The Mind Dancing, poems by Tony Zurlo (Nigeria 1962-64) with Art and Chinese calligraphy by Vivian Lu was published in 2009 by Plain View Press, Austin, Texas, (80 pages, $14.95) This collection of poems is reviewed here by John Givens (Korea 1967-69)
A problem faces the poet who wishes to write about a culture not his own: how fully should you occupy its experiences and expectations? You can accept the advantages and limitations of being an outsider and describe what you observe objectively; or you can attempt to mimic the stance of an insider in order to generate a “truer” sense of what it feels like to be there. When the culture in question is China’s, with its ancient and well-known poetic forms and traditions, the task becomes like that faced by a translator: phrases characteristic of one language won’t have equivalencies in another. You can try for a literal word-for-word rendering, perhaps with footnotes to clarify matters; or you can devise cultural approximations even if these carry little resemblance to the original. In other words, when writing about China, how “Chinese” should you make it?
In The Mind Dancing, Tony Zurlo has chosen to address Chinese subjects from a distinctly Western perspective. This has obvious benefits: we are on familiar ground here. In the opening section of the book, a poem entitled “Dao: The Eternal One” begins: “Dawn sheds her night clothes / ands bathes in snow-melt brooks.” The use of such personification is distinctly Western and even feels a little old-fashioned although it may help make more accessible slippery tropes associated with Taoism, particularly for the reader who is not familiar with such concepts. Another poem, “Household Disharmony,” addresses the sage Confucius in the manner of a humorous letter written by a hen-pecked husband to an advice column in a newspaper: “My home I try to control, but my wife says / she’s quite smart enough to think for herself…. and if I keep talking about Yin-Yang, / she’s going to yin my yang.” It’s lighthearted and amusing, certainly, but not particularly Chinese. The question is, should it be?
“Roots,” the opening portion of The Mind Dancing, addresses familiar Chinese cultural topics such as the Tao, Lao Zi (aka Lao Tsu) and the Buddha from a distance while the middle section of the book, “Discovery,” deals more with what feels like lived experience. “Tracking Stillness” begins: “Above rain-soaked plains / pilgrims trek up hillside paths.” This poem, and the ones following it, show the poet engaging with China directly. Throughout this section there is a sense of reportage: “I watched a river of boats, / fishermen tossing nets, / oxen pulling ploughs.” A later poem entitled “Foreigner in the Street” by the author’s wife, Vivian Lu is answered by Zurlo’s response so that again, the reader feels the authenticity of the exchange. The third and final section of the book, “Separation,” carries a sense of looking back at an experience, somewhat nostalgically at times: “I imagine you walking home at night, / staring into the windows of my old room, / lured by the gravity of emptiness.” The poet’s wife is the subject of at least some of these poems. “A Simple Conversation,” begins “I talk to you everyday- [sic] / a simple conversation / about roses and gardens / dandelions in the grass // should we plant wild flowers / on the hill? run ivy up the stairs?” It’s a lovely idea, and it points out one of the real strengths of the book: the poet’s genuine affection for his wife and her country of origin.
Vivian Lu is an important presence in this book: the poet’s wife, muse, illustrator, and correspondent, the inclusion of her Chinese calligraphy and Western-style illustrations enhance the overall bicultural tone of the book.
John Givens (Korea 1967-69) has written fiction and non-fiction about Japan and Ireland. A sequence of “Japanese” poems will be included in a forthcoming anthology of international poets writing about Ireland published by University College Dublin. Givens’ novels are Sons of the Pioneers, A Friend in the Police, and Living Alone. He is currently finishing The Plantain Manner, a long novel about 17th century Japan.