Reviews / October 2017 (Issue 37)

Back to the Vortex?

by Matt Turner

Image  Image

François Cheng (author), Donald A. Riggs and Jerome P. Seaton (translators), Chinese Poetic Writing, NYRB, 2017. 340 pages.

Michèle Métail (author), Jody Gladding (translator), Wild Geese Returning: Chinese Reversible Poems, NYRB, 2017. 312 pages.

The image is not an idea. It is a radiant node or cluster; it is what I can, and must perforce, call a VORTEX, from which, and through which, and into which, ideas are constantly rushing. In decency one can only call it a VORTEX. And from this necessity came the name "vorticism" … The vorticist movement is not a movement of mystification.

–Ezra Pound, "Vorticism," 1914


NYRB's Calligrams series publishes titles relating to traditional Chinese literature and Euro-American modernism, calling to mind Guillaume Apollinaire's book of visual poetry, Calligrammes (1918), and Ernest Fenollosa's essay on the Chinese written language, "The Chinese Written Character as a Medium for Poetry" (1919). It should also call to mind Ezra Pound, who saw in Chinese literature the tools to "make it new." The Calligrams series explores this idea, and Chinese Poetic Writing—by François Cheng, a Chinese-French structuralist who trained with Roland Barthes and Jacques Lacan—offers a detailed theory of traditional Chinese poetics that develops it.

Pound considered the Chinese written language the foundation of China's learning and culture, without which it would be inarticulate. In contrast, Cheng offers that the Chinese written language has an emptiness or void at its heart; its written language demonstrates the shifting relationships of person to world, expressing ontological truths:

The "void" that is engendered between the signs and "behind" the signs modifies their relationship and their implications, and thus also modifies the relationship between man and the world.

Cheng states that these relationships translate into poetic images. The poetic image is "a free unity that … radiates in all directions." This quality "aim[s] at arousing in language a circular movement that ties together subject and object." Subject and object become a matter of language, in which the terms serve to reflect each other—not signifying themselves, but projecting outwards as a comprehensive image:

This manner of letting the images fully "play" is … a structure that unites itself in the outer and the inner, the distant and the near, and even more the subject and the object. The interior world is projected on the exterior, while the exterior world becomes the sign of an interior world.

Another way of saying this is that the poet and the poem do not unite, but refract each other. This happens through images, which are metonyms for the relationship between "man and the world," made possible because of the emptiness of the language itself. Whether this seems either technical or obvious, the poems in the volume that best express this—or at least most literally express it—are called huiwenshi, "reversible poems."

Huiwenshi can be written in grids, in which all directions yield different readings or narratives; written in circles that have no discernible starting or ending points or be poems that, although written conventionally, can be read backwards, like palindromes—because of Classical Chinese grammar (the literary version of written Chinese used by all poets cited in these books), there is more freedom to write palindromes than in alphabetic languages.

One Qing dynasty poem, included in both Chinese Poetic Writing and Wild Geese Returning: Chinese Reversible Poems, that would chronologically qualify as modern, and to a Westerner might look modernist, is from Wan Shu's (1625–1688) collection, Small Fragments of the Brocade of the Armillary Sphere. It would be no easier for a literate Chinese person to read it than books on structuralism are for native speakers of French. It's image "plays":


Huiwenshi were written on paper and silk, engraved on trays and mirrors, and embroidered on kerchiefs.

Michèle Métail—French sinologist and OuLiPo member[i]—notes in her anthology of huiwenshi that "the important thing is not so much the exact number of poems, nor how exhaustively we read them, as it is the vertigo that grips the reader facing the open work, facing the infinitely unfurling meaning."

Around half of Wild Geese Returning is an analysis of one huiwenshi in particular—embroidered by a woman for her husband abroad at war, and storied by Empress Wu Zetian. Su Hui's (c. 360, six dynasties period) "Map of the Armillary Sphere" is a touchstone for nearly all huiwenshi afterwards, supposedly yielding 3,120 different readings.

The poem is understood through different schema, but mostly through its correspondence with Chinese cosmology: the five elements and their colours, astronomical position, trigrammatic structure. As Cheng points out, the void is always present; whichever reading one tries, others will slip away. These poems can contain simultaneous readings, but that kind of simultaneity begins to look very modern—radiant clusters by which ideas are conceived, vortexes:


Pound compares the vortex to analytic geometry, which is "free of space and time limits." It can "cause form to come into being." He states that the image functions like the variables x and n in an equation: the relationship bends and changes as it undergoes permutations. And this is in the neighbourhood of what Cheng states—images are metonyms for relationships, projecting outwards. Mètail suggests that the image is both within the poems' multiple readings, and is a literal image of the poem.

But this theory puts pressure on the actual poems, especially those without the same kind of dense graphic layout as the two above. The Daoist priest Lü Dongbin (c. 798), writing during the golden age of the Tang dynasty, would have been keenly aware of the cosmological implications of his small, eight-character circular poem, "Exhortation against Lust." As it's translated in Wild Geese Returning, in part:

It makes one forget authenticity, it corrupts vital energy
It offends minds, depraves aspirations.

Authenticity becomes corrupted, vital energy is offended
Minds are depraved, aspirations are forgotten.

Vital energy corrupted, minds offended
Aspirations depraved, authenticity forgotten.

Vital energy is offended, minds depraved
Aspirations are forgotten, authenticity corrupted.

The message is clear: lust is bad. Yet one has the sense that in a similar poem one could continue the permutations and end up with something very different. Perhaps that's because of the "void" at the heart of the Chinese written language as much as the form of huiwenshi. The fine line between the "inside" of the poem and the "outside" of the poem functions as an image that refracts the world. So the question this poses is if this theory applies to literature in English today, to Chinese-language literature today, and if the theory can be implemented as a writing method, or only read backwards?

[i] A collection of primarily French writers and mathematicians who write using constrained literary techniques.

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