day and Heart into Soil, Across Borders contains the original Chinese text, and what appears to be a beautifully rendered English translation by Alison Friedman. Di is also the writer of four chapbooks: Forgive, Cat's Eye in a Splintered Mirror, Circumstances and Flames.

The Across Borders collection is a treasure. So is Di, and we are lucky to have him here with us in Rhode Island.

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