The Chaotic Swirl of Experience: Tina Giannoukos reviews ‘I Too Am Salammbo’ by Hong Ying

I Too Am Salammbo By Hong Ying Vagabond Press, Asia Pacific Poetry, 2015. Translated and introduced by Mabel Lee

I too am SalammboHong Ying is an internationally celebrated Chinese writer prominent internationally for her prose rather than her poetry. In her fifties, she belongs to a transitional generation of Chinese writers and intellectuals who were born and raised before and during the Cultural Revolution (Schaffer and Song). Having lived and written abroad, she is also a major transcultural writer intent on voicing Chinese women’s desire for “western modernity, female autonomy and sexual liberation, introducing previously tabooed themes that have become increasingly dominant within Chinese women’s literature” (Schaffer and Song, 19). Her autobiographical but novelistic retelling of her early life in Daughter of the River, written and published in the 1990s while she was still living in London, remains a confronting narrative about growing up in the slums of Chongqing in southwest China during the Cultural Revolution. It explores both the era and female identity in a realist prose that often uses strong imagistic language. Having begun her literary life as a poet, I Too Am Salammbo gives international readers in English an opportunity to familiarize themselves more completely with her poetry, in a diverse literary output that also includes essays and children’s literature. The collection gives readers familiar with her prose the opportunity to realize the extent of her imagistic imaginings in poetry.

Translated by Australian scholar and translator Mabel Lee, I Too Am Salammbo is a retrospective collection of intensely personal poems written over more than two decades. The collection is based on Hong Ying’s 2014 Chinese edition of I Too Am Salammbo. With this translation, which follows an earlier translation of some of Hong Ying’s poetry into English, Lee and Vagabond Press have brought Hong Ying’s poetry to international attention. In her Introduction, Lee suggests that it is likely that her own early translations of Hong Ying’s poetry, which appeared in various Australian literary journals as early as 2000, “were the first time they had been published anywhere”. It is appropriate that Hong Ying’s poetry is receiving greater attention in English. According to Vagabond Press’s website, her first poetry publication was Cycle of Poems, published in a worker’s literary magazine, and in 1988, her first poetry collection, Bird of Paradise, appeared. In her detailed introduction to I Too Am Salammbo, Lee informs us that it was the publication of several of Hong Ying’s novels whilst she was living abroad that commended her to Chinese readers worldwide, and it was these novels, translated into many languages, which brought her to international attention.

I Too Am Salammbo is arranged chronologically but in reverse order. It is also divided into five sections: Illegitimate Child (2007-2012), Lotus Prohibition (1999-2005), Scales of Grief (1990-1997), Butterflies and Butterflies (1992-1995), and Record of Nine Cities (1991). Death is part of the psychological configuration of many of these poems, especially in the first section. The opening poem, “Chongqing Slum”, registers that note of emotional shock that readers familiar with Daughter of the River already know: “He became part of the darkness …. when he died his laughter / Stabbed me”. In “Dreaming of Beijing”, the life force that is eros is drawn into death’s domain: “Before death we sisters will open our beautiful mouths / To spit out one man after another”. In the Lotus Prohibition section, some of the poems seem mythical, as if drawing on psychic realms beyond the day-to-day, while in Scales of Grief the poetry can take a surrealistic turn. The poems in Butterflies and Butterflies draw eros into the realm of the absurd. In the section’s title poem, Hong Ying writes: I’m drawing a picture on your body / I move and you give a yell … the garden / I’ve drawn on your skin expands. In the final section, Record of Nine Cities, the poet is already exploring those absurd turns that she activates more strongly in the earlier sections. In “Moscow”, she writes: “You and the city’s silhouette turn somberly to me”. Overall, the poems cross boundaries of self and place.

Each section contains a title poem. Too much can be made of title poems, including the overall title poem, ‘I Too Am Salammbo’, which appears in the first section. Salammbo is Gustave Flaubert’s tragic heroine in the historical novel Salammbo (1862), who dies of shock. Yet the poem is suggestive of that absence that haunts Hong Ying’s autobiographical oeuvre: “Loving someone / Becomes a dream / A greater void than being dreamless”. As in her autobiographical fiction, I Too Am Salammbo moves us into the groundswell of her personal experience. In their imagism, we witness Hong Ying’s ability to transmute the raw material of experience into a suggestive if enigmatic poetic. If in her autobiographical fiction Hong Ying confronts us with the violence of her experience and her refusal of annihilation, in I Too Am Salammbo she confronts us with the forcefulness of her experience and her rejection of self-obliteration. The poems may be dark but they are not nihilistic. Her aesthetics of the image keep at bay a threatening dissolution. In “Fortune Teller’s Dance”, she poet writes:

The temple has dancers
Tiny feet pink flowers are in bloom
Buddha laughs
And Hell is three feet deeper
To take in more people

Going up the stairs
You tiptoe …. breathing like a fish
Tiny lips spitting out a fresh world

It is tempting to juxtapose the emotional timbre of I Too Am Salammbo with that of Hong Ying’s autobiographical fiction. This can treat the poetry as precursor and restatement of the autobiographical fiction. Her autobiographical fiction and poetry remain distinct entities whose boundaries may merge at the level of image and experience, but remain apart at the level of realist description and poetic ambiguity. Nevertheless, she is as ambiguous about human connection in her poetry as she is in her autobiographical fiction. In “Enemy”, she writes: The bridge is far away / I am underwater where you cannot see / Yet all this time you think I am in your heart”. In reality, there is masked trauma. In these lines extracted from “Swimming”, the poet writes:

I look and look … he’s standing at the end of another world
Mute and deaf
He can’t remember the past
I too can’t remember those few small rooms
I only remember that the person I loved most was dead
He hanged himself with a piece of rope
And the rope afterwards coiled around my neck

In their reverse chronological arrangement, the poems challenge any simple notion of them as narratives of traumatic experience. They are testaments to the regenerative power of image to carry meaning. In her use of image, Hong Ying gives herself over to its figurative possibilities. In doing so, she pushes herself off the precipice of meaning and into the chaotic swirl of her experiences. Whilst it may not be possible to say what a particular poem is about, it is possible to perceive its imagistic and aesthetic integrity. Hong Ying’s imagistic play is not lost on Lee who argues that “in moments of heightened sensitivity she has grasped frozen fragments of her past and transformed these visual images into language”. This is potentially less verbal play and more imagistic re-articulation. Lee’s judgment that Hong Ying’s poetry is full of “striking visual images and theatre aesthetics” as well as “Absurdist realities” is evocative of the way that Hong Ying’s often-surreal images dislodge the poems from the real into the enigmatic. In doing so, she rejects an aesthetics of revelation in favour of an aesthetics of opacity.

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Yet the autobiographical in I Too Am Salamboo is suggestive of a poetic sensibility that returns to its genesis in trauma. Lee locates this trauma in childhood, and suggests that Hong Ying has more memories to uncover, and when such memories do surface, they will require “some form of linguistic articulation”. Hong Ying activates the image where exposition threatens. To seek a rational understanding of the poems is to reject the power of her surreal images to hold within themselves complexes of meanings. When Hong Ying writes in “Poetry Written on the Run” in the Butterflies and Butterflies section that “I turn to language / Because an owl is about to die”, we see how her aesthetic endeavours conceal a commitment to language’s capacity to carry experience. Yet she interrogates such capacity when she writes in the same poem: My language deserts me / Goes looking for a collaborator to its liking”. Under the pressure of a dissolving self, she turns a little later from logical exposition to imagistic imagining: “I should stop this awful joke this dreadful scene! / Return myself to my own  wretched self / Hurry before it’s completely dark / Open the box that locks in dark clouds … set it alight”. Language remains the way to enter experience albeit imagistically. In “Writing from the Scales of Grief section, the poet says:

People walking on ancient land …………..my home village
Other side of the ferry crossing
Stone houses
Furtive lust ….. more than thirty years
Endless eulogies

To one name …. and torment
Summer of freedom
Illusions of the present
Writing …. about the black shadows of your wounds
Including the gold tiger in your arms … then saying
Winter has ended

Working in the autobiographical mode across prose and poetry, there is the potential for redundancy, the repetition of material. Poems like “Wiping Mother’s Tears” in the Illegitimate Child section with its reference to “I say to you … the mistakes of the past / Are all because of love” are reminiscent of moments in Daughter of the River. Whether reading the poetry or the fiction, we encounter Hong Ying’s obfuscating language, her imagemaking capacities. What makes her inventive is the way she develops a vocabulary of the image all her own. In her autobiographical fiction, she also deploys language’s imagemaking potentialities to render intense experiences, as in Daughter of the River, when she writes of her first sexual experience of her body knowing the joy of a leopard on the run. It is in her poetry that she exploits this capacity, as demonstrated in I Too Am Salammbo, where ideas dissolve into the obscurity of her images. As she says in “Anxious Chopsticks”: “Stars glide past …. resisting expression other than their own”. Not bound by the demands of a realist prose, she can push the boundaries of imagistic explorations. In “The Second Opera” in the Lotus Prohibition section, she writes:

I’ve forgotten what the second opera was
In the first opera
The ladder didn’t have the female shaman coming down
An inviolable boundary

I unearthed a Song dynasty ceramic vase last year
That night I was surrounded by red …. a former lover’s spirit
Coiled around me
And coiling around the snake ……I sang a heartbreaking song

How the poems read in Chinese is impossible to know. Their original rhythms and tonal variety cannot be recreated with fidelity. At the level of the image, Hong Ying’s articulation of pain resists the monochromatic through imagistic variety. Lee offers no theory of translation. She suggests that Hong Ying is a modern writer familiar with international authors who is trying to express a female sensibility even as she aims to gratify her personal aesthetic strivings”. No statement on translation can help us approach the tonal qualities of the original poems. Nor can we activate the visual possibilities of the Chinese script. Through Lee’s translations, we glean the sensual power of the poet. There is an intense physicality to Hong Ying’s imagistic imagination. In “Chongqing Slum”, she concludes: “The stars and the moon taking fright / Fell onto my breasts”. Her physical imagination is evident even in the collection’s early poems in the final section. The poem, “Prague”, demonstrates how she has always been a strong image-maker:

In another dream I am in your

Eyes …….while you are in the whole of me

Exploring this city of Prague

In conclusion, the collection should be read in the spirit of its own poetics, an enjoyment of its surreal images even as we glimpse the life of the poet in the exposition of its lines.

References

Schaffer, Kay and Xianlin Song. Women Writers in Postsocialist China. Abingdon. Routledge, 2014.

 – Tina Giannoukos

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Tina Giannoukos is a poet and writer. She holds a PhD from the University of Melbourne. She is currently living and working in Beijing.
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