“The All-Seeing Eye: Collected Poems” by Shang Qin and “The World’s Lightest Motorcycle” by Yi Won

The All-Seeing Eye: Collected Poems,  John Bolcom (trans) (Cambria Press, November 2021); The World’s Lightest Motorcycle, Yi Won, EJ Koh (trans), Marci Calabretta Cancio-Bello (trans) (Zephyr Press, November 2021) The All-Seeing Eye: Collected Poems, John Bolcom (trans) (Cambria Press, November 2021); The World’s Lightest Motorcycle, Yi Won, EJ Koh (trans), Marci Calabretta Cancio-Bello (trans) (Zephyr Press, November 2021)

Surrealism is usually connected with the visual arts: Salvador Dali’s limp watches or René Magritte’s rainstorm of bowler-hatted businessmen. Whilst surrealist writing is perhaps not as well-known, French poet André Breton declared in his 1924 Surrealist Manifestos that in surrealism “the agonizing question of possibility does not arise,” and that “the man who cannot visualize a horse galloping on a tomato is an idiot.” Carl Jung once said, “it’s not the world as we know it that speaks out of [a person’s] unconscious, but the unknown world of the psyche.” That’s the world in which horses ride tomatoes, or where, as Shang Qin writes,


An excavator
crouches in the living room
its single arm
reaching into the kitchen


 and Yi Won informs us that


I put my head on display at Ilsan Market but after several days
no-one bought it.


Anyone who can’t “see” that excavator or that head, Breton might have said, is an idiot, and a world where anthropomorphic excavators crouch or where you can casually display your severed head for sale is certainly not the world as we know it!


The late Taiwanese poet Shang Qin’s poetic world is the purest surrealism; it’s a world infused with dreams, fantasy, and odd juxtapositions, often seemingly controlled by the workings of the unconscious mind. Shang Qin (1930-2010) appears to have taken this to heart. In The All-Seeing Eye “the fleeing sky is flooded with roses,”


On the backside of the earth is a phone
Spreading cold sunlight


and “A girl with two eyes like moons pours a cup of starlight onto the hill of my face, and I awaken.”

The contemporary Korean poet Yi Won (born 1968), is described by her translators as an “avant-garde modernist”, a poet interested in “freeing distinctions” often taking a feminist point of view. They explain that her poetry “is appreciated for its paradigm shifts about the information age and digital civilization,” which seems to suggest that in a digital world, anything and everything is possible:


People everywhere
walk with plugs suspended from their bodies
charged by the world’s rage.


In a poem entitled “I click, therefore I am” (not included in this collection) she tells us that


with a click one world collapses and
another one rises.


Surrealism is very much alive and well in Asia.


A common thread between these two poets is their connection with art. Shang Qin, who had moved to Taiwan in 1948, would have also become acquainted with European surrealist art; one of his poems, “Dog barking at the moon” (not included in this collection) is dedicated to Joan Miró, who had executed a painting of that subject in 1924. Indeed, painting seem to be a fairly frequent source of inspiration for Shang Qin: “Silent Thunder” is based on the paintings of the abstract impressionist Chen Tingshi (1915-2002), and “Flying Fish” is dedicated to his friend the Taiwanese artist Feng Zhongrui, who, we are told in a note by the poet, started off as a surrealist and then moved to “abstract ink paintings”.

Yi Won was particularly influenced by the work of the American realist painter Edward Hopper, who said that great art is “the outward expression of an inner life,” that is “the personal vision of the world.” Hopper’s “inner life” corresponds to Jung’s idea of the unconscious. Both poets interpret the world through images rather than what the words mean; meaning is supplied by the images that the words employ, those everyday objects like refrigerators, rice bowls, televisions or postcards that we see in Yi Won’s work.


I stand before the refrigerator
the unknowable


is paralleled with


I stand before history
the unknowable.


Readers must make the connection.

Shang Qin uses gloves, doors, buses, chickens, fire extinguishers and duck eggs, to name a few. Just at the moment the reader visualizes these objects, they turn into or suggest things which seem unrelated to them. In “Door or Sky”, a man first “cuts down several trees with his hands” and goes on to make a door “With the trees and vines he cut down by hands and teeth.” However,


A door with only a door frame is barely a door
(Tie it to a big tree)


but he nevertheless goes through it and back again “Until we see the sky”.


Both Yi Won and Shang Qin write prose-poems, a hybrid genre in which the language and imagery of poetry is employed but the form—without line breaks or metrics of any kind—is not. It’s not often used these days, although it can trace its European lineage back to Charles Baudelaire and the Comte de Lautréamont in the 19th century and can number Rilke and Kafka amongst its practitioners. In England, Virginia Woolf’s “The Mark on the Wall” certainly reads like a prose-poem. Some scholars suggest that the Japanese haibun, a form of short narrative poetry used by the great Japanese haiku writer Bashō in the 17th century is its origin, where imagery leads readers on a journey rather than simply telling them what to see and think.

A prose-poem is usually short, although Shang Qin’s “The Mosquito” extends to six pages of short paragraphs, almost the length of a (very) short story. For some readers there’s little difference between a prose-poem and free verse, but Shang Qin’s prose poetry has more of a “story” to it, because the narrative voice in the prose-poems is actually doing something concrete rather than letting his unconscious speak. “Gloves”, for example, is about a man simply taking off his one of his gloves, a mundane action which leads to other mundane actions in a stream-of-consciousness mode, but in the end “it seemed to tremble; in this way a single reddish-brown coarse white glove was more symbolic than anything else.” Here, the language isn’t even particularly poetic, but in the end that glove becomes “a widower in a suit, dancing a slow waltz.” The subjects of the prose-poems are drawn from everyday life: buses, giraffes, a lock, a turkey and a fire-extinguisher, to name a few. These writings also express a kind of liminality, somewhere between the world of dreams and the world of solid objects. In “Cuckoo,” for example:


On a road covered with plantain, a cliff covers my head with the cry of the cuckoo in its steepness, and I awaken. I hear another cuckoo cry: Return! Return!! Return!!!


Return? I just returned from snot-nosed childhood.


Note the crescendo of exclamation-marks. After the insistence of the bird’s cry, liminality returns in the concluding lines: “Awake, I go back and forth and again in dream I go back and forth, returning,” while “the cuckoo keeps calling, changing to a shang tone then a zhi,” referring to the tones of Chinese characters, and perhaps a play on the poet’s name. In the last line quoted above we see the poet’s reaction to the repetition of the word “return,” without knowing exactly what the cuckoo meant by it.

Yi Won’s prose poems are short, and they often consist of personal reflections using the first-person pronoun. In “The Mirror Gnaws on My Face”, for example, she begins with “I gnaw on a baguette in the mirror. I wait for the night. The sun in the mirror won’t set.” The translators cite Yi Won as saying that she wants to “make my poetic language imagery newer and stranger,” creating new perspectives from images of the familiar. Her writing takes readers beyond the conventional; mirrors can’t “gnaw”, and they don’t usually contain suns; we are not supposed to look for “meaning” here, but to imagine what a mirror with a sun in it might look like. We know what a mirror is, and we know what the sun is and that it sets, but in the mirror-world it doesn’t—it’s horses and tomatoes all over again. Her imagery is often arresting—“On a couch like an incorrectly sealed coffin open to the world a man curls up,” or “Inside me is the father of an indisputable rumor, not decomposing, who has been dead 20 years,” and “A clock is stuck to a book, the clock has no second hand.” Would that be an allusion to Dali’s clock?


The poetic worlds depicted in these slim volumes are complex ones, but are not completely impenetrable, perhaps, if we give some rein to our own unconscious minds. We might not mount horses tomatoes, but we’ve all likely experienced the free association of which our minds are capable, and if so, that cuckoo’s call might not seem so bizarre. There are, for example, real emotions in Shang Qin’s writing, too. In “The First Seven Days after her Death”, he touchingly remembers his daughters’ maternal grandmother:


A petal from a peach blossom falls from the crescent moon, and
grandmother nearly cries. She has almost forgotten that she
returned by treading over waves of cogon grass, waves of reed
catkins, the waves of the Taiwan Strait and the waves of Tungting


In “Flying Tears” he evokes an almost tangible sadness with a few simple words:


The past falls, the future falls.


Fresh green blood falls from the small crushed blades of grass.
Holding up a white feathered umbrella, travelling far to spread


The dandelions are flying tears.


Yi Won can employ a quirky sense of humor when she’s being tender; in “Love or Feet” we find:


Your feet are hidden inside my feet
your footprints stamped inside my shadow
When your feet step away
without fail I twinkle and slosh
my whole body aches


John Balcom’s translation of The All-Seeing Eye is brilliantly sensitive to the nuances of Shang Qin’s writing as it moves from the concrete world to that of the unconscious mind with all its extremes of language and flights of fancy. To quote André Breton once more, “The mind of the dreaming man is fully satisfied with whatever happens to it”; Balcom fully understands this, and his sympathetic translation makes reading Shang Qin’s poetry in English a moving and most enlightening experience.

The same can be said for Koh and Cancio-Bello, the two Korean-American poets who have brought Yi Won to English-speaking readers. They understand the underlying subversiveness of the poetry, and they are intimately acquainted, as they tell us in their notes, with the difficulties of rendering Korean into English. “In a style of Korean that hurtles toward and away from the reader,” they explain, “the translators must seek to be a force against norms in English.” They do this admirably, and they manage to capture the “hurtling” style beautifully for people who can’t read the Korean on the left-hand page.

John Butler recently retired as Associate Professor of Humanities at the University College of the North in The Pas, Manitoba, Canada, and has taught at universities in Canada, Nigeria and Japan. He specializes in early modern travel-literature (especially Asian travel) and seventeenth-century intellectual history. His books include an edition of Sir Thomas Herbert’s Travels in Africa, Persia and Asia the Great (2012) and most recently an edition of Sir Paul Rycaut's Present State of the Ottoman Empire (1667) and a book of essays, Off the Beaten Track: Essays on Unknown Travel Writers.