Hsia Yü - The flesh and the word when I was young I was convinced Each was its own purgatory, having lived to such a ripe old ageI know that even in the end they cannot Redeem each other. How futile to be obsessed with continually probing Continually going deeper

Hsia Yü, Salsa. Trans. by Steve Bradbury. Zephyr Press, 2014.

Originally published in Chinese in 1999, Salsa has been Hsia Yü’s most successful collection of poetry, selling thousands of copies in Taiwan and Hong Kong alone. Zephyr’s 2001 edition Fusion Kitsch includes a generous selection of material from Salsa, but this marks the first time that an entire Hsia Yü volume has been translated into English.
“Inclining Ever Closer to Existence”

Everyone is endlessly distracted by the thought of being
“lost without a trace”
My head covered in a black cloth sack
I am taken to a remote basement corner
Where I hear someone say
“Okay, now I’ll let you see where you are.”
The sack is lifted and I see the one who brought me
And nearby a window backlit in the window
Another person looking at me his expression
Lets me know at once that I am merely passing through
This life
We can never look upon each other in the same light
Again like the lazy fellow in the story who brought home flowers
And began to tidy up in comparison to that light
Whose horizon of vision is enlarging with infinite
Precision how do we “incline ever closer to existence”?
I mull the idea the three of us making love right here and now

I am determined to be the first to acknowledge my mistakes
The ones I always make in the end
I go off key
And it’s a key I’ll never go off quite this way again

Hsia Yü (sometimes spelled Xia Yu) is the author and designer of six volumes of groundbreaking verse, among them a bilingual collection of English-language poems and computer-generated Chinese translations printed on crystal clear vinyl, entitled Pink Noise, as well as several hundred song lyrics, many of which are enormously popular in the Chinese-speaking world, and a Chinese translation of Henri-Pierre Roché’s Jules et Jim.
She currently lives in Taipei, where she co-edits the avant-garde journal and poetry initiative Xianzai Shi [Poetry Now], but she lived for many years in France, where the poems in the Salsa collection were composed. Originally published in 1999 and now in its tenth printing, Salsa is Hsia Yü’s most successful collection of poetry to date. This bilingual version contains the first and only complete translation of her poetry in any language other than Chinese.

“I am that man and that man is unaware
Others are also unaware (but regarding these you’d best ask Borges)”
(from “Salsa”) 
Jorge Luis Borges has been reincarnated as a radical poet from Taipei, and Salsa invites you to her personal hell. In Hsia Yü’s most recently translated book of poems, we come face-to-face with an inferno of identity crises.
Salsa was first published in 1999, but this new bilingual edition, put out last month by Zephyr Press, features the original Chinese text and Steve Bradbury’s revised English translation. Bradbury admits his rendition may leave “many readers befuddled” due to his unwillingness to “narrow the semantic space or resolve syntactical ambiguities.” But Bradbury’s translation often opens up the poems, providing them room to grow in a manner reminiscent of Stephen Mitchell’s renditions of Rilke. Chinese poetry translated into English often reads as spare, solid kernels of thought, most likely due to the Imagist influence of Ezra Pound’s translations in Cathay. Pound’s relationship to Chinese poetry in English has been firmly established; Bradbury, however, following Hsia Yü’s lead, is more interested in breaking new linguistic ground. [1] Bradbury’s English no doubt embellishes on Hsia Yü’s Chinese, as it allows for more vernacular wandering than Karen An-hwei Lee’s atmospheric and sparse treatment of Hsia Yü, as specifically seen in Lee’s version of “To Be Elsewhere.” [2] Bradbury’s style loosens up Hsia Yü’s work, and her poems exhibit a conversational playfulness even when dealing with individuality, revolution, and death.
These poems, in Bradbury’s rich versions, take rigid philosophical language and cast it in the mold of interpersonal relationships. They read as if someone wrote a break-up letter to being itself:
“The part of you I am in love with includes the part of you I am not
And strangely enough this only seems to have
‘Returned me to myself’ so much so
I’ve even come to understand the you which has yet to understand
The part of me that understands you”
(from “In the Beginning Was the Written Word”) [3]
The translation isn’t so befuddling as Bradbury bashfully claims, though Hsia Yü’s language constantly folds into a nest of meta-emotions, acting as a multi-limbed chimera or an ouroboros eating its own tail. What draws the speaker to her lover is a fragment of the lover she isn’t, which allows her “self” to return to her, so that she begins to realize that a fragment of her lover doesn’t understand the fragment of the speaker that does understand the lover. I found the experience of reading many of these verses like a lyric ping-pong match.
And so, over a span of 46 poems, Hsia Yü takes up the eternal Sisyphean struggle of living with one’s self (whoever that is). She iterates the principal problem as follows: “Your consciousness is taking the happening / Out of what’s happening” (“And Now These Objects Will Move By Themselves”). In the poems of Salsa, awareness of self and consciousness become unavoidable life-sucking forces, evil ghost-twins haunting the everyday. But Hsia Yü’s violent and musical meditations aren’t at all solipsistic. She displays a hyper-awareness of her audience, whether that audience consists of patrons in a supermarket check-out line, lovers, husbands, strangers, or the reader. Her poems and personae create a dialogue with the self and with selves, not unlike Borges’s labyrinthian mirror-plays: “We become strangers to ourselves / So that some will imagine / That they have already seen through us” (“Written for Others”). Who “we” and “they” represent remains vague throughout Salsa, but “Psychic Seductions” takes up the issue of the first-person poetic confessional by beginning, “Took forever to write back / And used ‘we’ instead of ‘me’” and then asks,
“What exactly do critics mean when they say
‘More personalized’?
As though we could get on the
‘Find Your Long-Lost Mother’
(from “Psychic Seductions”)
At first, it seems as though Hsia Yü herself directly asks critics what they mean by their objection to her superficially “de-personalized” poems. Then, in an Ashbery-esque turn à la “My Erotic Double,” she resorts again to using the plural pronoun “we” she neglected at the start of the piece, answering the critics’ objection by claiming that writing in a “more personalized” manner would be as cheap as joining a reality show called “Find Your Long-Lost Mother.” Reality shows draw in a huge, sentimental-hungry audience ready to swallow a “real” personal narrative hook, line, and sinker. Hsia Yü rejects this framework, and her poems examine the difficulty in dealing with the process of that rejection.
Fully understanding the reality-problem for Hsia Yü resides between the experience of the body and the experience of the text, both of which she finds lacking. She writes:
“The flesh and the word         when I was young I was convinced
Each was its own purgatory, having lived to such a ripe old age
I know that even in the end they cannot
Redeem each other. How futile to be obsessed with continually probing
Continually going deeper”
(from “Follow the Herd and All Occasion for Regret Will Disappear”)
Redemption from this dual purgatory does not arrive in the body and the text answering for one another. This, as Hsia Yü presents it, would be a futile exercise. Yet she obsesses over digging further and further down in search of an answer.
If all this sounds like a downer, don’t worry: the titular poem arrives as a call to arms echoing an earlier couplet that “good music of any kind can be danced to / can bring down whole regimes.” The subject matter from before doesn’t change as much as pivot. After an exultation to Che Guevara and Jack Kerouac, we come to:
Ay mi cuba, O my Latin America, I want to liberate you
And let me say to you moreover that of the Spanish I pored over
All those many years ago the only phrase I know
This too out of Borges, is:
‘My destiny lies in the Spanish language’
But I must add       a proviso in Chinese which he cannot understand:
‘I will go with you to the revolution,
But give me your permission
To desert you should I feel the need arise’
This poem is so shallow
People are bound to shower it with ridicule
But then as Borges says
Each and every finished poem already has its place
Is always already there in every revolution
In my every desertion
And as for the part where poetry and revolution are experiencing
some friction
I’ll put on a salsa or two just to help me muddle through”
(from “Salsa”)
Hsia Yü lies every claustrophobic element of her bewitching book bare: the multi-lingual games, the multiple selves, the father figure Borges, and the anxious anticipation of an audience reaction. But “Salsa” adds the music, the tunes that help one “muddle through” life and living. Music may present an aid, an agent for acceptance. “In India the music has no beginning,” Hsia Yü claims in “Dictation.” “It has no end in India.” These poems take us to “a foreign land” where we become, at last, “enlightened to the fact that [we] will never be enlightened.”
Translators typically present Borges’s most famous prose-poem “Borges y Yo” in English as “Borges and I.” If Hsia Yü wrote a version of this poem, the title might be “Hsia Yü and I.” This sounds altogether more intimate than “Borges and I” because of the homophone, in English, of “you.” At the same time, the duality of “Yü,” both as the poet’s name, who is not you, and as “you,” who might be you, reveals the frightening fracture of identity Salsa endlessly probes. “But,” as a line of Hsia Yü’s poem “And You’ll Never Want to Travel There Again” rightly notes, “I do leave a memorable fracture.”
Notes & References:
[1] Steve Bradbury’s admiring, though cautious, view of Pound’s Chinese translations can be found in his article entitled “On the Cathay Tour with Eliot Weinberger,” published by Translation Review in 2003.
[2] POETRY published two of Karen An-hwei Lee’s exceptional translations in June, 2011. Lee insists on the music of Hsia Yü’s poetry, but recognizes the difficulty in presenting the “seamless pronouns in ‘To Be Elsewhere,’ [that] for instance, lose rhythm—and atmosphere, one of lyric anonymity—in English.” I recognized this “lyric anonymity” immediately in Lee and Bradbury’s English translations, though I’m sure it’s more beautifully accomplished in the Chinese.
[3] The title of this poem is not, as Bradbury comments, directly inspired by The Gospel According to John, but is lifted from the “legendary figure Cangjie” who supposedly invented Chinese writing. This blending of diverse cultural materials makes Hsia Yü, as critics have thoroughly examined, a “cosmopolitan” poet and a poet of her own homeland. Hsia Yü actually wrote all of Salsa‘s lyrics while living in France. - John Rufo

Hsia Yü, Fusion Kitch. Trans. by Steve Bradbury. Zephyr Press, 2001.

Listen to Hsia Yü read “Bringing Her a Basket of Fruit”.
From the introduction to Fusion Kitsch by Steve Bradbury
Hsia Yü's frank and innovative treatment of gender and sexuality in a small handful of poems in this collection and in her second collection Ventriloquy (Fuyushu) was seized upon by critics and scholars anxious to find a candidate to fill the long-vacant post of “Chinese feminist poet.” But while Hsia Yü may well have been one of the first woman poets writing in Chinese to have written about love and romance in a manner that broke dramatically from the conventions and constraints of traditional Chinese women's poetry, if we bother to look beyond labels at the poetry itself, we will find a body of work that is far less interested in providing a critique of gender relations or advancing a sexual/textual agenda than in exploring the sensuous and quirky interface between the pleasures of the flesh and the pleasures of the text. It is this preoccupation with pleasure that sets Hsia Yü apart from other poets writing in Chinese today; that and the fact that her poetry embodies a fusion of styles and influences—both high and kitsch—with the French influence running perhaps stronger than most.
Among her numerous honors, Hsia Yü was most recently awarded the Taipei City Literature Award for her book Salsa.
The Saw
I visualize you walking on the other side from me
In our scanty understanding of the universe
We propose a simple definition
Which we call “the time difference”
Whenever I feel delicious or defeated
In the watery regions of the night
We author our “form and meter”
Like the cardinal principles
Certain schools of painting have long advanced
Pressing myself against the dark
I continue my contemplation of a kind of saw-tooth-shaped truth

I engage in the contemplation
Of serration
An opened can for instance
My contemplation of the can goes thus:
The opening of a can turns
Upon a kind of saw-tooth-shaped truth

I contemplate but then I sleep
Sleep being an ancient practice
Older than civilization
Older yet than poetry
I sit and puzzle over it for hours
Resolved to not resist it

I contemplate sleep
When like a saw
I drag myself awake

I contemplate the saw

Bringing Her a Basket of Fruit

Today I go to this place and some guy there tells me not to come again/ I tell him I didn’t feel like going in any case/ Maybe others do but that’s another matter/ I go back to the flat I’m renting and steam a fish/ A friend comes over and we eat the fish together/ When we finish the fish he says he hasn’t been feeling too well lately/ Lost his job/ Missed his train to look for another one down south/ Those jobs just eat you alive he says/ You get a mortgage buy a house and a car and get yourself a woman/ You have some kids and if the kids grow up looking too much like you then you feel embarrassed/ And if they don’t grow up looking anything like you then you still feel embarrassed/ We talk awhile about the differences between being a landlord and a tenant/ Then we do it/ He asks how many lovers do you have and am I any different/ What a stupid question I say of course you’re different/ He keeps asking me how he is different/ I say you’re just different and if you really want to know maybe you’re really not so very different/ You can tell that just by looking at me he says/ You’re so weird always waiting for the worst to happen/ But when it does then I can settle down he says/ We look at the little mermaid on the VCR/ When the little mermaid loses her voice he cries/ We keep rewinding to the parts we like/ Steam another fish/ I lay out the Tarot cards to see if he’ll find a job and to see if we have any kind of future together/ You’re not going to find a job I say/ I’m not he says/ No point in even trying/ So what do I do/ There’s nothing you can do but anyhow now you can settle down now that you can expect the worst/ So do the cards say we’ll get married or something he asks/ Doesn’t look that way I say/ The cards aren’t accurate he says how do you know what the cards say is true/ You don’t understand what I’m saying so there’s no way I can make you understand/ So why do you believe in them/ I believe in them I say because the split second before I flip the cards over I know all the cause and effect relations since the universe began secretly work themselves out to like the final permutation/ Enough of this universe shit he says/ If it weren’t for this universe shit we wouldn’t be sitting here reading the cards/ I’m a little fed up here I say I’m thinking of moving/ Well why don’t you ask the cards and see if you’ll find a place/ I turn a card over/ The card says I will/ Well then ask if I can move in with you he says/ The card say no way/ We do it again/ But then I don’t know what to do/ And then I don’t know what to say either/ He leaves/ And I never see him again/ Perhaps there’ll be some other conclusion but I don’t know yet/ And then another friend calls who says I really don’t know if he loves me or not/ He loves you I say/ How do you know she says/ Because he doesn’t love me I say/ She hangs up/ I lay out the cards again/ I know that if I wait a little while she’ll call back to ask do you love him/ And sure enough she calls back/ I say I love him because I want to make her jealous/ I know she’ll call him right away to ask him if she loves you why don’t you love her/ She waits for him to say I love her/ She’s also waiting for the worst/ But later she settles down/ That’s because nobody loves her anyway/ She’s awfully weary of it all/ And so are we/ Later I move/ And I never do bring her a basket of fruit

Driving Down to Lisbon

If certain hotels happen to have these exhibitionists
Because they also have these hyper-reclusive types
Then the illusion generated by the entire hotel façade
Hinges on the intensity of the alcohol or the class
Of drug used and so the ensuing reality
Makes for these feelings of extreme sincerity or
Extreme insincerity or the embarrassment of
Being too familiar with something or not
Familiar enough and when I had finally persuaded her to
Accept the loneliness to accept this thing as something
Even worthy of her love I soon came to realize that
The loneliness she had come to love was mine and not
Her own and she had such a fierce desire
To join it that we drove down to
Lisbon to see a friend we all liked
And he had his loneliness too
But he called it
My mother deer my doe


And still I have this secret yearning to be that sand dune
Swept away one evening by a desert storm
Only to return the following morning in another form
And I agree we must take action
And, in action, find our motivation as the many
Compañera who fell in love with Ché Guevara were ever wont to say
I sleep in a T-shirt with his portrait emblazoned on it
And when I think of all those men one can never love again
I long to run my fingers through his hair
Light his cigar
Discover, once and for all, the herbal cure for his asthma
I know a little something of revolution
Knees that have known the long march with the ‘Outlaws of the Marsh’
I know a little something of the Don Quixote that he loved
The Kerouac he packed with him whenever he was on the road
The same things press in upon me
And so I take another form
I am Ché Guevara in the mirror this morning
Slipping my T-shirt halfway off
I find his face covering my own
I peer through an armhole
To take in this rare and precious moment
When, like something out of Borges,
I am him and he is unaware that I am him
Nor is anyone aware
Aye mi Cuba, oh my Latin America, I come to liberate you
And let me say to you, moreover, that of the Spanish I pored over
All those many years ago
The only line I can recall (this too from the book of Borges) is
‘Mi destino es la lengua castellana.’
‘I will go with you to the revolution,
But I would ask for your permission
To desert you should I feel the need arise’
No doubt the shallowness of my verse
Has reduced everyone to jeers
But then (if you have read your Borges)
You should know this poem was always already there
In every revolution
In my every desertion
And as for the part where poetry and revolution jostle up against each other
I’ll put on a salsa or two to help me muddle through


She took a fan and painted a bird on one side
And a cage on the other and then she spun
The handle in her hand till we could see the bird
In the cage and then she put the fan away and smiling
Asked us what we thought it was she’d said

I love you we said but that was wrong she said and then
We said I love you not but that was wrong
As well and then she took us home

Roaches flourish in these aging north-facing flats
She enlightened us as to the many places they infest
The belly of the fax machine
The interstices of the TV
The tape well of the answering machine
All those places warmed the year long by electricity
Did we have any conception? No, not really

All that we could think of was how nice it would be
If we too could worm our way into the hi-fi
And make our indolent bed there where the music pours out
On all those mornings which we dub the limitations of the age
When we are bathed in the radiance we say
Let all good things converge
Let our pain be our strength and at any moment let us
Be prepared to show our guests the bruises on our hips
And the scratches on our backs as we recite those
Words from somewhere ‘L’amour n’existe pas,
Mais la preuve d’amour existe’

Every time we went to her flat it had that
Look of having been ransacked by thieves
And indeed a thief did finally pay a call
And the conspiracy they hatched was this
He took only things she did not need so she never knew he took them
More importantly he helped her rummage up the things she’d lost
And so whenever we went to her flat after that
She had that look upon her face of ‘Well, why not?’

We had a visitation from a woman who’d been dead for many years
we felt her presence but see her we could not
heard her voice instructing us to turn
the hand-crank of the projector in the room (there’s always
a room with one) and as the sprockets clicked the flywheels spun
a cone of light (it’s always a cone of light) illumed
a corner of the room where
she appeared
like every spirit ought to
we were so bewitched we quite forgot to ask her what the afterlife was like
all the color had been drained from her
like a black and white film

which made us
conscious of the fact that we were all in color though in the dark
and we began to fidget and fret
and mutter to ourselves
and then abruptly lost all recollection
at this moment we awake
a gentle rain is falling and we
become afraid our parting will
stop the rain from falling
there in the warm room
in the warmth of the warmth
of the warmth of the room we are
rarely unaware of how we waver

To Zhou Mengdie
I’m of a mind to sit up straight
And dutifully take dictation
Extending my hand
I say I’m up for it
Today being Wednesday
I really feel I’m up for it
And so I go to India
In India the music has no beginning
It has no end in India
You cannot ask
A person’s whereabouts
In India to say where are you off to is bound
To weaken everyone’s resolve for the person being asked
Is likely to have second thoughts in India
While the person asking is liable
To wonder if this question meant
For someone else is not
A question for oneself
In India those who can sit
Ought not to stand those who can lie
Ought not to sit or else
The whole lot can squat back on their heels in any case
Don’t ask in India
The music is endless inexhaustible world without end
The hues are electric phantasmal so limpid they rend
In India they simply do not ask
What is it you don’t get? How could I have lost you?
As if our coming together were at the forking path between two labyrinths
There is no end to way down south and yet it has its ends they say
The man who leaves for Ye today will promptly get there yesterday
For reasons that have long escaped me
I fled like a madman who imagined he had lost his head
And so I came
Later still later
I came upon a foreign land of a foreign land
And was enlightened to the fact that I will never be enlightened
Like you and when you do
Do let me take dictation

Follow the herd and all occasion for regret will disappear


Taiwanese superstar poet Hsia Yü 夏宇 has a new book out, with a cover that seems to be designed like a lottery ticket, allowing readers to scratch their own designs and textual configurations. Click here for a Flickr album of some of the images people have come up with.