Category Archives: Poetry

To Read Aleksander Blok

is to search the internet for Russian poetry in vain attempts

for conversation starters, for new reasons to leave my stool

and find novel and nerdy ways to say, How are you this evening?

It is to be riveted to the bar, drunk and dreaming

of your Volgograd, one I never saw and never frequented

its taverns and winding city streets with you on my arm –

you, always on my arm, teaching me how the motherland

really calls, taking me through the real city,  the real Russia,

real Eastern Europe with a love of butter, mayonnaise, beer —

and not the one Americans like me thought they read about

on Wikipedia – where a colossal concrete woman on a hill

wields a sword and gestures to the clouds, to the skyline

and to skyscrapers with an outreached and welcoming hand,

yet telling me how you can see a statue, a Slavic world, a pride

of a people and never totally stand in its tremendous shadow;

is to sit in a bar and steal glimpses of you and your silken hair,

long and flowing like the Volga and wish I could forever be

entangled there and in your arms;  it is to have a heart aflame,

seething, and jealous when you politely smile at other men;

it is to wonder how  your ancestors huddled in the rubble

and ruin of a besieged Stalingrad and trained their rifles

against invading fascists — and yet lived to raise lovely children;

is to practice pick-up lines using honest Anna Akhmatova

logic about the true meanings of smoldering, burning gazes,

and to fail to utter real words when you stand next to me;

is to not read Alexander Blok at  all; is to be in total wonder

and stare at the bubbles in my pint of beer and ask: Will she

walk through the bar’s door tonight? Will she sit next to me?

Will she mention Mandelstam this time? Or laugh out loud

about Gogol and his notorious nose? How can I parse her

every word for profound meaning and romantic musings?

Reading Alexander Blok is to be reminded of the Russia

I daydreamed about as a sullen, heartbroken teenager

in Holland, stumbling from an American Air Force Base

and into an Utrecht anarcho-syndicalist bookstore and see

portraits of Trotsky, Bakunin, and Mayakovsky glower

over texts discounted and marked down for clearance;

It is to be reminded of other Russian writers, barren and bleak

snow swept steppes, Cossacks atop horses, charging

into hopeless battles and knowing they will never return;

it is to be an American who spent half of his life outside

America, seeking – always seeking – to find meaning

In every country he saw, every friend’s nationality around him,

only to find home in the lonely pages of Russian literature;

sometimes to read Alexander Blok is to not read him at all;

sometimes it’s to be reminded of who you don’t want to be:

it is to think somewhere else in time, Mayakovsky allegedly

spun a partially loaded revolver on his desk – only to pick it up

and push the muzzle against his chest, against his heart

and fire;

it is to know the dark alleys of my mind and become very afraid

every time my cold heart thaws and beats afresh, as obsessions

and crushes are twisting, woodland pathways into oblivion.

Yet even then,

 it still yearning to kiss you deeply and needing to fully know the nuances and complexities and honesty of your native tongue.

(Mis)translating Zhao Yi

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Jim Cornette before getting fired from / leaving yet another wrestling promotion. He’s so not in the NWA these days.

“It’s so old, it’s new again.”

Jim Cornette once said this about the new NWA Internet wrestling show Powerrr. Yes, you read that correctly; the name is spelled with three Rs. I blame the Internet phenomenon of purposefully misspelling things in the name of copyrights: Flickr, Fiverr, and so on. As professional wrestling organizations go, the NWA is one of the oldest there is in America. Then, Vince McMahon ran everybody out of business and had a defacto monopoly on sports entertainment for 20 years.

That has changed with the rising popularity of independent, alternative wrestling. A big part of that was the recent launch of Cody Rhodes and Tony Khan’s AEW on the cable channel TNT. That was to directly confront WWE. There have been other smaller promotions grinding niches for themselves. A few years ago, Smashing Pumpkins front man Billy Corgan bought the NWA with the idea of doing something new and different: studio wrestling. He likely paid a minuscule fraction of what it may have been worth 60 years ago — if you adjust for inflation. Only, studio wrestling is not all that new.

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NWA reboot before COVID-19 changed the state of pro wrestling.

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Georgia Championship Wrestling from days of old.

In the annals of pro wrestling, “studio wrestling” used to be a staple on TV. This was partly due to how cheap it was to produce. Basically, a ring was set up in a television studio, a small audience would be brought in, and matches happened. It was a more intimate setting than the arena shows WWE would later profit off of. There was a long, rich history of this type of TV program, but in  the course of the 1980’s the concept ceased to be. As stated earlier, McMahon killed the territory system and ushered in a new, micro-managed, corporate era. As much as I love professional wrestling, there is something else about Cornette’s words that interests me.

“It’s so old it’s new again.” The 1980’s is experiencing a nostalgic resurgence. You see it with TV shows like GLOW, Stranger Things, and the current season of American Horror Story. Now, it’s popping up again with an Internet wrestling show made to look like it came from the 80’s. Nostalgia cycles are not a new phenomenon by any stretch. Here’s a frightening thought: 40 years from now, somebody will wistfully look back at 2019 and will make an entertainment product about it. While I am currently in my mid 40s, that scares the crap out of me.

This is well and fine, but why am I pontificating on this on a blog about Changzhou? Seriously? I highly doubt Jim Cornette even knows the city of Changzhou exists. Most Americans probably don’t. Well, the connection in my brain is because of this guy.

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This is Zhao Yi, and he was from Changzhou. He was a poet, historian, and literary critic during the Qing Dynasty. His former residence is downtown in the Qianbeihou historic area near the Wenhuagong subway station.

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I had always been curious as to who Zhao Yi was, because I have been walking by this place for years. Just because there is a historical preservation marker doesn’t mean that it’s actually open to the public as a museum. The one time I did poke my head through an open door, it looked like people actually live here, still.

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But let me be clear about something. I am not comparing the delightfully foul mouthed, tennis racket wielding, legendary wrestling manager from Kentucky with a Chinese poet of the 18th and 19th Centuries. As a juxtaposition, that’s just too far of a stretch — even though Zhao was considered unconventional by some of his contemporaries. Or am I just doing that?

None of Zhao’s verses has been translated into English. Given that I have an MFA in poetry — and a deep desire to learn Chinese — translating Chinese poetry into English  seemed like something I would eventually try my hand at. Only, I was too afraid to take that leap. I did so anyway. Recently, I realized that I was being too ambitious with disastrous results. Maybe I should start by focusing on really short verses, I thought? So, I settled on this as my first real attempt:

满眼生机转化钧,天工人巧日争新。

预支五百年新意,到了千年又觉陈。

Mǎnyǎn shēngjī zhuǎnhuà jūn, tiān gōngrén qiǎo rì zhēng xīn. Yùzhī wǔbǎi nián xīnyì, dàole qiānnián yòu jué chén.

This comes from a sequence called 论诗. That translates as “On Poetry.” The sequence itself can be classed as “meta poetry“  — poetry about poetry. Or so to speak, using the art of language sound to comment on that exact art. So, my first crack at translating just those two sentences led to this:

One’s life and vitality abounds and changes you;

Heaven’s workers daily vie for something new.

Advance 500 years into a future of new meanings;

In the end, a thousand years can still feel stale.

Before I get back to Jim Cornette, let me reinforce something. This is my first attempt at trying to translate anything into English. I’m hyper aware that I’m missing something or there is a nuance going over my head.

In know this because of three particular characters in the original Chinese: 天工人. If you stuff Zhao Yi’s words into Baidu Translate, you get “workers of the sky.” That’s just fantastical. It’s almost like something you would expect from Tsui Hark’s special effects bonanza “Zu Warriors from the Magic Mountain.”

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Google Translate stated that 天工人 meant “day workers.” That’s actually funny because of the proletarian bent of how that just sounds.

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And thus, my first real conundrum of trying to translate from Chinese to English happens. The character  is problematic because it can mean so many different things. There is no true equivalent in English. That character can mean anything from day to heaven and god and more. Recently, to some of my students, I compared it to how 宅男 and 宅女 are not adequate translations of nerd.The Chinese implies somebody who spends most of their time at home ala “house man” or “house woman.”  In English, both nerd and geek have taken on positive, non-derogatory meanings. Both are words for socially awkward people, but those words also now imply expert. As in: poetry nerd, drama nerd, technology geek, and so on. As far as I can tell in my discussions with my students, the Chinese translation doesn’t have that “specialist” meaning attached to it.

So, allow me to get back to Jim Cornette. Both he and Zhoa Yi are talking about cycles of time. Cornette, whether he realizes it or not, is touching the nature of nostalgia and people who age. Things do get so old that they feel brand new again — and this is after two decades of being force fed Vince McMahon’s vision of what American professional wrestling should be. You also see this with music and how it falls in and out of fashion. At one moment, disco is vogue and at another, it’s abhorrent and kitsch. Zhao Yi is more devastating than Cornette. That nostalgia curve goes away, eventually, and it’s gone for good.

Everything is destined to become antiquated. Things not only age, but they become stale in their age. What was once innovative becomes passe and boring. Don’t believe me? Ask most of the high school students that are forced to perform Romeo and Juliet in front of their peers during their English classes — or the Chinese students who are required to memorize the poems of Li Bai.

There are exceptions, of course. There are people like me who actually enjoy dissecting Shakespeare’s metaphors. Or, who think it’s fun to conjure up a silly line connecting American pro wrestling to Chinese poetry. Either way, I found the challenge of translating Zhao Yi somewhat gratifying and stimulating, even if my version of his verses may not be the best. I look forward to trying it many more times with many more poets.

Xu Zhimo Romantically in Changzhou

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A snowflake falls from a winter cloud, but it seems intent. It’s consumed with desire. As it flutters its way to earth; it works hard to avoid forests, mountains, and valleys. It does not want to land on something or somebody meaningless. It knows what it wants its destiny to be: it has to seek out a garden and fall onto a beautiful woman so that it could melt and “dissolve into the cordial waves of her heart.”

This is the gist of 徐志摩 Xu Zhimo’s famous poem, “A Snowflake’s Happiness” — 雪花的快樂. My summation is a bit crude, because there is more at work here. The whole poem is a complicated metaphor about love, and that gets into the mechanics of how it was written. The first line goes like this:

If I were a snowflake

The voice of the poem is not declaring, “I am a snow flake.“ The operative word here, if we are trusting the translator, is if.  That means its a metaphor and not a description of real life or something following a more narrative context. Much like other effective poems, the middle is there to build tension and led to the emotional payoff of the end. Of course, I’m not basing this off the Chinese original, but a translation I found on a blog. This version reads like a few of the others that I have found.

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This is well and fine, one might say. But what does this have to do with Changzhou? Xu, after all, was born in Zhejiang and spent a lot of time studying in the US and the UK. Living in England is the subject his most anthologized poem, “Taking Leave of Cambridge Again.” As it turns out, Xu had a few links to Changzhou. The first comes by way of his romantic relationship with Lu Xiaoman.陆小曼. She spent sometime growing up in the Dragon City and had a definite connection to it. By default, that gave Xu an connection, too.

During his writing career, Xu also wrote a poem about Tianning Temple. The temple’s website even acknowledges this. This has been translated into English, but its only available in print. It isn’t online, and the collection of verse does not have an eBook version. I would have bought a copy if it had. One can shove the Chinese version into an online translator, but that really does a bunch of indignities to poetry. Verse is a medium where the choice of language is mostly exact and precise. It’s all about the subtleties of nuance.  Translating something like this with Google is like taking a beautiful, delicate, and exquisite piece of porcelain and dropping it into a blender.

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Despite these literary and historical connections to Changzhou, there is something real that somebody can go see. It’s in Tianning, near a northern exit of Hongmei Park and just down the street from the downtown train station. There is a statue depicting a romantic couple, and the are standing next carved metal baring the title of Xu’s snowflake poem.

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It would be easy to pass this by and think it’s the only thing referencing Xu Zhimo in the area. However, if a person were to descend a nearby staircase and stand along the canal, they would see this.

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These are inscribed tablets reproducing pages from Xu Zhimo’s diaries. This, in particular comes from 爱眉小札日记. This diary has been published in Chinese as a book, but like a lot of Xu’s prose, it has not been translated into English. If one were to look at some of what has been reproduced on this wall, it’s a emblematic of Xu and the writer he was.

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Of course, Xu was a hopeless romantic. He not only had a relationship with Lu Xiaoman, but he had conducted affairs with lots of other women. If you take the content and context of his writing and put that to one side, there is something more stylistic. The passages on display near Hongmei are bilingual. English sentences like

Oh May! Love me; give me all your love. Let us become one…

are interspersed into Chinese. This is no accident. Xu also worked as a translator, and he was proficient enough in English to study both in the UK and the USA. This also gets into the type of writer he was.

In some ways, Xu Zhimo can be compared to Ezra Pound in America. Pound looked at traditional forms in English language prosody and wanted to throw them out, start over, and bring in something new. He had translated Chinese poets like Li Bai and felt their influence. Pound also translated Japanese verse, and his famous “In The Station of the Metro” poem reads like a haiku. On the other hand, Xu Zhimo  returned from study abroad. and did the same thing. Only, he loved western poets like Keats and Shelley. He wanted to throw out traditional Chinese poetic standards and write something more influenced by the west.  In short: Xu was not immune to experimenting and playing around with language.

Whether it is by way of his Tianning Temple poem or his relationship with Lu Xiaoman, Xu had some connection with Changzhou. This city has had a long reputation for helping cultivate scholars and and people of intellect. Xu Zhimo definitely didn’t come from here, but as evidenced by sculpture and canal-side engraved passages, Changzhou will still celebrate its link to him.

This was crossposted from Real Changzhou.