Kazim Ali

The Boy Who Catches Wasps: Selected Poems by Duo Duo (translated from the Chinese by Gregory B. Lee)

Zephyr Press, 2002
ISBN 0-939010-70-4 (paper) $16.95
bilingual Chinese/English

In the Translator's preface to Duo Duo's The Boy Who Catches Wasps, Gregory B. Lee clues us in to some of the difficulties of translating the poems into a language which depends on correct sentence order and subject-verb agreement. Chinese, Lee tells us, "like Spanish, does not insist on the consistent use of the personal pronoun...unlike Spanish, there is no indication at all of the subject of the verb contained in the verb itself. The Chinese verb does not conjugate and indeed gives no indication of tense, while the Chinese noun does not decline and has no gender."

Lee translates carefully, stripping, as much as possible, definitive connections from between subjects and verbs. In this passage from "June 30, 1986," it's impossible to tell who is doing the "rummaging," what the picture of San Francisco actually depicts, what is being "tossed," or even who is doing the "tossing"—a standard English syntax it's safe to say the "sailor" is tossing, but by that point in the passage, the relationships are so mixed up, there could easily be another reading:

On the back of this picture there is no other picture
The only picture is of San Francisco:
Rummaging out of a backside pocket
A lump of ancient oriental pig lard soap

A sailor helping a blind man cross the road
Tosses it into the raging universe.

Duo Duo was a member of the "misty" school of Chinese poetry that sought to rescue the language from its decades of indentured servitude in the name of the Revolution. In his effort to "refashion" language, he complicates the language and language structures of his subjects. The result is a de-familiarization of lethal proportions:

The sea, towards nightfall retreating
Carries off history, and carries off sadness
The sea, silent
Not wishing to pardon people again, nor
Hear people's praise again…

Nothing begins in it nor ends. The sea, if it functions metaphorically at all, stands in for the figure that won't show itself and ultimately drifts away without action.

It's a perfect and musical moment that finds no natural way to linger. Yet like music, in which a single natural note creates something to the tune of seventeen harmonic undertones, the resonances of Duo's short poems do linger. Here's the beginning of the poem "the Patient":

Three years ago the music stopped
Freed fingers drew circles on a glass surface
A small patch of sky
Cut out by the window

But no longer emitted sound
Words dispersed outside the window
Looking at them they turned into apples
Sounds slowly penetrated fruit

The first stanza is a chain of interlocked sentence parts that shift and change. Does the music free the fingers or are the freed fingers a separate subject? Is the music drawing circles or are the fingers drawing circles? Are the glass circles being equated with the patch of sky or is the sky what has been cut out by the window? And is it near the window, or is the window doing the cutting?

While Lee uses some fairly conventional tricks, like line breaks, to increase the multiple possible interpretations of given phrases, he also uses typographical disruptions, usually a comma, to disrupt a reader's expectation. These lines, for example: "You let out your first scream // The ocean, just then bores through an oyster…" and "The water, does not flow again," and "Smoke, always wants to return to the place they came from…"

Like the movie-goer "learning" to understand the strange English spoken by the character, the American or English language reader is definitely aware he is reading work born in a different language system. Duo's brilliant work addresses daily occurrences not with surreal imagery, but with surreal language constructions. Lee's brave and bizarre translations assemble and disassemble.


© 2002 Electronic Poetry Review