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Reviewed by:
  • The Edge of the Island by Chen Li
  • Norbert Francis (bio)
Chen Li. The Edge of the Island, poems translated by Chang Fen-ling. Taipei: Bookman Books Ltd., 2014. 255 pp. Paperback $6.60, ISBN 978-957-445-585-0.

Experimental art forms always present a challenge to our theory; poetry is no exception. Such is the case, for example, in genres that combine symbolic systems in ways that recast conventions and expectations. In the poems that we [End Page 45] will examine the combining systems are linguistic and graphic. As a field of study now, poetics has to, in one way or another, come to terms with the new creative frameworks that poets propose to us, so to speak, when we study their work.

Following Lee and Chan's recent review of the English version of The Edge of the Island,1 I will also mainly focus on the cross-language implications of the author's more recent work, in particular on four of the concrete poems included in this collection. Among other artistic features, in their review these bilingual aspects of the anthology are interesting because the experimental poems were not translated to English. Then directly relevant to the topic in this review is the title of the author's appendix: "Travelling between languages," theme which is continued in the translator's notes (pp. 247–255).

Concrete ("visual") poetry has a long history. In modern times perhaps the most memorable experiments can be traced to the Russian Futurists, the work on this "bi-modal" art form by Vasily Kamensky in particular. It was part of a broader movement of theorizing and testing the limits in the arts, reflected for example in the interest of poets of the time in Cubism. They asked what verbal art might learn from the fields of modern painting and sculpture. Following up on this question, writers looked to musical expression and musical perception as a model for understanding essential qualities.2

Chen Li's visual verses present us with a chance to look back on this poetic tradition, and then ask a related question: How do the singular design features of the Chinese writing system bring the problems of studying concrete poetry forward to our attention again? This is the opportunity that is presented to us in the present collection and by other poets from East Asia who have taken advantage of the same exceptional resources of the character orthography. In a previous study, Lee surveyed the field to give us an overview of this movement.3 In particular, it is the iconicity of some Chinese characters (limited to a small subset) that allow for the opportunity. Even though identifiably iconic characters represent a very small percentage, a vestige of the ancient origins of characters and radicals, artists are nevertheless able to exploit this feature for aesthetic effect, for example, by even introducing iconic properties into a text, work of art, where none apparently existed before. In part this is possible because only morphosyllabic character systems (hànzì/kanji, 漢字, in China and in Japan) directly represent morphemes. Even given the marginal participation of iconicity in the system as a whole, the unambiguous cases appear prominently, visibly, to the literate speaker of the language.

Lee and Chan approach the questions of cross-language interaction from the vantage point of translation and meaning. This review will follow up on their analysis to examine the concrete poems more from the point of view of the patterns of language, writing, and graphic scheme, one perhaps that would [End Page 46] have been of interest to the Futurists because of the collaboration during the early years with their Formalist colleagues in St. Petersburg and Moscow.

In the following examples, we can try to mentally picture the patterns of language as they are combined with the visual patterns. To "picture" is the idea here, because of the hybrid form: language embedded in a graphic array.


This poem displays lines of characters, radicals, strokes, and orthographic marks in rows successively transforming each set of rows by systematic reduction. The character for "white," or "clear" 白 [bái] is reduced, for poetic purposes, to "sun," or "day" 日 [rì] to...


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