Poetry Review: Lost Wax by Jonathan Stalling (Tinfish Press, 2016)

lost wax 0
Image via Tinfish Press

What we call language
Is not the sum total of our speech sounds
Nor their graphemic edges
But the negative space left in their wake.

– from “Introduction” (page 7)

What is translation and what does its process look like? These questions, and many others, are raised and answered, advertently and inadvertently, throughout Jonathan Stalling’s mesmerizing collaboration Lost Wax: Translations through the Void. It is a book flowing with hallucinatory relationships and kaleidoscopic modes of communication.

lost wax 2

The book, carrying roughly 80 pages of translated material, is dense but flighty in its resonance. For English readers (such as myself), the core text does not take very long to read: half of the text is English, and half of the text is Chinese. But here, Stalling provides a puzzle box capable of being approached, addressed, and understood by many types of readers. That you do or do not know English, do or do not know written Chinese, both has the potential to encourage the imagination, and has the potential to constrain the reader’s engagement all the same.

Amy with an attentive crack
Begins the excavation of wax
A warm chick still slumbering within the crumbling calcium
Of its first home

Amy carefully
Cracks a groove in the wax
A warm bird still nestled in broken-up calcium
Its first home

– (page 58)

But what of the book itself? What is it and why has it been created? Slightly mysterious, the opening of the book provides some insight into the narrative of the artists working through their own text, which started with clay and moved into wax and bronze formations. A taste (but not thoroughly so) of the process, as it’s described in the book’s introduction:

The “clay” poem was composed in 2009; over a period of five years the lost wax poem made its way into the skilled hands of many translators, who had signed up for one to multiple shifts of four hours with some logging many shifts (especially Zhou Yu who did the first “pour” into Chinese).

– from “The Foundry” (page 9)

Primary author Jonathan Stalling starts off with clay, an image that becomes the perfect collaborative image, the metaphor to carry the process of linguistic transfer. Imagine pulling and pushing your clay, using your energy to define its shape and purpose. Imagine creating the mold of your work with the wax, to define a home for future bronze pours. Imagine the clay, wax, and bronze that is left over after the intended product is completed. What does that “negation” say? Stalling’s book is about that view, about understanding all of the above, and more:

What emerges from the mold (translation) is a totally new substance (wax, bronze), but one shaped/constrained by the previous form (or its precise absence). Also we see how radically different translation is from literary translation, as former conditions only inherit the conditions of the mold, but the later must pass through the volitional hands of foundry technicians, who shape the material into sculpture.

– from “The Translations (Wax and Bronze)” (page 8)

It’s hard to describe further what Jonathan means exactly without providing the entire introduction here, which I will not do. I will say the following: the foundry technicians are represented in the form of a super group of translators. We have the poetic genius of Zhou Yu, Yao Benbiao, Nick Admussen, Jennifer Feeley, Lucas Klein, Jami Proctor-Xu, Eleanor Goodman, and Andrea Lingenfelter here, actively working through literary works, individual poems (or poetic units) that make up the book as a whole.

lost wax 3

A fascinating landscape as reminiscent of a group notebook as a “Track Changes” display in Microsoft Word, Lost Wax appears on the page in the following format: English text, Chinese translation, English revision to begin, with color-coded morphs and edits to follow. The exact process of how the language moved from translator to translator, from technician to technician, is vague, which I think is intentionally so, to open up for a translational interpretation (to seal the deal of the book, so to speak).

The wax follows
The vacated meridians
Through the emptied viscera of arms
Into the curved arch of fingers
Gently bent across the dream of bees

Soon comes the paraffin
From the hollowed crown
Through the gutted viscera of arms
Reaching into curved fingers
Lightly sweetening the dreams of bees

– (page 52)

Moving from line to line, the reader has the potential to witness incredibly minute evolutions in the text, subtle and precise inspections. How the translations are worked, and to what ends the edits are made, is where the text gets a bit messy. At times the book looks like it is trying to make the text more personal, and at other times there is a dissonance toward the abstract, toward bluntly (and intellectually) poetic. Some moments bringing in personal pronouns in the revision of the English appears to be the largest change in the individual instances of a poem. In other moments, more or less specific vocabulary appears to be the primary difference.

lost wax 1

Moving from poem to poem, curiosity strikes me: is the primary goal of this book to bring us toward an understanding of the nuances of multilingual and multi-personal translation? Is this just an editor’s paradise to see how the process of a significant body of learned, engaged writers see the shape of a work? If there some collective meaning across the pages? By the end of the book, I hoped for commentary. I hope for more “meta.” An afterward from or an interview between the technicians. But in its absence, I was left with my own thoughts and theories (and a drive to learn some Chinese) in hopes of getting towards an understanding of what the core meaning of “lost wax” really is.

You can read more about Lost Wax and/or acquire a copy here.

Submit a comment