Zhou, Nick On
Smith/Doorstop Books, 2020 £6.00
Translating the immigrant body
In traditional Chinese medicine, the stomach’s health is read on the surface of the tongue. But what about stomachs removed from their Chinese context? In Zhou, Nick On bypasses the mouth’s tongue, giving a man's ‘untranslated stomach’ a voice in his opening stanzas.
This speaking stomach recurs in themes of consumption and translation, along with all their meanings. On describes the consumption of food as ‘Fiddlehead ferns fried in butter’, of culture as ‘lines from lovely felt-tip pens’, of labour as ‘Human flesh on the market bench.’ The blending of types of consumption is common to many immigrants and their colonial contexts, in which extractive capitalism deprives people of their ancestral sustenance, a loss lamented in song and poetry.
On demonstrates three types of translation: the rewriting of the Chinese name ‘Zhou’ to the English ‘Joe,’ the journey of Zhou/Joe from East to West, and the translation of DNA to RNA — gene expression, also known as inheritance.
That we are copies of our ancestors is implied on the first page, where a photo of a man — blazer, tie, pen ready to strike — is captioned by two names (the dates of birth and death correspond to the grandfather and father in the poems). The poet complicates this concept later with six sonnets titled ‘Ghosts,’ which transform in each iteration with variant line breaks and lengths, like mutating chromosomes.
One poem doesn’t concern Zhou/Joe or his descendants. ‘Dr. Wellington Koo’ snapshots the statesman who, between stints as China’s acting premier and UN judge at The Hague, served as ambassador to the UK. At a banquet, an Englishwoman asks, ‘You like-y soup-y?’. It is only after Koo delivers a speech ‘in perfect English’ that the reader turns the page and sees an alternative, wished-for reality, which I’ll call esprit de papier: Koo replying, ‘You like-y speech-y?’ In this playful and painful poem, On captures the conundrum of even the most privileged immigrant: that while trying to consume what he needs to survive, the immigrant remains an object of consumption, his body a text which others read and translate.
Poems that talk
These poems talk. They talk with each other, with other poems and they talk to me.
Zhou is ‘one of the legendary Three Dynasties of ancient China’ and ‘the tenth most common surname in mainland China’, we’re told. A page of notes defines some words, gives references, placing some poems with their intertexts.
The shape of the poems, the different verse patterns and the italicised words, quotations and adapted words all draw the eye. On the contents page, the italicised list of subtitles for the ‘Fragments of Zhou’ sequence is itself poem-like.
The final part of ‘Fragments’ (‘he came as a conjurer’) brings an exotic image, though it speaks of change:
his capacious trunk contained
his conjuring equipment
his flowing robes of silk
his old opinions
Zhou, ‘the migrating magician’ on the ship is ‘like a bird in the clouds / once gone, gone’ (‘Canto I’), and:
When there is no way out dreams are needed.
Zhou dreamed he was a butterfly
and that butterfly was Zhou.
These italicised lines are adapted from two Li Po poems. I want to read more.
‘The Exceptional Zhou becomes the ordinary Joe’ at the journey’s end in ‘Canto II’. (The term ‘canto’ makes me think of Basil Bunting’s ‘On the Fly-Leaf of Pound’s Cantos’ (‘There are the Alps. What is there to say about them?’).
‘Pick a fern, said Pound, pick a fern’ is the first line of the first poem of ‘Ghosts’, the closing sequence of six poems. My favourite of these (‘2’) is a moving meditation: ‘How do you find the ordinary, individual man? / […] / How do you find this extraordinary, individual man?’ and this leads to poems that offer an answer. There’s also a neat drawing together of the pamphlet in ‘3’:
The little fingers of my father’s father
bent inwards from the top joint
and so with his
and so with mine
and so with all our progeny.
The lines above recall strong images in the opening poem (‘Yellow Bird’):
the yellow bird stops
on the paifang
to the Chinese Quarter
where the bend of his little finger
beckons me in
to gather watercress.
This pamphlet needs more OPOIs — I’ve hardly touched the surface.