Xi Chuan Four Poems
translated from the Chinese by Lucas Klein

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A Personal Paradise

If this reality is the only reality, then you can only call it “great.” Just as the great sun is the only sun, yellowing the local zodiac.

If you thought that wiping out autumn would wipe out sorrow, then you’ll be doubly disappointed: this idea is no less idiotic than slaughtering people to wipe out hunger during famine.

Life: an excuse against life; it seduces people smelling nothing but fragrance in fragrance; it predicates insanity on the omen of neurosis.

The street dirty yet quiet, changing its name so often it’s nearly forgotten itself, may the great things it bears break over small things.

Great things and small things dissolve into nothing, while unresolved music vainly creates a spaceless paradise.

Let me count the ways of paradise: from that of the Monkey King to that of Hong Xiuquan is a flight of two hundred thirty-two years, from that of Hong Xiuquan to that of Chairman Mao is a flight of twenty-nine.

The card-player threw down a King of Hearts, since he didn’t have an Ace of Hearts.

Five boys with running noses stand around the pool table: even lofty entertainment gets played mundanely.

Chairman Mao’s paradise befits the appetite of the poor; in Hong Xiuquan’s paradise there’s only him wandering around; but Monkey King’s paradise attracts both children and delinquents.

The only reality is a great reality. So-called happiness is just decreasing your vocabulary without decreasing your songs. Each day the little man who comprehends this hangs his stockings to dry while humming a tune.

Paradise lost, as it should be lost, committed to rote memory on page one thousand two hundred forty-six of the Dictionary of Modern Chinese.

Paradise lost, as if the head of a pin lost its elemental pax et lux. Making the creator of paradise labor in vain.

So, could it be, when you are absolutely thought-free, that you just happen to be passing through your own paradise? One thousand times you deny that you are your own distance.

from The Scenery


Zhang is having company, Li and Wang come together. Li orders. We eat like our lives depended on it.
Between all the toasts and refills we talk about recent events, from SARS to the bird flu to foot-and-mouth to mad cow disease. The animals have gone crazy, attacking kamikaze-style, but we pretend we’re sober.
We sigh that it’s passé to sigh over idealism being passé. We sing songs of the old days together, vigorously singing the ideas of a new era.
Wang pays the bill, and I say thanks.
The three of them get bloodshot eyes.
I say thanks. The three of them push back their chairs and crowd around me. I sense they’re up to no good, but can’t remember when I offended them.
Zhang says: “Let’s go!”
I say: “What are you doing?”
Li punches me.
I say: “What are you doing?”
Wang kicks me.
I say: “What are you doing?”
Zhang looks on, then spits in my face.
I say: “What are you doing?”
They beat me black and blue. Finally they’ve had their fill.
Sitting on the ground I can’t stop asking, “What are you doing?”
The three of them say in unison: “What do you think we’re doing?”

from Flower in the Mirror, Moon in the Water


I still don’t know who she was.
I still don’t know if she walked into my yard and opened my front door in search of me or someone else.
She climbed onto my bed, sleeping through my insomnia, like a white candle that had lost its flame.
Holding her felt like crossing a mountain.
The half-moon shone onto my forehead through the rectangular window, like shining on a public square through a ghostlike haze,
and at least that night I never spoke freely,
I didn’t want to make her angry.
At least that night I barely breathed,
Because her heavy breathing made clear she was lonely and weary.
Oh, no, there is no “her” whose loneliness or weariness could be made clear by heavy breathing.
No night on which I barely breathed, or I wouldn’t be alive today.
I never make anyone angry.
I never speak freely it’s not my style.
I have in fact strolled through public squares, but never felt any ghostlike haze. I only allow the full moon to shine on my forehead through round windows.
I’ve never crossed mountains, never even imagined it.
And I never have insomnia, even if a white candle were dripping wax on my eyelids.
So I don’t know who “she” is, that much is certain.


it’s not fur—it’s mold—mold on stones   mold on bread
it’s drizzle
it’s drizzle that makes   clothes grow moldy   the spirit grow moldy—this is the decay drive
making wood sprout mushrooms   making gums grow cankers—the very same force

making love grow mold—love   couldn’t it use a bit of mold?
making the lyric grow mold—only this manifests the moldless lyric—the middle-aged lyric

mold’s just mildew—my mom said   it’s a fungus—my dad said
mold on the shingles   on the street after 11:00 p.m.
the tick-tock of the clock—
the hoarse voice the rain speaks in—
growing criminals   loiterers   waverers—these are the effects of drizzle

a wet woman—

eighty days of drizzle—not too long
eighty days of drizzle enveloping 120,000 square miles of land and sea—not too broad

a wet woman miserable and alone—

it’s drizzle   that soaks shoes   that drenches socks—freezing feet
and then the water pushes into our bodies
from bottom to top   up into the brain—and all a vastness once there
drizzle falling on vast seas—cargo ships sailing to Asia—raining on Japanese courtyards

some grow old   in China—
raining on factories far from the coastline   water’s nonstop drip-drop—food prepared   in an age neither fair nor foul

an age neither fair nor foul producing notions neither fair nor foul—
some die
the unlucky   the unwilling   migrate to the cities—where they don’t know a soul

rich and poor   both get moldy
but the rich don’t worry—they can throw away whatever gets moldy—aside from themselves
a fair economy and a foul economy   both get moldy
but the fair economy knows   how to make money off mold

those things that can avoid the drizzle   avoid mold
curses of the indignant—

a swelling of interior life—
seagulls and crows   huge in size
cucumbers at the grocer’s huge in size—is it from all this drizzle?

hinges swelling—the sound of opening doors—dogs barking madly
the drive of dogs barking madly   which is the drive of footsteps upstairs
which is the decay drive—the thanatos drive
manifest in the drizzle   that is mold

the bald man with no hair but mold—this too is a new life
mildew and then a new life—
in the drizzle—

this is the force of drizzle, look—

Victoria, 2009

Xi Chuan (the penname of Liu Jun), a poet, essayist, and translator, was born in 1963 in Jiangsu province, and graduated from the English Department of Peking University in 1985. Formerly a visiting adjunct professor to New York University (2007) and Orion Visiting artist at University of Victoria, Canada (2009), he now teaches Classical and Modern Chinese literature at the Central Academy of Fine Arts in Beijing. Xi Chuan has published four collections of poems, including A Fictitious Family Tree (1997) and Roughly Speaking (1997), two books of essays, and one book of criticism, in addition to a play and translations ranging from Ezra Pound to Jorge Luis Borges to Czeslaw Milosz. His own poetry and essays have also been widely anthologized and translated. His the prizes, honors, and fellowships include the Modern Chinese Poetry Award (1994), UNESCO-ASCHBERG bursaries of artists (1997), the national Lu Xun Prize for Literature (2001), and the Zhuang Zhongwen Prize for Literature (2003). He was also named one of the top ten winners of the Weimar International Essay Prize Contest (Germany, 1999).

This material is © Xi Chuan
English translation © Lucas Klein
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