The Changing Room
Zhai Yongming
translated by Andrea Lingenfelter
Zephyr Press &
The Chinese University Press of Hong Kong ($15)
by Lucas Klein

Some poets write about the problems of language and indeterminacy; some write about society and culture; some write about gender. Zhai Yongming, China’s pre-eminent contemporary woman poet whose work has finally been published in book form in English, is unique in her ability to combine all three dimensions—the interpretive function, social change, and being a woman—into one relentlessly strong poetic expression.

Born and raised in Chengdu, Sichuan province, in 1955, Zhai’s first poems were published in the early 1980s, right after the first wave of Chinese poets pushed past the Cultural Revolution’s restrictions on individual expression to develop their own poetic discourse. But she was already writing mature work by ’84, where this book begins: the series “Woman” includes passages such as,

In a barbarous atmosphere that keeps its secrets
Winter lets its brutally male consciousness rise and fall.
                                                (from “Premonition”)

and

I arrive      I approach       I trespass
Nursing a temperament I’ve never revealed
Living like an urn filled with ashes
                                                (from “Abandoned House”)

The metaphorical intricacies that both expose and conceal the poet’s self in these lines demonstrate the foundation upon which her poetry is built—and these metaphorical intricacies would develop over time. In the introduction, translator Andrea Lingenfelter points out that Zhai changed the last line of “Abandoned House” from “I am a woman” to “I am myself” sometime after its initial publication. In “Fourteen Plainsongs,” however, we see that rewritten tension between a woman’s identity as a woman and her identity as an individual recast historically, connecting the image of Zhai’s mother to the feminized city to which her own femininity is sacrificed:

Hammers strike blueprints
A modern city in the high pitch of reconstruction
grows up around us
Immense, imposing, and who will spare a thought for
the historic city lying prostrate at its feet
That’s the beauty of conflict
Mother busy with nation-building
her sensual beauty rubbed away bit by bit
and an even more profound place in time
reveals an immutable power

Because the Confessional Poets were some of the first contemporary American poets to be translated into Chinese, many discussions of Zhai Yongming link her with Sylvia Plath; “Plath’s early influence is palpable,” writes Lingenfelter in her introduction. But Plath’s melodrama has not weathered time well (calling your father a Nazi is less shocking when toothbrush moustache-caricatures are requisite for political rallies of all sides), and Zhai’s poetry has more in common with the American poets who have merged their meditations on the relationship between self and sex with a historical acumen and linguistic density: Anne Waldman, Clayton Eshleman, Rachel Blau DuPlessis, C. D. Wright, Cole Swensen . . . This becomes more evident as her career progresses, such as in “Scissorhands’ Dialogue,” for Frida Kahlo:

“For beauty, women bleed in secret”

They bleed but who cares:
The scissors in her heart are cutting
Love’s true outlines                     she stares
Eyes sharp as an animal’s
Two legs scissoring                        hissing, hissing
Hissing           as prickly as salt
It’s not a moan
It’s not easy on the ear
It’s the hopeless and tangled pistil of the tongue

Not that Zhai’s language needs to be dense; at times, its simplicity masks the complications of what it represents, as in “The Blind Masseur and Some of His Methods”:

“How does it feel right here? This spot should
Trigger your senses, between this strip of muscle
And bone there is a tenderness
That can touch your nerves, restrict
Your arms, blot out your dark nights

Don’t let any drafts penetrate your body
Don’t let yourself be altered by fear.”

Of course, the linguistic skill of this volume is as much the translator’s as it is Zhai Yongming’s. Andrea Lingfenfelter’s translation is excellent, representing not only what is in the line in Chinese but what is in the poem, which means that she knows how and when to render directly, how to employ synonyms, and when to rephrase for the sake of the American reader. Occasionally she will hint at rhymes— “searching all night for that frightening lamplight” (“The Changing Room”), or

“I”      answer as if there were a small fruit in my mouth
Spat out it drives deep as a lance
Casting a glance      bright as a jewel
It’s the trail
                                                (from “My Younger Brother in the Water”)

—employing the sonic patterning of Plath, which has not aged poorly at all. Elsewhere, Lingenfelter finds an elevated, Latinate eloquence: “the universal gravitation of her body / plummeting suddenly” (“Reading the News”), or “The climax of evolutionary theory repeats ad nauseam” (“Her Point of View”). In short, she has made the connection between Zhai’s writing and contemporary American poetry possible.

In her most recent work, Zhai Yongming has taken on real-life trauma of current events that American writers might shy away from for fear of sentimentality, such as “The Testament of Hu Huishan,” about the Sichuan earthquake of 2008, or “Report on a Child Prostitute.” Not that these poems are sentimental, or that Zhai isn’t conscious of what poetry should and shouldn’t be, or can and cannot do:

Reading the paper I keep thinking:
You can’t write a poem about this
You can’t turn poetry into something like this
You can’t chew up a poem
Or hammer words into teeth      to eat away
These diseases      these incisions
These large sums added to her twelve years

These poems bring The Changing Room back to China—not that it ever left it—and to the reality of the land in which they were produced and first read. Perhaps this is the book’s greatest achievement, that it can provide room for the reader to change through reading poetry in awareness of the ways that language, gender, and society constitute another part of the world. Effecting this change and making this connection, Zhai’s poetry bring us closer by “driving away,” as the last line of Lingenfelter’s translation has it, “the smell of a politicized soil” (“Bidis”).




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