Hoarfrost & Solace
by Fan Wu
Reviewed by Terry Trowbridge
As the Covid-19 pandemic drags on, those of us who have been active in organized literary events in the poetry scene of Toronto, Canada, must find ways to create continuity for our work (or else we must decide if the pandemic has given us reason to cease some of our organizing work). Social distancing rules and lockdowns of public space mean that when the pandemic is over, our literary community will look very different. Many Toronto poets who maintain public poetry venues are losing their apartments, moving to different cities to be with family, and changing careers. Our libraries now contain a gap when we do not accumulate books, chapbooks, pamphlets, as audience members. A stratum has formed across all of Canada, but found in our libraries, wherein books are not traceable to our urban geography. Our dispossession from apartments and employment means downsizing, reorganizing, sorting by private personal experiences just as much as by cultural or anthropological bibliography. Although, to be clear, as poetry reading organizers and book launchers, our libraries have always been organized by cultural geography and personal experience; because we make Toronto’s cultural geography and then buy books where we make it.
Now we are in a crisis. We might need to decide which books are pre-pandemic, and which we can take with us into the post-pandemic. Possibly, the book reviews we write now will help determine what stays relevant, dynamic literature with ongoing interpretations, noticeably fluent with future meanings. What we do not take time to reread and review, we might be consigning to literary history; not literature anymore but just artifact referents in memories, incrementally forgettable details, noticed only when we remember pre-pandemic life, but no longer the books themselves contributing to the meanings we make. The book reviews we write now, in crisis, can be like little rescue rafts for the books we want to survive, and since we might die from Covid, or be left with brain fog and memory loss, vision loss, and other losses, book reviews are a statement of what is important about literature.
In 2017 I bought a chapbook of eighth- and ninth-century Chinese Tang Dynasty poems in translation by Fan Wu titled, Hoarfrost & Solace, published by espresso books (Fan, 2016a). I was delighted to see translation work done by people who I met at poetry readings, as well as people who were browsing the same bookstores on Bloor Street, Danforth, Ronscesvalles, Church Street, and Queen Street. I was especially excited to see translations being published by small presses. I was training to be a sociolegal scholar, and in my pedantic way, I believe that the legitimacy of Canada's constitutionally entrenched legal regime of multiculturalism depends, in a deeply defining social level, on at least one generation of living Canadian writers who can devote part of their energy to ongoing translation projects.
I think that in order to justify multiculturalism as a constitutional component of rights and freedoms, Canada requires a literate constituency whose ethos to self-govern is informed by treating the literature of different times and peoples as though that literature is as accessible as the opinions of a close friend or confidante or teacher. And, the learning of languages being always contested by ambivalent (example: Bouchard, 2015) or critical (example: Malek, 2014), Canadian publics, we rely on translators to make multicultural meanings possible. Such literature should be read aloud to family at bedtime, used for occasional comparisons in school, and freely given and received as gifts. For example, a poetry chapbook fits perfectly in a Canada Post mailbox slot and costs about 2 stamps to send. Translating poetry is therefore an art; but also, a vehicle for making multicultural communities, and therefore more just, multicultural reality (for some more rigorously theoretically dense inspiration, see also: Clarkson, 2014, 117-145; Geertz, 2000a, 94-120, 2000b, 255-310; Powe, 1996, 2006).
I met Fan Wu at a couple poetry readings in downtown Toronto, in the shared territory of students from Ryerson and the University of Toronto who crisscross neighbourhoods between classes like so many streetcar cables. Although we are not, by any means, familiar with each other, we did attend the same poetry events, including Art Bar (Costa, et al., 2022), Draft (Edding et al., 2022), Shab-e She’r (Zan, 2022), Slackline Creative Arts Series (Hoskins et al., 2018), and The Tartan Turban (Bhatt and Barrett, 2022); and we seemed to coexist in the same bookstore aisles of Glad Day (see: Glad Day, 2022), BMV, and She Said Boom.
For me, in 2017, that meant that Hoarfrost & Solace was an example of translation work being done by someone I could place nearby, who was generating parallel, contemporary culture. Fan Wu, as a translator of poetry from hundreds of years and thousands of miles away, was someone I could, at least, reference in my own meaning-making when I discussed Toronto as a city that perpetuates meanings and culture across space and time. Hoarfrost & Solace was important for me to purchase. Hopefully, this review can show it is worthwhile for anyone else to obtain, still, despite being written a few years before the pandemic.
Fan Wu joins contemporary Canadian translator poets who translate their own, or other poets’ work, like (to name a few): Meena Chopra, (Chopra, 2015, 2018), Pat Connors (Connors, 2017), Natasha Fontaine and Howard Scott (Fontaine and Scott, 2016), Khashayar Mohammadi (Mohammadi, 2018, 2019, 2021, 2022), Gianna Patriarca (Patriarca, 2013), Emilio Puerta (Puerta, 2018), Archna Sahni (Sahni, 2018), Jozsef Szabo (Szabo, 2013-2021, 2021), Banoo Zan (Zan, 2016, 2017). Poets around the Greater Toronto Area are establishing a generation of work that helps to define Canada’s multiculturalism by extending what Benedict Anderson calls an “imagined community” (Anderson, 2006), to include translation as a recognizably necessary component of Canadian literary culture.
Fan Wu's Hoarfrost is the first book of Tang poetry that will sit my shelf along with a Penguin Books collection of Poems from the Late T’ang (Graham, 1977). I imagine that for many of Fan Wu’s Canadian readers, Hoarfrost will be their first collection. By now, Canadians are used to complaints scholars, as well as ordinary people, have about Penguin translations being an unjustly colonial collective introduction to Asian literatures (see: Said, 1994). Therefore, it is good to see a local writer with some authority on the subject offer an alternative.
Wu shows us the original poem, then follows with 3 alternative translations. Because of the differences in grammar, symbolism, and context, I don't think we need to dwell on which version is the most lexically accurate; which version wanders away from the original to give us the most contemporary symbols, etc. I would prefer to say that this book is beautiful. It is.
This book also wakes up the latent Canadian Studies teaching assistant in me. Fan Wu is contributing to solving some problems of identity that Canadians can only resolve by restocking the shelves of our public libraries and spending some afternoons reading and writing. Tentatively, as an outsider, I see Hoarfrost gives us three ways for Canadians to imagine themselves into Chinese-Canadian culture. Fan Wu, being a Comparative Literature scholar, might disagree. If so, then I hope I am being overenthusiastic rather than oversimple.
In this paragraph, I admit that I am going to unfairly overstate Fan Wu's ability to stand in for spanning an entire cultural gap. As someone who's spent time workshopping the reasons for our government's literary and cultural policies with undergraduate students of Canadian history and culture, please bear with my public policy wish list with an open mind. We, English-speakers or Chinese-and-English speakers, ought to access the symbols and the imagery of Chinese poems, at least on an aesthetic level. This access is important beyond our isolated enjoyment. Our longstanding unjust immigration regime had forged lopsided legal and political cultures that exploited Chinese immigration for the 19th and 20th centuries’ economic development. Canada stands poised to repeat this pattern after the pandemic. We must not allow ourselves to be economic reductionists who encounter Chinese culture only as foreign, food, or a placeholder for transnational corporate power. Hoarfrost is manageably small, rich in imagery, and therefore the kind of poetry project that can resist a neoliberal ideological version of Chinese-Canadian identity.
Chinese cultural history is overlooked by dominant Canadian narratives. It has been long-established as a dynamic part of Canadian culture, revealed by Canadian state authorities to be present as an outlaw culture (see: hooks, 1994; Powe, 1996). There have been pressures of racism (Francis, 2005, 79), ethnocentrism (Authers, 2016, 3-28), and historically a legal regime with a tendency to marginalize Chinese cultural production in enclaves with criminal penalties for engaging with ostensibly vulnerable persons (Backhouse, 2010, 132-172). Canada’s relationship with Chinese-Canadian reality will be unfair and shallow, if we fail to promote local writers who create Chinese culture here-and-now. Canadians would do ourselves a great disservice, too, if we failed to promote the writers in our community who connect us to the Chinese writers of the past. We must find a place for compulsory and elective reading of books like Fan Wu's translations in high school classes, or just as adult reading material.
Canadians used to structure their multiculturalism in a way that separated each culture, and erased mixed heritage. For example, Andrew Chung, a Canadian with mixed heritage from Hong Kong and Newfoundland, referred to this separation and erasure as “eracism” (Chung, 2007, 300-310). Now, and after the pandemic has demonstrated our interconnectedness, Canadians must live more truthfully by acknowledging that Canadian history is not defined by Canadian borders that consolidate all diversity under the aegis of one dominant culture. The more truthful reality is that Canadian history is from anywhere a person comes from. People bring histories with them, in order to inform their lives here in Canada. Therefore, every Canadian has a social stake in acknowledging not just the image of heritage, but the stories of each other’s cultural past. We can interpellate ourselves into a small piece of Chinese literary history, at least in the sense that we choose to be readers who expand Canadian literature’s historical roots to include Chinese writers. Fan Wu is generous enough to give us some Chinese literature, and we should make use of it.
I do not think I am stretching how much these poems are also written as contemporary Canadian artwork. Fan Wu tells us, "My own translations might be called free improvisations; or variations upon a latticework of themes; or experiments in rearranged prismatic perspective, as though each poem were viewed from three distinct vantage points" (2016b). Each version is contemporary and original. Yet, based on original writing from a millennium ago, why shouldn't we claim that our contemporary writers are inspired by Tang poetry, and have a direct cultural connection to their history? By being translated, we can say that these Tang poets are not being appropriated by CanLit poets, but rather those poets are now part of our Canadian literary imagination. The colonial editors at Penguin can be, in this way, challenged for their publishing supremacy by the editors at espresso books. We don't need a colonial translation. We need a dynamic, current, living imaginary, for our dynamic, current, transnational society.
 A Canadian poetry reader might never think about Canadian poets and poetry chapbooks as “professional” but, I would argue, if they did, then I could say that I have only a glancing handshake professional acquaintance with Fan Wu, and I am clueless about Fan Wu and what Catherine Owen calls “the other 23½ hours” (Owen, 2015).
 Sahni’s collection of poems Another Nirvana is included in this list because the endnotes (Sahni, 2018, 81), include details that strongly suggest her writing process is to compose poetry bilingually, and that in fact poems that reflect her internal writing would look much different untranslated than they do translated and on the page. Sahni’s poems are sometimes bilingual on the page, but in-translation in her writing process, at least insofar as I infer from her endnotes. Maybe this footnote of mine requires its own essay. I am not a linguist, and I am a clumsily monoglot anglophone Lake Ontario dialect speaker. Listing Archna Sahni as a poet-translator is somewhat testing the limits of translation’s art form, in a way that listing Chopra or Mohammadi is not.
The argument I am making is that the quasi-cliché “imagined communities” of Benedict Anderson are empowered by Canada’s multiculturalism, if only we Canadians decide to engage with each other’s work. For most of the world’s common law jurisdictions, multiculturalism is a philosophy that may, or may not, guide public policy (Modood, 2013). In most common law countries, multiculturalism may, or may not, appear in society. In Canada’s Charter of Rights and Freedoms, however, multiculturalism is a responsibility of the state, to be always available to Canadians in order to facilitate how they imagine their communities, and what communities could be transformed from imaginary futures into a real present. And I think that can lead to a more just society, through something like Leanne Betasamosake Simpson’s claim that in Indigenous Anishinaabeg law and society,
Anishinaabeg law is one of the plural systems incorporated, although often silenced and subsumed, into Canada’s Charter (Borrows, 2012, 2016), and Fan Wu was demonstrating a way to live in a more just society by taking the time to translate Chinese poems from Chinese History; by participating in poetry readings and interviews that made the poems and the translation process part of Canada’s contemporary story telling society. We also extend that social justice further by reading Fan Wu’s translations and writing response essays to them. For observers of Canada’s culture industry, either in government, academia, or private industry, maybe by selling Fan Wu’s translations online, the small press publishers espresso books piggybacks e-commerce, to put the potential for international dialogue into a very modest corner of our country’s trade.
The more that Fan Wu performs in public literary events, publishes translations, and engages Canadians, the more we can reinforce that his translations are examples of what we ought to be doing. They are not merely poems that we should read, but they are examples of translation as an activity that perpetuates culturally pluralist imaginaries. The opportunities for translations, and readers of translations, sets us apart from all previous generations of Canadians. While translator-poets like (for example): Robert Melancon and Judith Cowan (2013), or Marc di Saverio (2017), are reinvigorating English Canada's potential for our traditional Anglophone-Francophone bilingual society, Fan Wu is helping to set us up for the next few decades of transnational culture.
Enough public policy talk. What points to the reason Hoarfrost ought to survive pandemic and continue to find its way to audiences?
Some content analysis
The content of Hoarfrost & Solace is utterly disconnected from the burgeoning urban sprawl that geographically encapsulates Canadian cultural industries and the book fair tables or poetry readings where a limited edition of 150 chapbooks are sold by hand. Each poem’s surface meaning is emotion evoked by forests, remote escarpments unpenetrated by commuter vehicles, lonely humans whose horizons do not include lit condominium windows nor whose includes the smells of distant commuter traffic. If Fan Wu’s translations, or at least selected poems for translation, are supposed to evoke ordinary emotions of a typical routine, then Hoarfrost & Solace is superficially a work of fiction. Even though Canada the Geography is composed of places that look like Hoarfrost’s poems, Canada the Society is decidedly not. If the emotions in the poems are only evoked by walking through wilderness, absent intrusion by postmodern technologies, then for most of Canada’s society, the emotions are practically inaccessible even driving between urbanized and suburban enclaves. Canadians can still walk a rural road without hearing a car or seeing ambient streetlight, but for the vast majority of Canadians, to do so requires planning a road trip, budgeting the fuel (that makes poetry readings in Petawawa or Timmins financially untenable, even with government funding added to chapbook hand sales), and expectations of disconnection from their routines.
Anglophone readers are likely to intuitively recognize Hoarfrost & Solace as synecdoche for nature & mind. From the perspective of Canada’s English tradition, Fan Wu is therefore an expert poet of the “romantic sublime” (Spender, 1962; Weiskel, 1986). That is an intuition which might benefit Canadian’s self-knowledge. A Penguin edition of Tang poetry is basically a university textbook, reifying and objectifying the poems inside with Penguin’s institutionalized imprimatur. However, a reader reintroduced to Tang poetry by Fan Wu has an opportunity to be struck by how alienated they are from the geotemporality of Canada’s emotional presence.
The nature imagery is serene, meditative, and communicates the hugeness of sky. Fan Wu communicates how our bodies respond to the immanent presence of weather. There are, also, among the images of skyward expanses that frame kitchen table realities, nods toward the conflicts of lovers and their absent beloveds. A few of the translations can be compared to Ovid and Susan Musgrave in their dangerous connotations, or Sappho and Lorna Crozier in their feelings of longing for lovers in commonplace settings, or Shakespeare and Irving Layton in their supernatural allusions: "Hyacinth boy, nude astride the moon in water...he fashions a set of wings attuned to abandonment" (23). And there are some echoes of our current debates about sexuality, power, and how we learn to appraise the relationships we have, "Like lightning and disaster, he begins to learn how to disregard the loneliness of men" (Ibid.). Fan Wu’s insistence on parsimony is strictly disciplined, whereas his poetic narratives focus on undisciplined emotions that receive analogies after analogies, contrasting sublime realizations with the lonesome frustrations that are the consequences of unclosed distances embodied in a person who measures time using their own footsteps as units of measurement.
Fan Wu’s “Notes on the Text” (33-34), explains that each Tang poem has been translated into “free improvisations; or variations upon a latticework of themes; or experiments in rearranged prismatic perspective” (33), and in these descriptions Fan Wu embraces a kind of translating reminiscent of Jozsef Szabo’s translations of Hungarian poetry (Szabo, 2021), complete with intriguing use of English punctuation. For example, geography plays a role in Fan Wu’s use of m-dash and slash in “Displacement” (27), in the lines,
Those lines are not necessarily evident in the original Tang writing. Their meanings, though, as both the superficial syntax and the deep hermeneutic meanings about friendship and geography, could be revealed in the Tang text (original by Li Bai) only in Fan Wu’s semantics.
The poem “Desolation” which follows (28), exposes urban sprawl as a caging of human society rather than expansion of human potential, “we grew together/mountainlocked & this/moat of white foam/marooning us into the city” (Ibid.). Reading backward, Fan Wu’s variation on Du Fu’s poem “Dream Ruver (for Li Bai)” (15) begins, “Heaven’s net they call it,/all fiberglass & calamity/it cuts you to bits. You/carry the North’s/returning light:” (16) reveals that Fan Wu’s selection and arrangement of poems is building a narrative of the urbanite experience of interpersonal relationships that must be described in images of the non-urban.
Most of these poems evoke direct, concrete images. There is one fragment, two sentences long, that I find stunning in its intricacy. It is one of the best responses to the Socratic philosophers who might claim that philosophy has to be a dialogue. Fan Wu vindicates our proud Canadian tradition of walking into the woods alone to think (like Fred Penner, Al Purdy, Pierre Trudeau). This is very much also a mundane moment that resonates with walking or driving Canadian geographical features like the Niagara Escarpment, Bruce Trail, or Manitoulin Island:
Fan Wu’s two sentences belong next to Emily Dickinson’s. The poem, which goes on with more ambiguous nature imagery, is open-ended, but I don't think it is innately postmodern, or vague. I think Fan Wu might just be a better modernist transcendental writer than many in the last two centuries. He is a naturalist rather than an absurdist. Or, at least, what Fan Wu found in the Tang poems were fragments of a vast country, elemental powers, and imposing landscapes, but never despair. He gives us poets without fear of loneliness, and demonstrates how the reader should have confidence to examine desire through the lens of a translator.
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Terry Trowbridge is a PhD candidate in Socio-Legal Studies who is spending the pandemic isolated and vaccinated as a plum farmer on the shore of Lake Ontario. His chapbook reviews have appeared in Hamilton Arts & Letters, Studies in Social Justice, and Episteme.