On Yu Jian’s “Afternoon A Colleague Walking in Shadow”
Afternoon A Colleague Walking in Shadow
this afternoon, in an old room, I read a letter from Oregon
I first came across Yu Jian’s work in the early 1990s, and was struck mainly by its down-to-earth quality. Maybe that’s the impression other readers of his work also have. And yet, Yu Jian has his frankly mysterious side. He has written on the shamanic dances of the dongba, a kind of sorcerer figure in Naxi culture. When he visited Australia in 2001, he was so enchanted by Uluru (an enormous red rock hidden away in the “red centre” of the country) that we made the 9 kilometre walk around the rock twice in two days!
In “Afternoon”, we are dealing with a highly unusual experience: the act of reading the letter inspires a brief and enigmatic vision of the poet’s acquaintance. The mystery is, however, approached in characteristic Yu Jian fashion: long, prose-like lines that aim to “capture” the experience as objectively as possible. We are given a place, a time of day, the basic facets of what the poet saw, but no emotional response, and no speculation on the significance of what happened. In translating the poem, I had to get that same objectivity, even at the risk of making the central core of the poem seem something negligible, something merely “imaginative”.
I recently had my second experience of “sleep paralysis”, a condition that entails waking up in a state of heightened consciousness but being completely unable to move. When I tried to write about it, it was the intensity and weirdness of the experience that I wanted to convey. I’m afraid I lack Yu Jian’s sobriety. I once wrote to him, asking for more details about what he describes in “Afternoon A Colleague Walking in Shadow”, but he refused to oblige. It would seem that he simply wishes to place on record a statement of what happened. As a translator, all I can do is to extend accessibility of this statement to English-language- readers. As to the question of what the experience actually means, I’m afraid I can provide no additional information; but we are allowed to conclude, I think, that there are instants in life that respect none of the well-worn descriptions we sketch of it, and allow a glimpse of a bigger and a more awesome picture.