Review: My Name Will Grow Wide Like a Tree by Yi Lei

My Name Will Grow Wide Like a Tree by Yi Lei, trans. by Tracy K. Smith (Graywolf Press 2020)

Reviewed by Elizabeth Kudlacz

Who was Yi Lei?

For many in the Western world, this leading figure in contemporary Chinese poetry is probably unknown. Thanks to the efforts of Tracy K. Smith and Changtai Bi, English-speaking readers can appreciate the richness of Yi Lei’s bilingual collection of poems My Name Will Grow Wide Like a Tree

Yi Lei (1951-2018) was born in 1951 in Tianjin, China and published 8 poetry collections, many of which were translated into other languages. As described in this book’s Introduction, Yi Lei’s poetry (initially the piece A Single Woman’s Bedroom) came to the attention of Tracy K. Smith in late 2013. The story of how this translated collection came to be is one of the many pleasures of reading this book. The challenges of poetic translation are many, particularly for a non-native speaker. Smith acknowledges the difficulties of a purely literal translation of Yi Lei’s poems from Mandarin Chinese and therefore “sought to build a similar spirit or feeling for the readers of American English” and to “cleave to the original spirit, tone, and impetus”.  Fortunately, Smith was able to consult with with Yi Lei before she passed and verified that her English translation honored Lei’s original intent, a luxury not afforded to Ezra Pound when he translated Li Po’s famous poem, The River Merchant’s Wife.

Smith’s poetic translation produced interesting and often unexpected outcomes. For example, the book’s title is derived from a line in the poem Nightmare. The literal translation of Yi Lei’s original line is “my name will be immortal by my terrible destiny”. Instead of using the word verbatim, Smith imagined immortality as a tree that grows wide with age as the poet writes: 

I’m bound to a stake, Planted in a nameless square…”

In this collection, the way trees and nature  function as metaphors for weightier subjects, such as love, are fresh, even bold. The book’s first poem, Green Trees Greet the Rainstorm considers these themes with “rhythmic and emotional insistence.”. The language of this poem that compares a woman embarking on a passionate love affair to a tree caught up in storm creates a sense of dynamism and sensuality.  In particular, this is a young woman presumably as flexible as a green tree, who would and could take the emotional toll of this tempestuous relationship rather than be alone.  There is a sense of relentlessness in the partial repetition of the lines in each of the two stanzas, as if the speaker must convince themselves of the benefit of such an arduous undertaking. With its sense of greeting, it is an ideal opening poem not only because it sets tone and style but also suggests a baring of the poet in the poems that follow.

I belong to the nation of wild arms flailing in wind.

And I know you are bound to unravel me, but how can I not

Lift my head and look you in the eye? How can I fail to greet you,

             Though my living gown will soon be battered to threads?

             Better this lashing—flesh burst open, ransacked by air—-

            Than to live ambushed by loneliness.

I belong to the nation of startled cries, voices flailing in wind

And I know you are bound to unravel me, but how can I not

Lift my head and look you in the eye? How can I fail to greet you,

            Though my living gown will soon be shredded, shed?

            Better to be ravaged straightaway in youth

           Than to live out another year’s quiet undoing.

Poems like Love’s Dance and A Single Woman’s Bedroom were written in the 1980s when Chinese confessional poetry sought to move away from traditional and revolutionary romantic poetics. Indeed, these pieces are interesting to consider in the historical context of women’s writing in China.. The limited subject matter of pre-modern Chinese women’s writing was a consequence of their restricted existence, one largely confined to boudoirs, courtyards and home. Although A Single Woman’s Bedroom conjures this narrow world view, after publication, this poem incurred both critical acclaim as well as outrage, in part reflected by the impropriety of the subject matter and the frankness of this woman’s desire, as repeated at the end of each of the 14 sections of verse: “You didn’t come to live with me”. 

Adding to the sensuality is a celebration of the poet’s self (“The bells of my breasts singing, The bright note of my ass, My shoulders a warm chord…”) that calls to mind Walt Whitman’s Song of Myself.  Indeed, Yi Lei was well acquainted with Whitman’s legacy and makes  numerous references to him throughout her work, even identifying with him in the poem With Whitman:

Watching you

Is as natural as watching myself.

Your brow, your strong toes

As absorbing as my own.

The acknowledgement of a broader world view reflects an expanded literary horizon for modern Chinese women, afforded by access to education. In fact, Yi Lei reaches across the sea to America to Whitman and traipses in the woods that offer “freedom itself” speaking to the undercurrents of repression that can be found in many poems, including A Single Woman’s Bedroom

To my fellow citizens, Something invisible blocks every road.”

The tension between loneliness and love’s passion from this collection’s first poem persist throughout much of the book. As might be expected for a body of work that spans writing from 1981 to 2013, poems written later in the poet’s life strike a more reflective or melancholic tone. In the poem Green Trees Greet the Rainstorm (written in 1982) the speaker embraces the rainstorm, while in Nature’s Aria written 9 years later the speaker has developed a different relationship:

Fistfuls of rain fall hard, fill

My heart with mud.

Per Smith, the chronological organization of the poems not only reflect the order adopted for the original publication of her “Selected Poems” in Chinese but also follows the arc of Yi Lei’s career. The final line in this book, from the poem Coronation Of The Roses, offers a sense of closure and acknowledges all that came before it —  without desire, many of these poems would not have been written:

Desire is dead, long live desire.

The poems Smith chose for this book were those she felt able to bring “gracefully and emphatically into English”, a task which readers will certainly agree she accomplished. With such a powerful collaboration of poetic talents working on this astonishing collection , Yi Lei’s name cannot help but grow wide like a tree.

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