sight progress by Zhang Er
Translation from Chinese by Rachel Levitsky with the author
(Pleasure Boat Studio, 2006)
[First published in Boog City, 2007, Edited by David Kirschenbaum]
Zhang Er’s sight progress positions the innate feminine power from which all life springs beside the cool neurological operation of the five senses. That power and physiological receptivity occur within a displaced traveler whose locations are often overwhelming, yet strangely transient. In these geocentric, historically aware prose poems, Er takes up position “on the border between bright and dark,” tourist-like, though never pressed for time. She keeps herself transparent for the most part, and in doing so, the reader more directly experiences the living objects that enter her field. Without any need for verbal acrobatics or emotional embellishment, Er paints the milling beauty of a Nanjing market, the indigo backdrop of a sky blazing with stars, a detritus-littered sea that might be found in any country, and the stark gray marble monuments of a Roman courtyard, among other tapestried projections. Truly, the cross-sectional world enters into Er’s narrative structure with a factual and unfiltered demeanor. One floating among many is a common theme, tinged with a subtle longing for rootedness, as in the poem “Enjoying Odysseus”:
Regardless of its destiny, whether or not it’s one day going to be an actual tree, the seed that drifted here has no route for return.
In the startling little poem “NuShu: The Secret Language of Women,” Er’s self-restraint takes on culturally charged significance, eliciting in a mere two lines (“Hey you guys, / shut up!”) the repression that women endured for thousands of years in China. Written language, we learn through her footnote, was coded and passed down secretly from mother to daughter so as not to incur the wrath of a male-dominated educational hegemony.
The frontal boundary where antiquated passivity (muteness) meets the willful seizing of ones life (speech) triggers a low thunder throughout her work. Perhaps passivity is the wrong word, for Er approaches the world with a curious openness and Zen-like observational candor that echoes Polish filmmaker Krysztof Kieslowski’s recommendation to “live attentively.” She quotes his advice in the poem “Storm,” adding “there’s no deeper moral to the story.” The next statement, darkly funny, turns us back on the inexorable, unimpassioned progress of life: “That said, he [Kieslowski] later dies in a routine cardiac operation.”
The question of an involved versus detached self runs through sight progress with no satisfying resolution, showing how Eastern vision channeled through poetic consciousness can either absorb, exist apart from, or gently transform a Westernized world. “What do you dream? What do write?” Er asks. Her answer: “On the balcony, cool sea breeze. Uncolorful fish, in sea.” Perennial aesthetic fertility confronts implacable objects, activity, anchors. So maybe the best answer is that there is nothing you can do and nothing you cannot do. One can be sure, however, as Er writes in “Memorandum for the Not Yet Born” that her poems are not “mere decoration on the enterprise of others” but rather “points of splendor caught by mortal hands.”
Scott Glassman is the author of the chapbooks Exertions (Cy Gist Press, 2006) and Surface Tension (Dusie, 2006) with Mackenzie Carignan. His poems have appeared or are forthcoming in Jubilat, Iowa Review, Jacket, Sentence, 580Split, Best New Poets 2007, and others. He also co-curates the Emergency Reading Series at the Kelly Writers House in Philadelphia.