The poet Yi Lei became famous in 1987 when she published a poem about female sexual desire in a time when cohabitation before marriage was still illegal in China. And, although this is probably the first line in her biography, My Name Will Grow Wide like a Tree, that most newspapers and reviews will note, there are many different kinds of poems in this book, too. There are beautiful poems of grief and joy, for instance. There is attentiveness to the larger word (“Each blade of grass is a glorious eye,” she writes, echoing Whitman). She is also such a strong spiritual poet. “Whose hands scrub clean the soul,” one poem asks. “Fellow citizens: / Something invisible blocks every road” another poem tells us. Another poem — perhaps the shortest in the book — produces devotional poetics in just five lines:
“When life ends,
When memory ends,
attests to the spirit”
What I found most interesting is how the language of sexual desire and that of devotional attentiveness aren’t that different in her work.
Yes, desire is in abundance here, but desire in her work is somewhat different from many western poets: it is there in our faces, and it is also very nuanced. The act of writing is desire (“I seek / a window, a door that gives. / I am composing an explosion”). We see that “chorus of muscle / rings ecstatic.” Desire is everywhere: “Rain hacks at the earth like an insatiable man.” Everything here can be an object or act of desire: opening a book, holding a cigarette. In a piece called “Cigarette,” she says: “I lift it to my lips, supremely slim, / igniting my desire to be a woman” — as pages turn, these aren’t just examples of eros that we are given, but a kind of sensual and emotive intelligence.
While it is always a fascinating thing to see a major contemporary American poet begin the work of translation, it is especially interesting to observe Tracy K. Smith’s voice in conversation with Yi Lei’s. Smith co-translated this book together with Changtai Bi, and I had the good luck to chat with Smith about this masterful, inimitable, and very beautiful book.
ILYA KAMINSKY: What were the discoveries of translation for you? Did you find something new about American English, perhaps? What were American English’s limitations? I wonder if you could speak a bit about the challenges and discoveries of translating such a sensibility into English?
TRACY K. SMITH: Moving around in the world of Yi Lei’s poems was truly cosmic. Her voice led me into a deep psychic interior, but there is no space in her poems that doesn’t also seek to touch the infinite, the “boundless.” Sometimes that is a wonderful consolation, and other times it’s quite terrifying. That possibility was so meaningful to me as a reader, so instructive to me as a poet — but mostly, it has been of deep use to me as a person alive in this strange and difficult world. It taught me that what I’ve always valued as leaping, or associative thinking, in a poem is not just a matter of technique; it’s part of a larger survival instinct.
I loved hearing the ways that Whitman spoke to Yi Lei in her social context. I believe she derived from Whitman access to a large, roving freedom, and a certainty in the depths and powers of her own unique self. I also recognize how the contradictions Whitman located in his America provided her with a framework for moving between the expansive possibilities and the oppressive realities characterizing her own world. As I completed work on My Name Will Grow Wide like a Tree, those two poles — expansive possibility on one side and oppressive reality on the other — felt relevant to the America I felt myself to be inhabiting.
I think the fact that I was working from an initial English translation as my starting point, rather than from the original Chinese text, made me less inclined to strain against English as a vehicle or a medium for Yi Lei’s poems. I became intoxicated with her ability to make authoritative declarations in her poems, to use cadent, insistent statements as a kind of engine for so many of her poems. I don’t speak or understand Mandarin, but I could hear that insistence when Yi Lei read her poems aloud. It was very often the rhythm of statement, and the various ways Yi Lei created rhythmic modulation, that let me into and carried me through my own work on her poems. And I think some of that rubbed off onto my own newest work, which very often moves forward by way of repetition and sonic insistence.
Here, I also want to speak about Yi Lei’s sense of perspective. No matter where her attention is directed, she always somehow maintains recourse both to the immense and the intimate. She’s faithful to both realms; when she reaches the border of the finite, she crosses it and enters the infinite. I can’t say enough how useful this view of scale, or of the cosmic continuum, has been to me. Not just in terms of poetry (though I think it has begun to open up a new capacity in my own writing), but in terms of life. It assures me that the minute details of life, of feeling, of intimacy with others do not make us small. We remain large eternal beings, and we can move from one scale or vantage point to another as is useful. Of course, there are limits to physical reality. The triumph of Yi Lei’s poems, as I see it, is not that they set out to deny concrete reality, but rather to claim a psychic largeness that transcends the kinds of structural limitations which seek to constrain minds and spirits. In 2020, a year of quite nearly unbearable emotional pressure, disappointment, and racialized aggression, remembering this — remembering, essentially, that we can sometimes choose to place our minds and spirits above or beyond of the things which seek to confine or crush us — has been sanity-saving for me.
Yi Lei taught me that tenderness and forgiveness are indispensable to the forms of critique — of self, of nation — that her poems so often embody. Love is at the heart of all of her poems: love of another person, love of self, love of the planet, love of the elusive dream of freedom. Moving through her work, I see how the scale or manner of love vacillates between a private, human, erotic love, and an earth-encompassing form of devotion. Amazing is the fact that she can strike those different registers even in a single brief poem, like “The Nude,” which begins in intimate passion and then zooms out to the cosmic scale in its final lines: “O dexterous gold watch of the universe / On which one minute can straddle / A hundred years.”
I’ve long written multi-section poems, but Yi Lei’s long poems “A Single Woman’s Bedroom,” “Besieged,” and “Love’s Dance” extend my sense of the emotional journey a long poem can take. Sometimes that journey can happen not from moving forward but returning to a similar place again and again with a different insistence. The wish or desire of these poems is to persist until the known and the felt and the confronted yield discovery, release, and transcendence. I have often felt that the work of poetry is, for me, to clarify a question or shed light upon a conundrum. Yi Lei’s poems enact that, of course, but they also manage to do something so important to existence: they remind me that another worthwhile goal is to rise above the personal, the national, and the finitude of the human.
Throughout the process of translating Yi Lei’s work, I felt as though I was following after an alluring, expansive, and emphatic spirit, racing to keep up as she sped forward. I felt the way I did walking together with her through the streets of Beijing: captivated by the many things she shed light upon, intrigued by her perceptive capacities, and pressed to keep pace with someone so graceful, deft, and quick! My one regret is that it took me so many years to get my part of our job done; when I finally caught up with her, she had already passed on.
Translation gave me the opportunity to trust another person, and to become very close to her beliefs, her griefs, and her strategies for understanding and survival. It gave me a new vocabulary for comprehending myself and the world I inhabit. It assured me that my unique concerns — as a Black person, as an American, as a mother — do not make me alien to someone whose life is characterized by other markers of identity. On the contrary, our differences have very compelling and useful things to say to one another.