100 Chinese Silences by Timothy Yu
(Los Angeles: Les Figues Press, 2016)
The intent here seems clear enough: Timothy Yu is sick of the orientalist uses made of Chinese culture and its poetry by ‘western’ poets and others that instrumentally enable their own poetries. He is sick of the stereotypes that so often come into play, so he has rewritten a number of poems by a number of authors that strike him as offensive (I say “a number” because it seems that not all 100 of Yu’s poems are rewrites of other poems). Often, he foregrounds the offensiveness.
To quote John Yau, author of one of the back-cover blurbs, “Yu is [...] a slayer of dragons, who knows the millions of sinister and inscrutable ways the Chinese have been silenced in blockbuster films, best-selling novels, Broadway musicals and award-winning poems read on NPR, and closely scrutinized in graduate classes and parking lots of Asian fusion take-out joints with funny names. Not only does Yu make Ezra Pound and Gary Snyder stand on their pointy heads in ways that are illuminating and funny, but he also skewers Jeb Bush, Billy Collins, Mary Oliver, Marianne Moore, and Eliot Weinberger right through their bright yellow Chinese hearts.”
As Sueyeun Juliette Lee (another blurber) puts it, “These poems burn with gloriously wry disdain at the abundance of chinoiserie tinging modernist lineages of geopolitically ‘western’ poetic traditions. By striking out at un-self-conscious performances of western cultural sophistication, Yu exposes these voices’ indebtedness to emptied ‘Chinese’ images.”
In an interview at Lantern Review, Yu says of this project,
The Chinese Silences began when Billy Collins came to Madison to do a reading. There were something like 1,200 people there! Anyway, Collins read a poem called “Grave,” in which he is standing at the graves of his parents, and he says that his father’s silence was like “the one hundred different kinds of silence according to the Chinese belief.” Now, I’m not an expert on all things Chinese, but that didn’t sound familiar to me. And then at the end of the poem, Collins admits that the idea of 100 Chinese silences was something he had “just made up.” In my annoyance, I immediately vowed that I would write these 100 Chinese silences, although at the time I didn’t know what I meant by that.
I totally get this. As the third blurber, Robert Archambeau says, “Our age demands a re-assessment of old representations of the ‘mysterious east,’ [...]”. It doesn’t demand more brain-dead stereotypes. Clearly, the age demands (and yes, I hear Pound’s Mauberly in that, which is kind of meta-ironic given how Pound is treated in this book) more than that, much more; to time-stamp this review, without (mis)representations of all kinds of raced, gendered, classed, etc etc Otherwises, there would not be walls between Mexico and the US, and between India and Bangladesh, and between Palestine and Israel, etc. ad infinitum. There would have been no Brexit. There would be no “immigrant problem”. There would be no Donald Trump.
Not to mention the problems encountered by Asian-Americans.
Anecdote time: My old friend Nikki Chang told me that she was in a car crash. People came out of their houses when they heard the noise. Rather than checking on her to see if she was hurt, one woman shouted from her doorway, “Go back where you came from!” That is totally fucked up.
Here are a few examples of how Yu’s rewrites work. Let’s start with Billy Collins’ “Grave”, since this was the poem that led to Yu’s vow to rewrite these poems.
What do you think of my new glasses
I asked as I stood under a shade tree
before the joined grave of my parents,
and what followed was a long silence
that descended on the rows of the dead
and on the fields and the woods beyond,
one of the one hundred kinds of silence
according to the Chinese belief,
each one distinct from the others,
but the differences being so faint
that only a few special monks
were able to tell one from another.
They make you look very scholarly,
I heard my mother say
once I lay down on the ground
and pressed an ear into the soft grass.
Then I rolled over and pressed
my other ear to the ground,
the ear my father likes to speak into,
but he would say nothing,
and I could not find a silence
among the one hundred Chinese silences
that would fit the one that he created
even though I was the one
who had just made up the business
of the one hundred Chinese silences—
the Silence of the Night Boat,
and the Silence of the Lotus,
cousin to the Silence of the Temple Bell
only deeper and softer, like petals, at its farthest edges.
Now here’s Yu’s “Chinese Silence No. 1 / After Billy Collins, ‘Grave’””
What do you think of this poem
I asked the tomb of my unknown grandfather
with its livid quiet marble.
A Chinese silence fell.
It dropped from a glowering tree
to perch on my shoulder.
We looked at each other.
It would have been hard for a stranger
to tell one of us from the other.
We both looked like monks or scholars
or like piles of drowned bones
laid softly on the loamy earth.
My grandfather said nothing.
His Chinese silence coiled its tail
into the shape of a long-lobed ear,
one of the hundred American signs
for anxious virility.
Then the silence fell
into a cardboard box full of other silences.
Like blind puppies they squirmed
and snuffled for their mother.
OK, I made that last part up.
But you must admit it was a fabulous metaphor.
No? Oh, now I see
you are just as Chinese
as all the other silences –
the Silence of the Heavily Armed Gunboat,
or the Silence of the Drunken Mariner,
or my grandfather’s silence, like the Liberty Bell,
only cracked right through.
I think this very successfully reminds the reader of Collins’ poem that China, its history, its people, etc., are not simply tropes for a poem, something Collins seems blithely unaware of.
Not all the poems Yu rewrites are such easy and obvious targets. “Chinese Silence No. 59” is “after Peter Pereira, ‘The Garden Buddha’”. Pereira’s poem reads:
Gift of a friend, the stone Buddha sits zazen,
prayer beads clutched in his chubby fingers.
Through snow, icy rain, the riot of spring flowers,
he gazes forward to the city in the distance—always
the same bountiful smile upon his portly face.
Why don’t I share his one-minded happiness?
The pear blossom, the crimson-petaled magnolia,
filling me instead with a mixture of nostalgia
and yearning. He’s laughing at me, isn’t he?
The seasons wheeling despite my photographs
and notes, my desire to make them pause.
Is that the lesson? That stasis, this holding on,
is not life? Now I’m smiling, too—the late cherry,
its soft pink blossoms already beginning to scatter;
the trillium, its three-petaled white flowers
exquisitely tinged with purple as they fall.
Now, it is not obvious to me that this poem has anything particularly Chinese about it. It strikes me as more Japonoiserie than Chinoiserie (the fat Buddha, zazen, the cherry blossoms ...). Perhaps, in this case, Yu’s ire is directed at an orientalist silence, rather than a strictly Chinese one. Without meaning in the least to equate China and Japan, I think it might be ok here to say ... close enough. After all, the creators of the silences, in the US at least, tend to use the category Asian-American to refer to Chinese and Japanese people, among others, and I have had anglo US Americans ask me, “Can you tell the whether that person is Japanese or Chinese or Korean?” I believe that Yu is reacting as an “Asian-American” here. In any case, Yu deflates Pereira’s cheap Buddhism, and his “Asian” “flower” clichés (I am reminded of Pound’s “In a Station of the Metro” and of the closing lines from Canto XIII ...),
Here’s Yu’s version:
Some “friend” gave me this plastic Buddha,
smugly clutching beads in his fat fingers.
Doesn't matter if it’s snowing, raining, or hailing,
he’s always staring at the TV across the room,
the same dumb smile on his silent face.
Wouldn’t it be nice to be so passive?
The reality show, the nightly news,
filling me instead with a mixture of nausea
and schadenfreude. The bastard’s mocking me!
Where does he get off sitting there all day
while I punch the clock and send out more poems?
What the fuck is he telling me? That tenure
is not life?? Now I’m smashing him against the wall,
hard pink shrapnel scattering everywhere;
my hands sliced open, the exploding pieces
exquisitely bloodied as they fall.
There are things I love about this rewrite. The use of nausea (think Sartre) and schadenfreude; the overlap between the speaker in each poem in terms of their strong and antithetical reactions to the Buddha’s smile; the cheap satori in the original, the complete frustration in the rewrite (which explain the quotes around “friend”). In this poem Yu is more ‘western’ than the ‘westerner’. He reverses the clichés.
While the vast majority of Yu’s targets are relatively obvious, and his rewrites / takedowns are more often successful than not (even to a person of European descent like me, who certainly does NOT get all that is at stake) I am sometimes somewhat puzzled vis-à-vis what Gary Snyder’s “Axe Handles” has going on that incurs Yu’s wrath:
One afternoon the last week in April
Showing Kai how to throw a hatchet
One-half turn and it sticks in a stump.
He recalls the hatchet-head
Without a handle, in the shop
And go gets it, and wants it for his own.
A broken-off axe handle behind the door
Is long enough for a hatchet,
We cut it to length and take it
With the hatchet head
And working hatchet, to the wood block.
There I begin to shape the old handle
With the hatchet, and the phrase
First learned from Ezra Pound
Rings in my ears!
“When making an axe handle
the pattern is not far off.”
And I say this to Kai
“Look: We’ll shape the handle
By checking the handle
Of the axe we cut with—”
And he sees. And I hear it again:
It’s in Lu Ji’s Wên Fu, fourth century
A.D. “Essay on Literature”—in the
Preface: “In making the handle
Of an axe
By cutting wood with an axe
The model is indeed near at hand.”
My teacher Shih-hsiang Chen
Translated that and taught it years ago
And I see: Pound was an axe,
Chen was an axe, I am an axe
And my son a handle, soon
To be shaping again, model
And tool, craft of culture,
How we go on.
Is this poem problematic in some orientalist sense? I don’t know. I don’t see it. At the same time, I don’t doubt that I could be missing something. Unfortunately, Yu’s rewrite (“Chinese Silence No. 38”) doesn’t help me much:
One afternoon the second week in December
My son is throwing a hissyfit
Turning and turning like a routed stump.
He’s got it in his hatchet-head
That he wants to go shopping, he can’t get a handle
On himself, on his own backside.
I grad him by his ass handle
And swing him back like a hatchet,
Thinking to cut him down to size
And get it through his head
That he’s this close to a trip to the woodshed.
So I begin to tell him about the Chinese
And their patient silence, the silence
Learned from Ezra Pound
dans le poubelle.”
And I say to this kid”
Look, I’m gonna slap your handle
With my handle
And the ass it rode in on –”
And he sees. And I hear it again:
It’s in A Draft of XVI Cantos, 1924
A.D., Canto XIV – in the
First stanza: “Faces smeared on their rumps,
wide eye on flat buttock,
Bush hanging for beard,
Addressing crowds through their arse-holes.”
I translated that into Chinese
And taught it to Americans
And I see: Pound was an ass,
I am an ass
And my son a handle, soon
To be wielded again, silent
Tool watching me pull a culture
From what I’m sitting on.
Yu’s rewrite seems to be centered on turning the word axe into ass and running with a bunch of ass-jokes and combining those with a diatribe against Pound. If Snyder hadn’t mentioned Pound, would there have been a rewrite? If Snyder hadn’t mentioned a Chinese source for his knowledge that existing axe handles model new ones would anything in this poem have set Yu off? I don’t know. I don’t have any intention of defending Snyder here (or Pound, though I would like to note that neither of the bits of Pound quoted here have anything to do with China). I have no intention of defending any of the poets Yu rewrites. I just wish I could ask Yu to tell me what his problem with Snyder’s poem is. In this case, the rewrite doesn’t help me to understand.
But please don’t take the fact that some of the 100 silences work better for me than others to mean that I have any negative feelings about the project, or the book. The issue Yu is confronting here is more important than the “success” or “failure” of any particular poem.
Let me explain.
Another of Yu’s targets is Tony Hoagland. Rather than simply describe his response to Hoagland’s poems, I want to recall when Hoagland and Claudia Rankine got into it a few years back, to show how Yu’s work fits into a wider “decolonizing” effort. To quote an article at Harriet, “Tony Hoagland’s Poem on Race Heats Things Up at AWP”, BY HARRIET STAFF,
On her blog, All Hook No Chorus, Sara Jaffe writes about an AWP panel during which Claudia Rankine addressed Tony Hoagland’s poem “The Change.” The poem was read on the panel, and, as Jaffe reports:
The speaker in the poem recalls seeing a tennis match between “some tough little European blonde” and “that big black girl from Alabama.” The latter has “some outrageous name like Vondella Aphrodite.” Some people in the audience laughed at that line. I didn’t laugh. Although the speaker’s friend is rooting for the black player, the speaker “couldn’t help wanting / the white girl to come out on top, / because she was one of my kind, my tribe”.
After first reading the poem, Jaffe says that Rankine felt not so much angry as confused: But Rankine mobilized the question:
Where was she supposed to locate herself in relationship to this poem? Was she the “big, black girl”? She contacted Hoagland, a colleague of hers at the time, to ask him about the poem.
Hoagland’s response, in brief, was to say that he didn’t have to explain anything to anyone. So, it becomes difficult to know whether “The Change” is supposed to “out” a racist, racism being unacceptable, or whether, rather, it is to say that racism is unavoidable and need not be expunged, because, after all, we are going to line up behind members of our tribe, no matter what. Apparently, at one point, he told Rankine that the poem was for white people, which certainly doesn’t clarify his position on the acceptability of racism. Though, IMHO, his position seems pretty ugly, and serves as a de facto justification or excuse or whatever for a grotesque human failing, which disgusts me to think of. A poem just for white people? Fuck that shit.
I want to quote Rankine here, re the necessity for the wider decolonizing effort I allude to above. She writes the following in her open letter to Hoagland,
Not long ago I was in a room where someone asked the philosopher Judith Butler what made language hurtful. I could feel everyone lean forward. Our very being exposes us to the address of another, she said. We suffer from the condition of being addressable [...].
We all do. But it’s more than that. Sylvia Wynter more than plausibly asserts that there is a longterm and ongoing conflict between the concepts of “Man” (generally white, European, male, etc) and human (at present, the Other of “Man”, e.g. Prospero vs. all the world’s Calibans, which – in spite of the epithet “the other white meat” – includes Asians) that must be resolved:
“Until such a rupture in our conception of being human is brought forth, such “sociological” concerns as that of the vast global and local economic inequalities, immigration, labor policies, struggles about race, gender, class, and ethnicity, and struggles over the environment, global warming, and distribution of world resources, will remain status quo.” (Karen M Gagne, “On the Obsolescence of the Disciplines:Frantz Fanon and Sylvia Wynter Propose a New Mode of Being Human”).
I’m sure you remember Andre Bréton saying in Nadja,
“Beauty will be INTERSECTIONAL or will not be at all.”
That’s not how you remember it? That’s how I remember it. I know that I want to struggle alongside Wynter and others to erase the distinction between Man and everyone else. I will fail, of course. Insert world famous Beckett quote here. Yu’s book is part of the process. I think it opens a door, and it’s up to me, and, in my opinion, any reader of good will, to walk through it.
John Bloomberg-Rissman was born in Chicago but has spent most of his life in Southern California. A graduate of UCLA, he has worked as a gardener, in a bakery, in publishing, in a rubber stamp factory, as an architectural drafter, as a freelance writer, and as a librarian. He has had two careers as a poet. In the first, 1968-1990, he was a lyric poet. Finding the lyric mode deeply unsatisfying, he went silent for a decade. In 1999 he began writing again, or, rather, collaging, mixing, sampling ... He has spent the last dozen years or so working on a long project called Zeitgeist Spam. Parts published so far: No Sounds of My Own Making (Leafe Press, 2007), Flux, Clot & Froth (Meritage Press, 2010), and the text in A Picture of Everyone I Love Passes Through Me (Lunar Chandelier Press, 2016). He is finishing up the next part, In the House of the Hangman, which has turned into a 2,000,000-word metatext and which will be published in 11 volumes. Additionally, he “authored” the “conceptual” work 2nd Notice of Modifications to Text of Proposed regulations: Regulation and Policy Branch, California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (Leafe Press & Laughing Ouch Cube Publications, 2010). He is also the editor or co-editor of several volumes: 1000 Views of “Girl Singing” (Leafe Press, 2009), The Chained Haynaku (Meritage Press & xPress(ed), 2010, co-edited with Eileen R Tabios, Ivy Alvarez and Ernesto Priego), Poems for the Millennium 5: Barbaric, Vast & Wild (Black Widow Press, 2015, co-edited with Jerome Rothenberg). His reviews appear regularly at Galatea Resurrects, and he blogs at Zeitgeist Spam (www.johnbr.com).