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Reviewed by:
  • The Borderlands of Asia: Culture, Place, Poetry ed. by Mark Bender
  • Anna Stirr (bio)
Mark Bender, editor. The Borderlands of Asia: Culture, Place, Poetry. Amherst, NY: Cambria Press, 2017. xxii, 370 pp. Hardcover $119.99, isbn 978-1-60497-976-3.

Mark Bender’s edited collection of translated poetry brings us the words and perspectives of poets on the peripheries of Asian nation-states, at once deeply rooted in local environments and idioms, and disproportionately affected by political and environmental change. With poems from established and upcoming authors and a thematic focus on poetic expressions of place and “place-competence,” the collection includes voices from northeast India, Myanmar, Mongolia, and some of the borderland regions of China: the southwestern provinces, Qinghai, Gansu, and Inner Mongolia. Bender’s detailed Introduction provides historical background on the political situation and the situation of poetry in each of the regions from which poems are included. While the choice of regions to include clearly stems from the editor’s own connections and focus on China, the place-oriented themes in the poetry will complement those in other regions as well. If anything unites borderlands within Asia, it may be these themes of rootedness interacting with [End Page 142] environmental and political-economic precarity. These incisive poems bring the concerns of these poets and their regions to us with clarity and feeling.

Bender is a scholar of Chinese folklore who first became interested in the poets of the borderlands of southwestern China, then branched out to “other cultural, geographical, and state-demarcated borderlands” (p. xviii) in western and northern China, as well as northeast India and the river valleys of northern Myanmar. He became especially intrigued by the themes he encountered that resonated across geographical and cultural distance: passionately political yet personal poetry, grounded in local ecological niches, rooting lives in the places in which they are lived, connecting outwards to others experiencing environmental and cultural change (p. xix). As Bender notes, the poems “bear witness” to the human-led changes occurring perhaps most visibly in the mountains, steppes, and riverine environments once conceived of as remote, inaccessible, and of lesser consequence than the urban centers (p. 2). He rightly states that “the complex history of origins, migrations, and settlements of the diverse, place-competent peoples of the Eastern Himalayas, Southeast Asia, and East Asian steppes makes the term indigenous problematic” (p. 21). Yet Bender sees indigenous scholars’ work as useful in interpreting the voices of these “place-competent peoples,” and draws on Chadwick Allen’s use of juxtapositions between varied rooted cosmopolitical perspectives across locales, to highlight shared themes and responses to contemporary social dynamics (pp. 20–21). The volume aims to bring voices from such places to the center of readers’ consciousness.

In addition to an emphasis on landscape, lived reality of environmental change, and often-brutal interactions with state forces, the issue of language looms large in this volume. The translation of all the poems into English necessarily hides the diversity of languages used by the poets included here; we do not get to experience their different scripts and sounds. Yet the volume does not wholly forego specificity for the sake of broader accessibility. The translators ensure that the poems are brought into English in vibrant, rhythmic, musical language that gives an idea of the various poets’ individual styles. Furthermore, many of the poems mix local languages and broader transregional “languages of interaction,” most prominently Chinese. The translators of these poems aim to retain the feeling of local specificity and strangeness to the reader in the “language of interaction” that is brought by linguistic unfamiliarity. For example, in the case of the poems of Jjinuo Dazzi, translators Kaitlin Banfill and Lama Itzot leave words in the Nuoso Yi language untranslated, rendering the Chinese into English and providing definitions and explanations for the untranslated words after each poem (pp. 206–208); Lama Itzot does this in his own poems as well (pp. 209–220). Likewise, Ch. Sheelaramani, translating Nee Devi’s poem “Tracing the Footprints” from Manipuri, leaves the name of a flower, takhelei, in Manipuri, providing a note [End Page 143] that explains this flower’s importance in local culture (p...


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