I have known Denis Mair from my earliest days attending Red Sky Poetry Theater at the Globe Cafe at 14th & Pine. This would have been as early as 1995. A tall, soft-spoken man, he would read his translations from Chinese poets and that was just one more aspect of Red Sky that I found fascinating.
We have kept in touch over the years, hanging out in Walla Walla at one of the last (if not THE last) Walla Walla Poetry Parties. (He wrote a review of one of them and it’s linked here.) He inquired on one of those occasions if I would be interested in going to a poetry festival in China, because he was helping organizers and could potentially arrange an invite. I told him if I had the cash, but he said they pay your way and I said absolutely. That visit did commence in 2011, where I met Chinese poets Xi Chuan, Yi Sha, Sun Xiaoya and Jidi Majia, among others, at the 3rd Qinghai International Poetry Festival, and at other stops on our short tour. (More information on that, here.)
Denis continues his translation projects, continues to be involved with the Qinghai Festival and recently sent me a short note and the afterword from one of his most recent efforts. That he is involved in translation, and has been for years, is a testament to his dedication and his humble and considerate character. That he continues to be involved in international poetry exchanges, linking poets in China with those in the U.S. and elsewhere is an act of peace-making on one of the highest possible levels. The world is a better place with people like Denis Mair operating in it. Here’s our correspondence and his afterword:
- From: Denis Mair
- To: Paul Nelson
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By Denis Mair
Ninth Night is a book-length poem documenting the poet’s effort to deal with the dilemmas of money and power during a period of chaotic growth in the Chinese economy. After a 20-year wild ride on the back of the corporate tiger, the poet begins to undergo extreme experiences of his own choosing (including mountain climbing), as a way of confronting history from his own authentic standpoint. This goes hand-in-hand with his growing attachment to a younger woman. The whole book is written in the form of animal parables, or what could better be termed animal dramatic monologues.
In Ninth Night Huang Nubo thrusts and thrashes with great rigor (and plenty of rascality) to create a stylistic vehicle for thinking with his body. Whenever we encounter an interesting style, the next step is to look at what underlies it, because any interesting style depends upon an ideational medium.
A key idea in this poem is the trickster figure transposed to a modern setting. I’m thinking of the trickster who can be mythically identified with Hermes/Mercury/Odysseus, the god at the crossroads who delights in the game of shifting boundary markers. Huang Nubo has a good sense of how to play with boundary markers. Lewis Hyde in his wonderful book Trickster Makes This World discusses trickster figures such as the coyote and raven in Native American tales. Here I use the title “Roughshod Trickster” because it is unusual for a horse to be chosen as trickster figure. A horse is an animal used by humans for agriculture, travel and war; it is also associated with juggernauts or assertions of implacable force (the horse in Picasso’s ‘Guernica’). With its hard hooves and piston-like leg movements, a horse in the natural world anticipates a locomotive in the human sphere. Hence the poet’s identification with the horse figure fits with the theme of rapid industrial, commercial growth in China, which depended on people like him, “thoroughbred” types who could “run the distance.” In the poem he says several times that he was “made into a horse.” In other words, his leadership capabilities were fostered and he was allowed to “have his head” in certain ways. He was allowed to magnify the sphere of his own activity, as long as it ran along with the tidal wave of commercial growth. But at the same time his own assertion of private desire could not help but be magnified as well. Along with the growth of commerce in China, “fleshpots” became a conspicuous feature of the urban landscape. In China the pendulum-swing toward self-indulgence was vertiginous. Up to the mid-80s China still had a puritanical social system with no “bar scene” or prostitution. In the 90s these things began to flourish, and in the 00s they verged on growing out of control. A man encouraged by circumstance to unleash his desire tended to run a bit wild. But after this wild assertion of desire had snowballed to an extreme, it left the “horse” feeling empty. It left him high and dry. Looking back on his own course of development, the poet feels self-inflicted emotional wounds. He was wounded by excess and the absence of meaningful, precious intimacy (which is hard to foster when everything around one is being done on a big scale). This retrospective process is complicated because the magnified assertions of sexual desire are mixed up with large scale displays of wealth and accumulation of power by large enterprises. Thus there is an undercurrent of sexuality crackling in the landscape; the “obscenely” large office towers are “jutting up” in every city, and in the poet’s alternate persona as an old tomcat he is aware that “any office tower can be an instrument of seduction.”
The horse would normally stand for an up-and-comer who becomes a titan of commerce. But Huang uses his horse figure in a tricksterish way. This is a puckish, prankish horse—a rebellious horse that suddenly resolves to run up a high mountain to savor the desolation. Delighting in desolation seems to indicate an anti-humanistic attitude: it is a kick in the pants to people who put a veneer of humanistic discourse over the scrimmage of appetite (which they are involved in like anyone else). The horse likes to kick over signposts. There isn’t a scrap of moralism in anything it says. The horse is unhappy with certain things, but it does not put forth a program to change them: it just wants to face reality. This horse channels its stamina and high spirits into raillery and ridicule directed at the human condition; it articulates bewilderment over its “horsified” condition in a freakish eruption of discourse that mirrors the freakish history it has lived through, hence the constant refrain of “mutating and morphing.”
The poet’s other animal persona in Ninth Night—an old tomcat—is not so concerned over being “morphed and mutated.” He is more focused on enjoying the companionship of a “young calico pussycat” while protecting her innocence, a challenge which he likens to “pulling the whiskers of a tiger.”
A prime requisite of tricksterhood is ability to make people laugh. The horse describes its own foibles in ludicrous terms:
The mere thought of impotence frightens me and saps my confidence, and I check repeatedly behind the sofa for my erectile function (Book Two, “Fourth Night”)
The poet uses the horse to personify his own outrageous proclivities:
Here is what I see in you, horse, now that you have mutated and morphed: //…High-velocity—sinking into mire of any depth without hesitation/ Shameless— having an erection at any time in broad daylight/ Ecologically sound—never making use of condoms (Book One, “”Third Night)
I find the horse’s stated goal in life risible:
My grandest and most philosophical aim is to become a taxidermic specimen of pathology or aberrancy, and thereby in the matter of immortality surpass the likes of a Foucalt or Sartre phenomenon (Book One, “First Night”)
The horse has many ways of breaking down boundaries. One way is letting terms of address proliferate until they are drained of meaning:
It looks as if I and we, you and you-all, one and all, had collectively betrayed God, and then proceeded collectively to betray me and us, you and you-all, one and all
Another mark of boundary defacement is repeated use of passive and active verbs, which pound like hooves until distinctions between doer and recipient become indistinct:
Why should I give it up? It has been a fertile experience for me, being captivated by these thrills and self-torments, so why should I give up slaughtering and being slaughtered, harming and being harmed, stealing affection and having my affection stolen, molesting and being molested, abasing myself and being debased? (Book Two, “Seventh Night”)
While reflecting upon its actions the horse freely admits its own lowliness, but it resists having external standards of lowliness imposed upon it:
…When every last coin finally becomes a token—tossed upon a bed or barbershop chair—of possessing and being possessed, buying and being bought, transacting and being transacted, cumming and being cummed on, then by that time my greed and lowliness will not seem so greedy and lowly (Book One, “Prelude”)
At times the horse becomes an advocate of lowliness. It wants to charm us with a vision of wholeness that is open to all levels of being.
It is like when all the sluices and valves of language have been thrown open, so that high-mindedness and lowliness are like lily stalks in the same pool. They breathe in the same air and lean against each other (Book One, “Prelude”)
The old tomcat is wary of moral categories, viewing them as a trap; nevertheless he is repelled by vile behavior and associates it with distortion of character. The tomcat’s evaluations of character are based on the quality of lived experience:
Worst of all is the greed and jealousy of those old tomcats. They are bristling with strategems…; they cannot live without wealth, so their greed embroils them in incestuous dealings, and because of this they have deeply hurt my feelings/ As a result I degenerated more abysmally, until I refused to admit there were such things as affection and faithfulness/ By doing this I resorted to a moral escape-clause that was self-reproachful and self-resenting
Although loss of moral categories causes “the core of civilization to become like a limp penis,” (Book Two, “First Night”) the tomcat’s capacity for redemption is alive and well:
It is amazing that the redemption of a lecherous, nasty, dangerous, lethal tomcat was undertaken and completed by a calico pussycat/ Just think, a single tear can arouse a person’s urge to let tears rain down; doesn’t this mean there is no way for a person or cat to expunge the tender feelings from his heart?
The horse/tomcat is a trickster because it tells a double tale. It has arrived at the tragic realization that its power is just another form of powerlessness, resulting from a historical process in which “conspiracy has already done its work.” Even so the horse still craves the surge of life’s energies. In its tomcat form it rejoices in hopes of tasting further limit-experiences which can be accessed only through tender feelings. The possibility of such experiences makes it feel that facing a tragic era is somehow worthwhile. (This is the tomcat’s angle on what is conventionally called “love.”)
The tragic thread of the tale is condensed into a single statement: “When a man is about to die, his words have a mournful sound.” This old saying from the Analects of Confucius appears several times in the book, indicating the omen-like nature of the horse’s utterance overall. Of course, such a gloomy divinatory formula is balanced elsewhere by statements like: “A glad occasion energizes the spirit.” (Book Two, “First Night”) The horse’s tragic sense is streaked with comedy, due to its counterpart’s anticipation of spending a “virginal night” with a calico pussycat. Yet the horse’s powerlessness carries the full weight of tragedy, because it offers a window upon the collective fate of horses, cats and humans:
To taste the thrill of dismemberment while destruction is looming—this is the optimum proposal for an era and subspecies to mutate in the quickest, deepest, and most cutting-edge manner// How about this, you coffee drinker there? Whatever kind of mutant aberration you are, if all this doesn’t shake you up and stir your anger, then I invite you to stare rearward through the wall (Book One, “Fourth Night”)
The grand scale of the horse’s activity has magnified its awareness and broadened its palette of suffering:
I have craved and possessed excessively, and I have been craved and possessed excessively, which has dismembered all my fantasies, making them into mutant aberrations of what they were//…Thereupon Hell is dismembered. Its flames begin leaping in every penis and vagina, like a species with a predetermined program it dismembers all sectors of space, mutating and morphing them into hells (Book One, “Fourth Night”)
An important principle in traditional aesthetics was “merging of self and realm.” This was an effacement of boundaries which could enlarge the scope of sympathy, but it tended to address moments statically and contemplate them for their own sake. In contrast, our highly modern horse prefers aesthetic boundary breaking: it appropriates scenes from memory and reconfigures them for expressive purposes. Images are wrested from context and given forward momentum, to be applied to the present in new ways, as in this beautiful passage:
I don’t know how much you delight in various flowers and fragrances/ As for me, I stand willing to wither to death for you/ I wish to be like the distant reed-beds of my childhood—for you I would sprout and turn deep green, then suffer killing frost and wither away for you/ Yet reed tassels would remain on the winter lake, passing through time, and they would sway and toss their utmost before your eyes (Book Two, “First Night”)
Judging from the times of composition noted below each section, Luo Ying averaged close to one “Night” per night in writing the nine “Nights” of Book One and the nine “Nights” of Book Two. This is amazingly rapid composition, considering how carefully wrought each “Night” is. In the act of composition the poet seems to have set himself a task of working in real time, but his “Nights” defeat the notion of temporal boundaries, because each night is devoted to one aspect of the horse’s (or tomcat’s) self-reckoning. This process of self-reckoning spills across the late years of one century and the early years of another. The “Nights” are after all a literary device, like cups filled with the wine of thought, yet they remind us that real nights are also vessels to be filled.
Luo Ying’s horse-as-trickster turns the juggernaut-type of horse on its head: it does its utmost to slip the reins and run roughshod over what runs roughshod over people. Trickster- figures have been coyotes and ravens, and in the Chinese context the Monkey King (“Sun Wukong”). But in Ninth Night the trickster is a horse, which is a trick in itself.
A note about the poet: During the Cultural Revolution (starting in late 1960s), Luo Ying was a “sent-down youth” in a rural district of Yinchuan, Ningxia Province. During his “rustication” he was chosen as bookkeeper for a Production Brigade, which marked the beginning of his stepwise climb to positions of influence. After the Cultural Revolution he studied at Beijing University, where he fell in love with poetry. Under his leadership, Zhongkun Corporation has become an investment company, but it also runs tours to cultural sites in several provinces. Zhongkun has preserved the architecturally intact Ming Dynasty village Hongcun in Anhui Province and runs tours there. It also runs cultural tours to archeological sites in Xinjiang Province including the 4000 year old “Xiaohe Cemetery,”小河墓地 remnant of a once-flourishing Central Asian kingdom along the old Silk Road. (It is a wonderful coincidence that this writer’s brother, Victor Mair, has written a survey of archeological work done at Xiaohe Cemetery, see Indo-European Studies, 2006.)
Luo Ying is also a mountaineer and adventurer who has achieved the feat called “7 + 2,” which means climbing the highest mountains on each of the seven continents plus going to the South Pole and North Pole. Everywhere he went he wrote poems documenting his climbs and his thoughts. These poems were collected in Mountain Climber’s Diary, a book by Beijing University Press that won the 2011 “Most Beautiful Book of the Year Award.” I will translate portions of that book next.
Luo Ying’s company got in the news in recent years because it tried to buy a sizable piece of land in Iceland. Luo loves the wild bleak landscape and has done pack-horse camping trips in Iceland. He wanted his company to operate such tours. However the Icelandic legislature decided they didn’t want a Chinese company buying a big chunk of pristine land.
February 12, 2013
Sam Chung Guesthouse, Hong Kong
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What a delight to see your name pop up in my inbox! It has been a while. I LOVED your intro to this book. It reminded me of various things:
I was a little stunned seeing “cumming” in the piece and I thought it was a good sign, a sign that this poet is unafraid to say it like it is. Wonderful.
Would you mind if I posted this on my website? If no, I understand.
I have a workshop scheduled in Nanaimo in May, but hope you and I have time for tea. I have been drinking more puer thanks to a young man who imports it himself from China.
I am still working on the extension of A Time Before Slaughter, in terms of the Pig War event and poems about the bioregion (Cascadia) and the latest and best of those poems is here: https://paulenelson.com/2013/02/24/juan-vicente-de-guemes/
Thanks for taking time to drop this on me.