Tuesday 23 June 2009

Translating Yang Lian's 'The Valley and the End: A Story'

Yang Lian is an internationally acclaimed Chinese poet who was born in Switzerland and grew up in Beijing. He was one of the group of ‘misty’ or ‘obscure’ poets who published the literary magazine Jintian (Today). His poem ‘Norlang’ was criticised by the Chinese government during the Anti-Spiritual Pollution campaign. He became an exile after the Tiananmen massacre, first lived in New Zealand, and now in London.

He has a new extraordinary collection coming out from Bloodaxe
this October, Lee Valley Poems, about the Lee Valley where he has made his home. The poems have been translated by W N Herbert, Arthur Sze, Polly Clark, Antony Dunn, Jacob Edmond, Brian Holton, Fiona Sampson, and I have translated five. In 2007-8 Lian devised and organised the first Yellow Mountain Chinese/English Poetry Festival, in China and the UK, and I was fortunate to take part, in particular to climb Huangshan (Yellow Mountain), with Tang Xiaodu, Wang Xiaoni, W N Herbert, Robert Minhinnick, Kate Griffin and others.

Lian is reading at the Lemon Monkey Cafe on Monday 29 June with Katy Evans-Bush, Rob Mackenzie and Andrew Philip, 7pm at 188 Stoke Newington High Street, London. Do come. I will be reading my translation of another of his fabulous Lee Valley poems 'The Journey'.

Here is my article about translating 'The Valley and the End: A Story' followed by his poem. This article was commissioned by Patricia McCarthy and appears in Agendathe Welsh Issue Vol 44 Nos 2-3, May 2009, accompanied by the poem:

Translating Yang Lian’s ‘The Valley and the End: A Story’

“You close the book then close the riverbanks”

The history of Chinese poetry is rooted in the Chinese landscape. This is why we’ve come to the legendary Yellow Mountain to translate each other’s poems, a whole group of us, including W.N. Herbert, Robert Minhinnick, Wang Xiaoni, Yang Lian and myself. This is where the Yellow Emperor sought the elixir of immortality from an islet in one of the misty ‘seas’ that form in the valleys between peaks.

To the ‘deep-reality’ poet Yang Lian, the Tang Dynasty tradition cannot be ignored. His images are loaded with it. It’s as if Yellow Mountain, this mist-enshrouded idyll so familiar from scroll paintings, lies as a wash on each blank page as he starts to write. And from each page, fog swirls to form ghost-valleys, rivers of exile. Peaks rise with names such as Bookcase Peak and Writing Brush Bursts into Bloom. In the ‘seas’, images flower then fade. The fog is thick as cocoon silk – opaque enough to hold memories of London in its weave. On a bank of cumulus Walthamstow Marshes floats. I glimpse dragon-boats, an iron bridge, a marina café where a couple confront one another. No sooner do they appear than their faces melt like sugar lumps in tea. There are photos on the wall, faded sepia shots. Outside, a swan slices the water and it starts to rain. The café vapourises with a furnace-hiss.

The long raindrops are chopsticks stabbing the surface, breaking it up. A bath floats between the fish-rings. The woman’s six-year-old self lies inside the white enamel, and as the sun sets, its rays tint her bathwater red. A flock of birds are nailed to the sky by the clock’s hour hand, which in Mandarin is a needle not a hand.

So while I wait on the mountain steps, wedged in the crowd, I mull over how to make this image work in English. There’s plenty of time, the queue waiting to climb Celestial Peak is packed with Chinese tourists. My task is to render the original poem as naturalistically as possible, as if it had originally been written in English, yet preserve those images, now stone, now mist, that merge into one another. A small white moth lands on the twisted lower branch of Welcoming Guests Pine. He has a tiny black-and-gold striped mountain range painted across his wings, and as I wait for the queue to move, he soars back up to the sky, taking his miniature Huangshan with him.

And now I’ve climbed the crag of the highest peak, and it’s time to descend the too-narrow stone steps carved into black rock with buff stripes, this sky-tiger I’m riding through the haze, and I have to concentrate on each step so as not to fall off the unfenced razor drop on my right. I chant the names to myself to fight off vertigo – Lotus Pistil Peak, Cloud-Dispelling Pavilion, Echo Wall. I reach the rock where a monk once drew the character for lightning and made it crack, and I have to pass right through this slit towards Jade Screen Peak. At times the striated rock sways like the banks of comfrey and chamomile I’ve squeezed through on the Marshes, the scent of meadowsweet making me giddy. Over the Carp’s Backbone to the Gold Cock Crowing at Heaven’s Gate and I’m pushing harder now as it’s getting late and the telpher shuts at dusk. The mountain will close and press me flat as a flower in a book.

Flat as Walthamstow Marshes, my neck of the woods, now Lian’s locale, only he lives on the Hackney side and I in Walthamstow. We might as well be on Yellow Mountain in this desolate poem where mouths hang from walls, where light flashes off the river Lee like a tiger’s pelt, one stripe in London, one in China.

Imagine my surprise as he sits in my tiny study, the mournful cries of geese crossing the window’s sky, while he conjures the marshes in faltering Yanglish, and I search the clouds for the right words to translate his lines. Geese, which have flown over my house all these years, suddenly are the wild geese of exile, their calls evoking homesickness as potently as they did in the time of Li Bai writing poems on Celestial Peak.

I’ve lived in North East London for over twenty years now and would have moved away long ago except for that nearby sanctuary, with its head-high wildflowers and the Springfield Marina where ‘The Valley and the End: A Story’ takes place. I’ve often stopped at the small riverside café for a cup of tea and a cake to warm me during walks. Last time I passed it was closed, which was a shame because I wanted to check out those old photos in his poem.

Lian’s images are collages of strangely juxtaposed objects, but he considers his surrealism to be ‘deep reality’ – imagery with roots, rather than a surrealism that might just be obscure or playful ornament. As a former sculptor I am interested in image-making in my own poems. The pictorial aspect of the Chinese characters fascinates me. Yang Lian’s poetry is a new kind of image-making for British poetry, which tends to stick to straightforward narrative. He isn’t just conjuring the world but remaking it into a system of concentric symbols, an organic collage of deep reality. I question him about every phrase, its sound and sense, until it starts to root in my imagination and re-grow.

In his essay ‘A Wild Goose Speaks To Me’ (Poetry Review, Spring 2006) he wrote: “Give me a single breath, and I will grow roots, penetrate the soil, probe shingle and magma, and hear the sea through every artery and vein of groundwater”. He went on to say, “ ‘local’ doesn’t at all signify a specific site, but must point to all sites, as being the ability of the poet to excavate his own self”.

In writing his new collection Lee Valley Poems (Bloodaxe, 2009), Yang Lian makes Lee Valley’s waters turn twelve hundred years upstream to their source, which for him is the Tang Dynasty. The further they flow, the nearer he accesses his innermost self. This poem ‘The Valley and the End: A Story’ occurs in a non-time implied by the tenselessness of the Chinese verb, which is a challenge to translate into English. That couple waiting for the end are always on the marshes, sitting in the café, which is simultaneously a Huangshan path. To Lian’s eyes, the café walls are banded Mesozoic rock where Li Bai and Du Fu’s shadows pass, each drunk on their own solitudes. But however heavy the theme and weighted the history, the lines must fly. Like that Huangshan moth bearing a mountain on its wings.

Yang Lian

The Valley and the End: A Story

The days blend into each other – we keep saying the same old things.

The sky is a raincoat with a dripping hem.

Rain taps on white tables in old photos

and on two cups of half-drunk tea. All afternoon we counted the upturned chairs.

Our mouths have hung from the wall for fifty years.


Everywhere is ending. When you stop reading

light leaps from the water’s pelt. When you pull back your hand,

no longer touching the beast’s gorgeous stripes,
your name is the same but sealed off by the weather,

like that loud green on the far bank gradually departing.


A pear tree blocks the balcony

and its spring bedroom full of naked flowers.

On the grass, birds hatch opalescent light.
Our bodies accept the coldness of a past life
by the way they touch and this still makes you wet.

A sugar lump melts an old woman’s squeaking bones –

we can watch her machinery, drop by drop,

leaking tea, swathing her groans

in vapour. Time begins at the next table,

passes the sweetness of the end through our guts.

Fish-rings wait for us outside the window.

We walked over that pale gravel path

to where a million fish eye-socket circles
are pierced by chopsticks of rain – the circles’ centres
choked by the softest diameter.

You close the book then close the riverbanks.

Swan-stares carve this view –
the house, the iron bridge, that silently emerge –
their paddling feet are russet leaves under the water’s surface

where our presence secretly shatters a cloud.


Dive back into the six-year-old’s bathtub.

Just six years old, the body, already smashed open

by a blood-red torrent, has become a dirty word,

the air made even thinner the further back time reels.

What dives back into the girl’s eyes is raw poetry


but it’s not love poetry. Why waste time

by talking about time? We are the valley’s delicacies.

We listen to the weightless horseshoe of the crescent moon

splashing mud on our faces – so cold a reunion

forces us to sink even deeper.


History gradually darkens, replicating our organs.

An old filament secretes a film of twilight.

That gas ring pierces thin fingers,

the flames spurt, hissing five o’clock with a furnace roar –
the entire sky of homing birds, each one nailed to the clock’s hour hand.


Two ends – either yes or no.

Two ends like two people face to face, holding up the same cup

to keep warm – a present tense you spill from your clothes.

Two memories glide between stars at the speed of light,

a black umbrella lifted by a disembodied hand orbits


all sorrow and joy – just to be alive.

While we sit at the table against the blankness of water,

water flows away unnoticed.

The end is never like the sea, rain snuffs out one second

then we forget our past.


Naked sex converges on one point in the sky,

licks the emerald breasts of wild ducks.

Trees in fog are truly beautiful. That old photo

bathed in moonlight is the park inviting you for a stroll.
The night sky is so close, hiding at your back, inviting you to moan fiercely.

Translated from the Chinese by Pascale Petit and the author