Xi Chuan has again been translated by Lucas Klein, this time in a volume called Bloom and Other Poems. Xi Chuan’s poems, as they emerge in English, have often a streaming headstrong intensity, and a visual brilliance—he’s a kind of philosopher imagist. Xi Chuan, who wanted to be a painter and these days is working on a series of documentaries about poets, is described in the translator’s foreword as bridging—or maybe the metaphor is “mixing”—the intellectual traditions of Chinese poetry with the populist, in the style of his rhetoric and in the kinds of things he writes about, the stuff of everyday life. There is something of Inger Christensen about his anaphorics and long lines and cosmic but local concerns. Here, for instance, is the first part of “Senses of Reality,” which appeared in Xi Chuan’s previous collection of English-language translations, also rendered by Klein, called Notes on the Mosquito. The lines have a hypnotic, melancholy beauty:

My grandmother coughs, waking a thousand roosters.
A thousand roosters crow, waking ten thousand people.
Ten thousand people walk out of the village, roosters in the village still crowing.
The crowing roosters stop, my grandmother still coughing.
My still-coughing grandmother mentions her grandmother, her voice getting softer.
As if it were my grandmother’s grandmother’s voice getting softer.
My grandmother talks and talks then stops, shutting her eyes.
As if it were only now that my grandmother’s grandmother really died.

In the poems gathered in Bloom, many of which were written and translated over the last decade, Xi Chuan’s line has changed into something more streaming, urgent, bitter, alert—an articulate consciousness moving with sadness and method through the chaotic world. The insomniac “Awake in Nanjing” sounds, in Klein’s English, like this:

the instant the sky wakes my eyes are shut I’m listening to the rainfall huh huh huh
        listening to half a lifetime of rainfall isn’t romantic
the sound of rainfall approaching mixes with the sound of a solitary car
the car going away pushes the sound of rainfall away but maybe it’s not pushed away so
        much as letting up
like someone’s existence maybe it’s not the person disappearing so much as lightening

Imagination as consciousness. The next stanza:

imagine raindrops hitting the ground umbrellas raincoats scenery soaked
one two three four five six construction sites of silent scaffolding cranes no workers
        climbing up or down or all around
a bodega owner hopes umbrella and raincoats will sell in weather like this

There is an immense vision behind this voice. Xi Chuan is wide-ranging and wide-reaching in his seeing, mining the philosophical for the visceral, the small for the large, and vice versa. He is one of the most important poets alive.

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JESSE NATHAN: What is the relation, in your work, between poetry and the body? Your poems are full of sneezes, erections, necks, faces, eyes, not to mention piss and tears. What does it mean to live in a human body? How is poetry different from philosophy?

XI CHUAN: I feel surprised by your question, because in China I am criticized for being too intellectual in my poetry. Especially in the 1990s. Am I becoming my critics?

But here are my answers.

First. Is it because I taught for more than twenty years at Central Academy of Fine Arts in Beijing? I taught literature there, but almost all my colleagues were visual artists and scholars of visual art. My students were also artists. My wife is a sculptor and installation artist. I call myself an artist-poet. I remember one summer decades ago a boy artist and I took on a bus, on which we saw a charming girl, and my friend murmured to me, “Look at her pink heels, beautiful!” But to be frank, when I watched Paul McCarthy’s video work with bodies and limbs and vomits and shits, I felt that’s too much.

Second, body words are avoided in public media. People may have categories and standards for different words. When I was young, I understood poetry in a belles-lettres and symbolist way. But that disappeared in the early 1990s after I experienced friends’ deaths. I tried to restart my writing in 1992 in a wilder way, to save myself. That is, I tried to overcome mysophobia by embracing words of all categories, including those unpoetical expressions. I call them Raw Materials. And to use body words is to bring temperature and humidity to life and text. It in fact challenges social and political aesthetics and the literary tradition of Good Taste. I tried to touch the earth under my feet. I needed to set up a close relationship between myself and reality, to which my body actually belongs.

Third. Is it because I am getting more and more “experienced” in a Blakean way? Critics pointed out that W. B. Yeats got more sensual in his later years. I am not really a Yeatsian poet, although I respect him greatly, and I read him deeply in my twenties and thirties. But body-words open me to the possibilities of higher innocence.

Fourth, I should say that I feel that “body words” themselves are just common things. They are not so interesting without a context. I like to meld Eastern and Western philosophical approaches. When I put sensual and rational things together, mix them up, I see chemical reactions—that is, poetic ideas emerge that soften or replace cold Logical Inference.

Fifth, in Western literary and philosophical contexts, people are familiar with the words: I, ego, subject, consciousness, and thus come the words: reason, rationality, cogito, intuition, subconsciousness, etc. This is the mental result of the Enlightenment Movement. In China on the other hand, according to Confucianism, the basic philosophical term for the social order is the body (身, shen). When James Legge did the translation of one of the essential Confucian classics, The Great Learning, he translated the character 身 into the word Person, but actually the basic meaning of this character is the Body. And the Chinese Daoists, in religious practice have more comments on body, in order to surpass it, but let’s let them alone.

Sixth and finally: the modern Japanese philosopher Kitaro Nishida (西田几多郎) suggested people go back to the pre-I term: Self. And Self has lots of connections with the term Body. Once we notice the existence of Self, we are developing a private relationship with the world. It’s very important to mention it in my social, historical, and collective background. A private relationship with the world. And I think this kind of combination, mixing personal body words with ideas, makes a way of expression quite different from the usual philosophical or academical way. Once I found I didn’t need to care about all those invisible categories—literary, poetic, belles-lettres, ideological—I felt freer.

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Jesse Nathan’s first book of poems is Eggtooth.