Stephen Haven

Poets as Translators - Stephen Haven
  Mang Ke
Translating Gu Cheng
Translations from the Chinese:
  In The Street
Close Your Eyes
One Night Stand
Early Summer
The Enemy In Defensive Positions
The Poet's Tragedy
The Truth of It


Stephen Haven


All China a green-gold row of them. 
When you walk through- 
delicate, skirted, light-limbed

and yellow, swishing their loveliness 
in the wind-they brush 
the whole of you.

The Han are awfully dark 
to love such hair: one single tree 
the parasol of thousands

of years of poetry. 
It is essentially 
a pastoral tradition, a light

gesture in a concrete sea- 
this park, these willows, 
these bamboo growing near,

as if forever curtained 
beneath these trees 
Li Bai still sprung

pure passion from a flush of wine. 
And if you listen 
you can almost hear him:

bamboo, bamboo, the green shoots 
of earth, heaven when they brush 
these yellow skirts!


Stephen Haven

Mang Ke

I FIRST HEARD of the poet Mang Ke when I visited Heilongjiang University, in Harbin, China, in December 1990 at the invitation of Wang Shouyi, a poet and critic as well as Dean of Foreign Languages at that university. During that year, I was a Fulbright lecturer in American literature at the People's University in Beijing, and had begun a series of collaborative translations-with Jin Zhong-of the poetry of Moi Fei, Wang Jia-Xin, and Duo Duo. Jin Zhong, who was living then in Beijing, happened to be from Heilongjiang Province, and was a former student of Wang Shouyi.

During my week at Heilongjiang, I not only came to know and to begin translation work with Wang Shouyi, but he also introduced to me to the poetry of Mang Ke-though not to the poet himself. This was not surprising. There at the end of 1990, the Tiananmen massacre had taken place just 18 months before. As is often true during times of political unrest in China, many Chinese intellectuals and artists seemed to adopt an almost instinctive avoidance of Westerners. Thus, on my return to Beijing, I unfortunately found that Mang Ke was living in relative isolation-according to Jin Zhong, he was keeping a decidedly low profile. I didn't know at the time, and still don't know, whether his seclusion was self- or officially-imposed. But, although many other prominent poets of his generation-Bei Dao, Gu Cheng, Duo Duo-were in exile, Mang Ke remained.

Although I was never able to meet with Mang Ke personally, some five and a half years later I finally began to work on translating his poetry, thanks, once again, to the Fulbright program. From 1990-1996, Wang Shouyi and I kept touch by phone and by mail. Then, in 1996, I was able to bring Shouyi to Ashland University as a Fulbright Scholar in Residence. Part of our proposal for Shouyi's Fulbright year involved working on a book-length manuscript of Mang Ke and Gu Cheng translations. Before leaving China for the U.S., Shouyi even traveled to Beijing to meet with Mang Ke and to pick up a copy of his collected poems. Then, throughout the 1996-1997 academic year, with Shouyi living close at hand in Ashland, Ohio, he and I worked slowly, and through many revisions, on some forty pages of Mang Ke and Gu Cheng translations.

To a very large degree, Mang Ke's low-profile in contemporary Chinese poetry (that is, from the perspective of the West) is in keeping with his earlier post-Tiananmen Square isolation. Although many Mang Ke translations have appeared in American anthologies of Chinese poetry, Western translators and editors have yet to recognize Mang Ke's work in a way comparable to his status in China. There, however, his place is well known. As well as serving as its managing editor, Mang Ke with Bei Dao co-founded the Chinese literary journal Today, a magazine centrally important to the Democratic Wall Movement in China in the late 1970s. But Bei Dao has become far better known in the West than Mang Ke, in part because Bei Dao learned to speak English and went abroad, and in part because he continued to commit himself to poetry. Word was when I returned to Beijing for a second Fulbright year in 1997 that Mang Ke had now turned to writing mainly fiction, as the market had opened up for fiction writers and he was trying to bring some money home for his family.

Finally, a few words about my poem "Willow," which I wrote as a sort of celebration of the place that poetry enjoys in China. Poetry is king of the arts in China, in part because it combines so many aspects of the artist's sensibility (the ear, the eye, the other senses, and the mind). Poetry combines also within one aesthetic many elements of other disciplines (music, religion, history, art history, philosophy). Traditionally, poets were not only expected to be well educated, but also to be calligraphers and musicians. In a sense, poetry in pre-modern China was the art form that unified all the other arts.

In many parts of modern China, the spirit of poetry is celebrated in urban parks. Possibly because Du Fu and Li Bai, two of China's most famous poets, lived in the Chinese Southwest where bamboo and willow trees flourish, the Chinese consider the spirit of poetry to be present wherever these two plants grow near each other. In the same vein, my poem assumes the willow to be a sort of Chinese national tree. And, for better or worse, given the American tendency to sexualize everything, the willow in my poem embodies the female principle, the bamboo the male principle. The erotic union between them creates poetry, giving birth to a sort of heaven on earth. --Ashland, Ohio, December 14, 2002


Stephen Haven

Translating Gu Cheng

ALL SIX POEMS appearing here were translated during 1996-1997, when Wang Shouyi came to Ashland University as a Fulbright Scholar. I had met first met him in China in 1990-1991, on a Fulbright fellowship of my own. Though my host institution was the People's University in Beijing, Shouyi invited me to come to Heilongjiang University, in Harbin, China, to give a series of readings and talks on American poetry. I arrived in Harbin, in Northeast China, on Dec. 24, 1990, some 20-30 degrees C below zero. Shouyi had arranged a Christmas party for me, complete with his students singing Jingle Bells and Row, Row, Row Your Boat. Each student also had to perform a joke in English, or sing individually, or present a skit. I was required to recite two poems. My ex-wife played the piano. All this ended up on the five o'clock news, in a city of more than two million people.

Even before I met Wang Shouyi, I was indirectly in touch with him, having spent much of the fall working in Beijing with one of Wang's former students, Guo Zhong, on a group of translations of Duo Duo, Moi Fei and Wang Jia Xin (poems which appeared in American Poetry Review in 1993). But at the time I arrived in Harbin, in 1990, I had not heard of Gu Cheng. In fact, Duo Duo was the poet I admired most from the Chinese Misty School. But then I met Shouyi, who admired Gu Cheng and encouraged me to read him. We then began to discuss the possibility of translating together some of Gu Cheng's better known poems, a project that ended up taking six years to get off the ground.

Since the founding of the People's Republic of China in 1949, the Misty School was one of the first Chinese literary movements to survive without sanction of the state. Beginning in the early 1970s as the Cultural Revolution was grinding to a close, the School was later centered around the literary journal Today. It developed even further during and after the Democratic Wall Movement of the late 1970's. Bei Dao, one of the founding editors ofToday (Mang Ke was the other founding editor), is probably the best-known poet of the group. Gu Chen, born in 1956, was considerably younger than these other central figures of the School. The son of Gu Gong, a well-known Chinese poet who wrote with the approval of the government, Gu Cheng had a literary upbringing and was somewhat of a child prodigy. He began publishing poems in Today when he was still in his early 20's.

During the 1990s Wang Shouyi and I stayed in touch by mail. Plus, he sometimes traveled to the U.S. on behalf of his university (he also had two daughters attending American colleges). He would occasionally phone, and we would continue to discuss the possibility of translating Gu Cheng. But, given my utter inability to read Chinese, I knew from working with Guo Zhong that Shouyi and I would need to spend long hours with one another, and neither of us wanted to attempt this long distance-by mail, or e-mail, or by faxing versions to one another. Eventually we incorporated a proposal to translate Gu Cheng and Mang Ke into an application to bring Wang Shouyi to Ashland University as a Fulbright Scholar. The grant was funded. In August 1996 Shouyi arrived in Ashland, Ohio, and we began to work.

As the Chinese language is much more dense than English, with a few characters capable of conveying a far wider range of meaning than a few words of English, the lines and stanzas in the drafts of our English translations soon tended to balloon. Thus, as we continued to revise the translations, we kept trying to squeeze the oak trees of our English versions back into their original acorns. We wanted the finished versions to gesture not only toward the imagistic and conceptual sense of the originals, but toward their succinct, tight movement as well. Above all our primary commitment was to the image. The visual sense of Chinese poetry is probably more accessible in English than any cultural or mythological allusion embodied in the image. But, along with the musical effects of the original language, cultural and mythological allusions are often impossible to translate, though of course they are very much a part of the original reader's experience. Any reference, for example, to "little bottles" in Chinese poetry after 1989 is probably a reference to Deng Xiaoping, whose personal name means quite literally "little bottle" (xiao: little; ping: bottle). When any cultural reference in the Chinese required, in the English translation, an awkward moment of exposition, our approach was nonetheless to emphasize the visual effect, to preserve in the English version as much as possible the musical and imagistic integrity of the original. In fact, because Gu Cheng, and the Misty School poets in general approach their literal subject matter only through indirection, any attempt to explain literally such references in the English translations would have seriously violated the imagistic compression of the originals.

The original text for these translations comes from The Collected Poems of Gu Cheng, edited after the poet's death by his father. Gu Cheng committed suicide in New Zealand in 1995, a story long and controversial and tragic (though unrelated to the poems translated here). Before killing himself, Gu Cheng first murdered his wife. I know the account of his death only through hearsay-- through conversations with Chinese poets during my second Fulbright year in Beijing from 1997-1998. Word was that Gu Cheng was constitutionally incapable of any sort of work other than writing poetry. He was living with his wife and son in New Zealand, eking out a living by raising chickens and selling eggs, occasionally traveling to the West on a grant or fellowship. On one such year in Germany, Gu Cheng's wife took a German lover. Gu Cheng committed his murder/suicide the day his wife's lover was to arrive by plane in New Zealand.--Ashland, Ohio, December 19, 2000


Mang Ke

In the Street

I can't be sure of my age today: 
Maybe I am only ten years old. 
But I know my mind, my mind 
Thinks of filthy things. 
Today, on the street, 
I step hard on the shadow of a girl. 
A baby totters in the gutter, 
Then falls asleep, his hip cupped 
By someone I don't know. 
An old man, not far from me, 
Grabs some nastiness from the ground. 
I don't know. No one notices. 
Kids piss in the street, 
Their bellies open to the sun. 
Suddenly, a dog of all things 
Scampers by. I run too. Nobody knows 
Who retched his dinner in the street. 
I look away. Suddenly, 
A woman, a pair of bedroom eyes 
Nails me, balloons like the fat man 
Who also stares at me. I hardly know 
Why they accost me in this way. 
What does that fat man have in mind? 
Then someone slaps a cat-- 
Who knows what for? It runs off 
Whimpering to one retarded man, 
The mad whining to the mad. 
I think: why not jump up and scratch 
Someone's face, cat? The idiot gapes. 
O.K., run off. Cat, I wish you 
No good end. Then high up 
On a building, some girl's ugly face 
Pokes out an open window. 
I say, Hey there!, teasing her 
To the point of fear. Such a serious girl! 
Then a woman, her face like a siren, 
Rushes away. Close behind 
The cussing of her man, 
All to the lewd amusement of the crowd. 
One guy spits, hits the picture 
Of a woman on the wall behind him. 
Then some bum, so blind he scours

The street with his feet, 
Bumps into me. In favor of food 
The crowd scatters off, the richest 
to restaurants. Some sleek-haired guy 
Heads for the shitter, 
Running, unbuckling on the way. 
Even the sun escapes in a hurry 
As if it had a home. 
Then it's darker. I wander. 
In the street, my silence. My hunger.

(Translated from the Chinese by Stephen Haven and Wang Shouyi)


Mang Ke


Your lonely head wakes up, 
The late-night wind in the still street 
Dizzy as a lost child 
Running here and there.



The street tortured like a limp rag. 
One big black salivating cat 
Calling, calling.



Sleep soundly, sky, 
Rubbed by the dark night. 
Your hair in a mess 
Disturbs me into sleeplessness.



Or maybe I am dreaming after all, 
Some false light born back 
Blinding how many eyes?



A ray, a wisp of hair 
Falls from the sky. 
Oh my Orient, my city, 
Luxuriant in the sun.



So, people, woo each other, 
Give your descendants color. 
Kids, straight out of the sun 
Bring love to your mothers.



Oh city, oh oriental child 
Suckled on the barren breast 
Of your grainless mother.



Oh zither of the sun, one sick child 
eyes you listlessly. 
The only thing to do 
Is cast her thin shadow.



Oh city, in the eyes of children 
You turn a cold shoulder 
To their hunger.



The night never leaves me alone. 
Its one green ghostly eye 
Flashes nothing. 
The whole sky leans down. 
I take what's there for anyone, 
What joy, 
Whatever consolation I can find.

(Translated from the Chinese by Stephen Haven and Wang Shouyi)


Mang Ke

Close Your Eyes

Close your eyes, bury yourself 
Then you will see, never again, 
How the red flower
Was cut off in the sun
Thrown onto the ground
Trampled in the night

Close your eyes, bury yourself
Then, in your isolation,
Never again this sorrow
Oh, people, bound to this end
Come from darkness
Vanished in darkness

(Translated from the Chinese by Stephen Haven and Wang Shouyi)


Mang Ke

One Night Stand

You lightly opened the door
Let the night, who slept with you, out
You saw its back disappear
Then heard the wheeled horniness of dawn
Opening the window
You drove out a roomful of dreams
Swept clean all the feathers
Of your hidden happiness
In the mirror your two eyes floating
As if separately in their sockets
As if two fish after touching

(Translated from the Chinese by Stephen Haven and Wang Shouyi)


Mang Ke


To the comatose earth 
The sun gives its blood

Sunshine floats 
In the body of the earth

From the bones of the dead 
Green branches grow

From the green branches 
Glass-like flowers

Listen, have you heard 
The clink of that raised wine?

(Translated from the Chinese by Stephen Haven and Wang Shouyi)


Gu Cheng

Early Summer

Dark cloud, lighter and lighter
I jump out the round window
Of the moon, over
The gathered water of the fields
Such beauty, such tranquillity

Green sprouts shoot: the village's
Fresh-made walls of mud

Each door fresh, clean as a flower
The window's paper pane
Blank as an envelope

Do not believe me
Do not believe anyone

Flowers pining with love
Tucked in the hard round
Knockers of your door

Let all stories begin
With the scent of surprise
Soon it will be morning
Come on! Climb that tree!

I shed my straw hat
The husk of all custom
Now I am the light-green cicada
Now I am ready to sing

But the rooster's too old
Drab feathers sweep the ground
All little girls, those early risers,
Come to the field to gather smiles:

Ripe cherries left by spring.


(Translated from the Chinese by Stephen Haven and Wang Shouyi)


Gu Cheng


The setting sun's twisted light
Drifts through the rise
Of buildings, falls to the ground.

Tall slim girl
Shining barrette.

How many dresses
half dry, half wet
yawning in the shade?

Early ripe little lights
Golden tangerines.

The shift ends.
The bicycle bell sings:

One bit of worn brick.

The fresh-drawn wish of a child.


(Translated from the Chinese by Stephen Haven and Wang Shouyi)


Gu Cheng


Was it yesterday? The day before?
Anyway, it was before
We wrapped a stone in a handkerchief
Threw it up into the sky's blue--

What dizziness, the earth and sky
Swinging terribly around each other
We opened hands warmed by one another
Waited our punishment from God

But no thunder, no lightening
The stone silently floating back
What about that handkerchief?
We looked at the top of an old tree

From then on we never saw it again
Anyway, it was a long time ago
Only the loyalty of a stone
Thinks forever of its lovely partner


(Translated from the Chinese by Stephen Haven and Wang Shouyi)


Gu Cheng

The Enemy In Defensive Positions

The important thing is to escape

My horse is bamboo

Bamboo branches hanging high in the room

The sun-blurred barren land


(Translated from the Chinese by Stephen Haven and Wang Shouyi)


Gu Cheng

The Poet's Tragedy

The poet says
The earth's an apple

The sun says
I burn it red

The sea goes dry
Fields once green fly with dust

There's no surprise only four bricks and tiles
Right out of the fire

What about the honored poet?
He took off long ago

But isn't there in his poems
The worm that drilled the apple?


(Translated from the Chinese by Stephen Haven and Wang Shouyi)


Gu Cheng

The Truth of It

The flashy urn says:
I'm worth a thousand hammers
the hammer says:
I've broken one hundred urns

The blacksmith says:
I have made one thousand hammers
The great man says:
I have slaughtered one hundred blacksmiths

Then the hammer says back:
I have also killed one great man
The urn says: So what? I've sealed
In me the ash of that great man


(Translated from the Chinese by Stephen Haven and Wang Shouyi)





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