Aug '02 [Home]


Xue Di's Flames:  Poems on the Paintings of Van Gogh
Reviewed by Donald Finkel

Pablo Medina's Exiled Memories and The Return of Felix Nogara
Reviewed by Maureen Holm

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Xue Di's Flames:  Poems Dedicated to Vincent van Gogh (Paradigm Press)
translated by Wang Ping, lona Crook and Keith Waldrop

Exiled in Providence:  'My Loneliness Is Like Crystal'
by Donald Finkel

Flames, first published in Chinese in 1988, has at last been translated into English. Considering the challenge this remarkable cycle of poems must have presented to the translators, perhaps the wait was understandable, but it has been clearly worthwhile. Peering through these equally remarkable translations of Xue Di's responses to van Gogh's renditions of the fields of Arles and Auvers is at times like peering at a mermaid through a pane of rain-spattered glass—tantalizing and bewildering at once.

Which is true, I guess, of any translation—a word that in its origins refers to the act of 'carrying across.' No matter how fiercely the carrier struggles, the distance between any two languages, cultures, or histories can be at times too great. The distance between Chinese lips in 1988 and American ears in 2002 is immense. Chinese poets had only recently realized, after years of silence, that they could express in poetry what they couldn't say in public. Only ten years before, toward the end of the Cultural Revolution, when Bei Dao posed the question, "They say the ice age ended years ago./ Why are there icicles everywhere?" his readers had no reason to think he was referring to anything but the political situation. By 1988, Xue Di could more openly protest (in "The Burning Silk Veil"), "A land intimidated can only be impoverished."

That comes through loud and clear. But what about the lines immediately preceding?

Who is life's slave? Take
the veil—throw it into the pit of "living"
"Death" shivers among a tangle of roots

This is the first time I recall finding quotation marks in translations from the Chinese. I suspect they may have a clearer function for a Chinese reader than they do in English. Possibly a Chinese reader would recognize whether or not Xue Di was introducing something new into Chinese poetry, something borrowed perhaps from the still-proscribed decadent West. Am I alone in my ignorance?

The sixteen paintings Xue Di chose to address in this collection are all from the period between 1888 and van Gogh's death in 1890. Meyer Schapiro remarks on some of the canvases painted during the time of van Gogh's hospitalization at St. Remy:  "The objects have lost their self-sufficient stable form; they yearn and strive and struggle with forces beyond themselves, or with internal forces from which they need release." A fair description of both the painter and his paintings—not to mention countless passages in Xue Di's poems, typically:

My breath flows through those roots
as if the flames of my whole body
surged up a cypress

Your face sparkles in my night-long pain
The eyes of a she-wolf who has lost her children
a narwhal writhing on the rocks

—often at moments where he's injected himself into the painting.

Xue Di's engagement with the details of any particular painting vary greatly from poem to poem. The poem "Sower" (his response to the painting "Sower with Setting Sun") opens instead with a rising sun. The sower has yet to appear.

When the soil wakes from its deep sleep
sun paints the field's edges, revealing
a mouse's footprint baked into its surface
Wild geese begin their game with summer

Take their eggs, place them
over the lizard's fragile burrow

In fact, the poet involves himself in the transmogrified scene ("I sit/inside the daisy girl's long flute") well before, after a dozen characteristically kaleidoscopic lines, the sower finally appears ("just at this moment, you come/striding out of the sun"). And soon enough, poet and sower become inextricably fused:

All winter
you clutch the seeds and when you
open your fist, I wake to spring
watching your golden wheatfields sprout in blood

Perhaps inevitably, considering the subjects of most of the paintings he's chosen, Xue Di dwells again and again on agrarian imagery: wheatfields and orchards, fruits and grains, horses and cattle—but most persistently (evoking for him both his hopes and his history) ripeness and roots. I find it especially evocative when, immediately after protesting the intimidation of his land, he reassures himself:  "Wheat still grows." (Am I perverse to hear in that assertion an echo of Bei Dao's 'definition' of people in his widely-read "Notes on the City of the Sun":  "Scattered into grains of shining wheat,/the moon's broadcast across/the open sky, the innocent land"?)

Many of Xue Di's most evocative passages evolve from such imagery:

Seeds sing in tiny gowns
Fields stretch, like ponies, their shining hair…
Red pine glitter from bright rifts in the clouds
Land! you are innocent and boundlessly deep

Here is your palace
Oleander, pomegranate, cypress
in a throng of gray mice
alive and satisfied

Wang Ping, lona Crook, and Keith Waldrop have done a remarkable job in carrying across to us Xue Di's at times elusive, but more often vivid imagery.

In The Field Covered with Crows van Gogh was at his most wretched and elemental:  waves of golden wheat surge beneath a darkening cobalt sky, from which swarms a baleful plague of crows. Xue Di attends first to the wheat, unabashedly internalized.

Waves of yellow wheat cry in my throat
I stand on the heights.

Only in passing does he consider the crows ("messengers of the abyss, wings with the gleam/of lilies"). In the body of the poem, the poet dwells instead upon his own circumstances:

I come. I walk
My loneliness is like crystal
Who listens to my voice in poverty

gives me his hand, sustaining me
My sadness is a mirror…
I come. I'm lost
outside the weakness of art.

"What/can undo the crime of humans who insult the soul?" Xue Di then abruptly demands. What may seem to an American reader an excess of self-pity might fall quite differently on Chinese ears. A dozen years earlier such public assertions of anti-socialist individualism were commonly proscribed, so that such a statement was, in effect, an act of defiance. Of course, the fact that these poems were dedicated to a Western painter would have been similarly defiant. Each of van Gogh's paintings allows Xue Di to find himself, to come to terms with his personal predicament—which is at the same time inescapably political.

The entire first stanza of the poem, "Injured Portrait" (Xue Di's response to van Gogh's Self-Portrait with Bandaged Ear and Pipe), alludes only distantly to either the painting or the painter:

When music deserts the human heart, when
squirrels leap into pine cones, when antelopes
frisk on the ocean floor

This renegade music may derive from the painter's severed ear but, from beginning to end of this poem, the poet remains the exclusive subject:

Everything, everything enrages me: this
nation of wild beasts, falling into decline
And as for poetry:  a
stick between the jaws to block my bite

It's not van Gogh's bloody ear that concerns him, but his own, "a sky-blue gem" into which he stares, discovering within it a swirl of disparate images—a badger warming its paws, his grandmother milking a cow, his irritable father, his native village, a swarm of devouring locusts. Then, for a moment, Xue Di contemplates the ears of the people, but pronounces them "no better than saucers." In the end, of course, it's his own ear that troubles him:

O gem, kingfisher-blue, to whom
shall I give you? who will
take you?

A poet cut off from the better part of his audience, Xue Di must have found in the painter's tormented gesture an echo of his own predicament. In another poem ("Tonight"), he laments,

My days are filled with secrets
But when? Can I make those I
love understand my wishes
by describing the chrysanthemum's pistil

(Here again I'm bemused by the almost inexplicable intrusion of Western punctuation—or is this merely a typo?) In "The Field Covered with Crows," his perceived lack of an audience, of readers to understand him, drives him to turn on his own vocation:  "I give up art." Exiled today in Providence, like Vincent in Auvers, he's cut off even further from his proper audience. On the other hand, perhaps significantly, he's chosen to conclude this version of the collection, at least, on a more hopeful note:

Artists:  sad and poor, you have
only poetry, bright sunlight
the music that turns people inward
to themselves! Nothing else to cling to

Something in the tormented Dutchman's visions in the alien wheat of France resonated with Xue Di's own passion and predicament in Beijing. What he appears to have recognized above all was the intensity, the fervor with which van Gogh transfigured the world in which he found himself. It's Xue Di's own fiercely controlled intensity that energizes this collection.

(Donald Finkel's many books, including A Splintered Mirror: Chinese Poetry from the Democracy Movement (1991), have earned him many awards and honors, among them a Guggenheim Fellowship (1967), a National Book Award nomination (1970), and two nominations for the National Book Critics Circle Award (1975, 1981).)

[A complete bio and several of Xue Di's pieces from Flames appear, with corresponding links to the works of van Gogh, in the May '02 poems on paintings feature.—Eds.]