The Part of You I Am Not: Hsia Yü’s Salsa trans. by Steve Bradbury

by Hsia Yü
Translated by Steve Bradbury
Zephyr Press, 2014
248 pages / $18.00  Buy from SPD or Zephr Press







“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 studies at Hamilton College where he reads and writes poetry. He recently received an Emerson Foundation Grant to work on a creative investigation of Ezra Pound’s Cantos with Professor Steven G. Yao. He will attend the Ashbery Home School in August.

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