I first became aware of Ian Boyden from a show he curated at the San Juan Islands Museum of Art, a small place located on a remote island in the Salish Sea, about as far northwest as one can get in the continental United States. The exhibition in question was Ai Wei Wei’s Fault Lines, presenting pieces from the artist’s investigation into the 2008 Wenchuan earthquake after the Chinese government refused to report how many children had died. One of the stunning artworks at this show was a massive wallpaper that covered an entire wing of the museum listing all 5,196 names of the students that died in the school collapse, along with their birthdays and ages. It’s these names that Ian Boyden uses as the seedlings and inspiration for A Forest of Names: 108 Meditations (Wesleyan University Press, 2020), which is simultaneously a work of translation and poetry.
Boyden’s restrained, specific, contemplative poems demand our respect. His unique perspective—as a poet, translator, artist, calligrapher, Buddhist—allows the reader to go beyond a simple translation of the names towards a deep sense of collective loss, the type of loss that inscribes itself into a culture and into a landscape.
These are more than just small elegies. To Boyden, a name is itself a living thing to be honored and upheld, and the dignity he gives each is what conveys this demand. He is asking us to look at these names and to meditate on them. Who named them? What were the hopes, ancestries, dreams, and fears that their families imbued into these names? What were these places in which they lived? There is the tricky task of translation here as well, as anyone who has ever struggled to describe an emotion in a foreign language knows that cultural context matters. Rather than ignore the limits of translation, he takes a poet’s approach, drawing from his own memory as well as a deep attention to place, knowing that a word is matter itself, capable of rearranging the world.
As a reader, I’ve long understood poetry to have a geography to it, not solely in what is described and transcribed in words, but in the fact that language itself is a discursive system that names and renames, marks and unmarks, masks and unmasks, emerging from a larger collective memory. An ecologist will tell you that a landscape is a set of relationships, a linguist will tell you the same about language. A poet will probably tell you everything is related to everything. But Boyden reminds us that an ecology is not simply a thing or artifact, it’s the relating to that matters. How can we relate to a name of someone we’ve never met?
Boyden understands that both landscapes and languages contain stories of violence, dispossession, struggle, and beauty, and that at our own peril we forget these histories. This is no small task. As we relearn our fragile interconnectedness to each other and our larger ecologies in the form of a pandemic, we also march in the streets chanting the names of those taken through state violence: George Floyd. Breonna Taylor. Trayvon Martin. Sandra Bland. Michael Brown. Eric Garner. We memorialize them on our tongues as a way to preserve their memory, because we refuse erasure and so we cannot forget.
As a poet, I’m drawn to the set of choices Boyden makes in form and imagery. Each small poem has to honor the dignity of entire lives. There are recurring images that reappear and new questions posed at unexpected points. He sometimes lets things shatter and fall apart, or turns everything upside down, just to make sure we’re really paying attention. By doing so, he stitches together a whole forest from these names, each one itself a small miracle of history—108 tiny diasporas of family, grief, geography, calamity, and chance.
The following is a discussion held over the course of many months, which began before COVID and evolved over time.
Joal Stein: Without summarizing it, what is your book about?
Ian Boyden: This book is an act to preserve or restore in some small way the inherent dignity we all share, and that unites us. Every language I know has a vast vocabulary created and refined by countless minds that strived to describe fundamental dignity and how to celebrate and protect it. You can see all of these arcs linking dignity to beauty, dignity to memory, dignity to equality, dignity to justice, dignity to rights. In every case, dignity implies a massive plurality, an infinite landscape that is nothing short of our world. Prior to writing this book, I had never understood dignity as a landscape, and yet that is what I saw in this list of 5,196 names of children killed in the Wenchuan earthquake. I felt the assault upon their dignity by the state as a blow to my own. To remain silent on this tragedy was to diminish myself.
At One with Copious Rain
One with parted cloud,
with leaf-drummed birdsong
of swirling vapor and swollen river,
one with fallen stone.
Now one with memory itself
in the delicate halls of language.
JS: I understand that this book was inspired by an exhibition you curated of work by Ai Weiwei. Could you share more about that experience and how it led to this particular book?
IB: In 2016, I curated an exhibition titled Ai Weiwei: Fault Line, in which I included three pieces Weiwei made in response to the Wenchuan earthquake. One of those pieces is titled “Names of the Student Earthquake Victims Found by the Citizen’s Investigation” (2008–2011). The piece consists of the names of 5,196 schoolchildren who were killed, their birthday, their gender, the school they attended, and what grade they were in. The list consisted of 21 pieces of paper that were ten-and-a-half feet tall and two feet wide. My instruction was to paste each piece of paper to the wall, side by side, so that they created a single wall of names 42 feet long.
The paper was delicate. To paste all 21 pieces to the wall took three full days of very careful work. And in the process, I passed my hand over every name. I began to read the names to my assistant. The museum was so quiet. She would ask me what a given name meant, and I would translate it. The names took on a new dimension as I said these translations aloud. They transcended being a number and a foreign sound.
Chinese names are often extraordinarily beautiful linguistic entities—Luminosity of Offering, Feather Snow, Lacquer Cosmos…. I wish I could fully convey what it felt like to utter those names into the silence of the museum as that wall came into being. As I spoke these names, I realized that there was a fourth piece to the exhibition, one that would cross the barrier of the museum walls, maybe even the typical role of the curator. I would translate a set of names each day that the exhibition was on display and make those translations public. As a curator and a human, I simply wanted to make these rather foreign-sounding names more accessible to my mostly non-Chinese speaking audience. I thought, if people could understand the meaning of the children’s names, it might make the tragedy of their death more real. By making these children more real, might we pay more attention to what it is we cherish and how we might protect it. That endeavor to make those children something more than just a number—so central to Ai Weiwei’s project—has never lessened throughout the writing of these poems.
Something extraordinary happened. In the process of translating the names, I began to see a landscape emerge in the collective of names, a landscape that I had never really known existed. Of all collective human projects, very few rival the creation of a language. The process is so slow, thousands of years, untold numbers of minds, each born into this world, each perceiving this world in its own way, each uttering a set of sounds to try and describe what they perceive, their external and internal conditions, their hopes, dreams, the vast array of emotions, pain, suffering, delight, hunger, desire. One by one by one. Minds rising up out of the earth and subsiding back into it, each leaving its small trace in language. Until after a while that language, whatever language it is—Chinese, English, Tlingit, Nahuatl—becomes recognizable as a condition itself into which we are born and which shapes the way our minds function, shapes the very way we perceive our world. That is the essence of culture, and an exquisite manifestation of our oneness and interdependency.
JS: How long has this project been ongoing and how has it evolved?
IB: Originally, the project was just going to last three months, the duration of the exhibition. But after a few weeks, I knew that I needed to do it for the cycle of an entire year. Ai Weiwei is very active on Twitter, and at that time, each day he would tweet the names of the children whose birthday it was. The tweet would read something like:
July 2. Today is the birthday of three schoolchildren who were killed in the Wenchuan Earthquake, their names are: Tang Xin, Deng Min, and Xiong Yi.
Each morning, I would wake up, read the list of names released that day, and translate them. But I quickly found that in most cases it was extremely difficult to translate the names. It is remarkable how when a Chinese character is removed from most of its context, its potential meanings proliferate. My background in Chinese paleography roared to life. I read all the dictionary entries in a massive 13-volume dictionary that is the Chinese equivalent of the OED, and then read the compound words associated with each character. And then I began to study the etymology of each character, when it came into being and what its original meanings were. To capture the meaning of just one or two characters often involved writing out a whole sentence, or even a paragraph. And once I had that set of images and concepts I would then sit in meditation and compose a poem in my head. When I had finished sitting, I would write the poem down and tweet it to Weiwei. And this is why the poems in that original set are so short, they had to fit within the character limit set by Twitter, which at that time was 140 characters.
It took a few months to perfect the process. At the end of the year I had translated all of the names and had written 366 poems. I then spent a second year editing those poems, again doing so on the day of the child’s birthday. And ultimately, I edited it to its current form of 108 poems.
JS: What influences were you taking in while writing these meditations? What were you taking from your surroundings, environments, inner life, relationships and then reflecting back in these words?
IB: This book rose out of a pivotal time in my life, a time when I said No more, enough is enough. This is intolerable. These moments when we arrive at (or when we recognize) an existential limit are gifts. In my life, they have risen again and again, revealing a temperament of the self at that time, in particular a specific aspect of temperament. I think it is best described as a question—do I have the experience and strength to not acquiesce? When you say NO to an element of culture, especially to the mechanisms of power, the repercussions are severe. In my experience, these times of deep rebellion are often also followed by an unexpected opening. Often my life takes some new direction. These openings are like a field of flowers that suddenly blooms in a war. The poems in this book are one such flowering, and they took me completely by surprise.
JS: You have an interesting career also as a curator and artist — your poetry seems integrated with those as a component of a larger body of work, like branches from the same trunk, a poetic ecology. What is this larger body of work about? How does A Forest of Names fit into that ecology?
IB: If we are akin to trees, then A Forest of Names is the leafing of one year of Ian. Plus, a lot of raking.
The seemingly disparate nature of my work over the years forms a (somewhat) more coherent whole if you look at it from the ecological, or relational, questions my work engages. I am interested in how we relate to the environment, how we craft those relationships, and who we can become in the process of committing ourselves to a particular form of relating. It is important to note that the environment is not only the “natural” world, it also includes our human institutions, and the various abstractions we die for. We are our environment. So, ecology also embraces that most mysterious of questions: how do we relate to our self, if the self even exists?
The fundamental question I have explored in my work over the past 15 years or more is this: what causes the illusion of our separateness from the environment and from each other. And can art function as a counterargument, break down that illusion? In recent years, this investigation has taken many forms: site-specific installations in rivers, documentation of forest fires and interpreting those fires through a Buddhist lens, the making of self-portraits that I gave to the environment to consume and so forth. Again and again, I arrive at the same conclusion: we are our environment. What we do to the environment, we do to ourselves. The consequences of this pervasive illusion of separateness are extremely severe.
JS: When starting upon this book, I had in the back of my mind a quote from Anthony Burgess, who says that “Translation is not a matter of words only: it is a matter of making intelligible a whole culture.” You call these meditations, not translations. So, I want to begin by asking about your thoughts on translation as a poetic gesture: that it’s not “knowing what” but “knowing how.”
IB: I don’t know if there is such a thing as a whole culture. And translation will always fail if you approach it with a belief that it can be perfect or final. More often than not, translations just a few decades old feel terribly stilted, like a grotesque drawing. It’s not that they are or were bad, it is that conditions have changed. The fact is everything is in flow, language and the impetus to language, even an original text that appears to be solid and immutable—all of it is in flow. Written language is linear, concrete, it appears on a two-dimensional plane. It seems under these conditions it should be simple to translate it to another language. That apparent immutability is illusory. The fact is that written language is simply a window into an incredibly non-linear, fluid, and multi-dimensional world of our mind. John Berger observed “true translation is not a binary affair between two languages but a triangular affair. The third point of the triangle being what lay behind the words of the original text before it was written.” That third point is what we must translate.
It’s even more difficult than that. Each individual mind is like a knot in a giant web of some giant mind, being woven and unwoven in its weaving. If there is a god, she is a cosmic spider. I think a translation becomes successful when it begins to engage the state of tension of the original work. And in some cases, it can transcend the original because it can introduce something utterly new. When we encounter them, we have no choice but to encounter them with the mind of a child. Sometimes these translations are so powerful they completely change the way we think and perceive. I was fascinated that in my conversations with W.S. Merwin and Sam Hamill, they both felt strongly that the great flowering of poetry in 20th century America was due in large part to translations from the Chinese by poets like Herbert Giles, Arthur Waely, and Ezra Pound. Not just the ancient poems themselves but even more so the translations.
Inscription of Luminosity
The autumn spider weaves its inscriptions
with dew, with shifting light.
It may not yet have caught an insect,
but it has caught my heart.
JS: I’ve also read elsewhere in a piece of yours that this is a “translation of one grief to another: perhaps this is the most accurate translation of all.” There is a powerful undercurrent of grief throughout all the poems. I would love to hear any more thoughts you might want to add in light of our world today.
IB: How do we make sense of a catastrophe on the scale of what happened in the Wenchuan earthquake? So much of that death could have been avoided, had it not been for rampant greed and corruption. More often than not, those in power simply want to protect themselves. They have incredibly limited understanding of what constitutes power and what it is to be used to achieve. In the case of this massive tragedy, even the channels for grief were subjected to incredible violence by those who were responsible for the death to begin with.
Grief is often misunderstood as depression. But there is an important difference between the two: depression pushes others away; grief gathers others to you. Language can separate us, and it can unite us. This is why I am interested in language of grief and language shaped by grief. In this language, we can often see our humanity. And when it is understood as means for amplifying our collective humanity, both grief and the language of grief are incredibly powerful and healing. Grief and justice are closely linked. Grief under these conditions may ultimately result in the subversion of corrupted power.
Political power, once established, tends to grow and become corrupt. That corruption of power becomes a corruption of the human spirit. That corruption manifests in so many ways. One way it manifests is through humiliation: they kneel on your neck so you can’t breathe, throw your child in a mass grave, force you to apologize for asking for justice. Those in power are rarely held accountable. When there is a war or other form of chaos, typically they use this to consolidate their power even further. People are pushed apart. The chasms of inequality grow.
How do we fight this imbalance of power? Camus once remarked that the only way forward is to place our belief that the power of language is greater than that of the weapons of war. Poetry is powerful language. We have to be insanely vulnerable if we are to generate the kind of generative chaos that might shift the current horrendous power imbalance in the world.
JS: Many of these poems feel like koans—paradoxes at first glance that reveal something deeper. Was this an intentional choice, or did they emerge out of a larger untangling of paradoxes?
IB: Have you ever held a butterfly or moth for so long it loses the dust from its wings? The anguish that sets in as you realize what you have done. Careless curiosity. Careless love. Fingers smeared with something like graphite; the moth, no longer able to fly. The same thing can happen with poems.
There is a meditation by René Char, titled “Argument,” in which he contemplates beholding the unknown. He remarks that when poets lose their instincts and disregard the unknown, they lose “even the dust of their names.” He then goes on to consider the poem itself, saying: “the poem, rising from its well of mud and stars, will bear witness, almost silently, that it contained nothing which did not truly exist elsewhere, in this rebellious and solitary world of contradictions.”
I have tried to regard the unknown, but also regard what has been known again and again and forgotten again and again. So-called reality rises up from the ground like very thick fog. How do we penetrate this fog, to see the ground itself? It is my own instinct to return to the source. In these poems the wells of mud and stars are the names themselves. They are both tethered and untethered.
Perhaps you have a specific poem in mind that you find koan-like?
JS: I keep returning to June 14:
Plant a field of lightning.
Who will harvest the fruit?
IB: There are forms that hinge upon not answering and forms that insist upon the interchangeability of every single body and forms that ask that we be clear about cause and effect. I’m indebted to Dōgen and to Whitman. Walking in the mountains, we are the sensuous beauty of the walking mountains. There is a spark before the song of the thrush. Do you understand lightning as a moment of enlightenment? Do you understand it as a base, destructive instinct? What is truly ungovernable?
One of the things I discovered as I translated these names is many of them are divinatory in nature, and this name is one of them. Earth here is a character signifying the first trigram of the I Ching. It is symbolized by three broken lines. A tremendously powerful image, it represents the furthest point of the pendulum’s swing into fundamental female energy. And there we see something extraordinary: earth hand in hand with lightning, where lighting is understood as a god.
JS.: In his poem Place, W.S Merwin leads with the stanza “On the last day of the world / I would want to plant a tree.” This always led me to understand his poetry as a form of planting trees. In a tribute you wrote to him, you refer to looking up at a series of branches as letterforms growing, and refer to Merwin as “a forest that had taken the form of a human.” Reflecting on the title you chose, A Forest of Names, I get the sense that each of these meditations are seedlings you are planting.
IB: Much love to you for seeing that, Joal. Merwin’s love is on full display inside that poem and in his garden. His life culminated in not just a forest of poems, but a forest of palms, what I’m told is the third most species-abundant palm forest in the world. What other poet has saved a species from extinction.
But this poem in particular was very important to me during the time when I wrote this book. And it was highlighted in the exhibition contemplating Merwin, titled Palm: All Awake in the Darkness, which I co-curated with the artist duo Sayler/Morris at the American Writers Museum in Chicago. It is actually the next lines of that poem that awe me:
not for the fruit
the tree that bears the fruit
is not the one that was planted
Giving someone a name is akin to planting a seed. That act of giving a name or planting a seed must not be confused with who the person or plant becomes. But this is a mistake that is made again and again and I think that wrongful sense of ownership is really the root of tyranny. I think of Camus’ observation: “rebellion must respect the limits that it discovers in itself—limits where minds meet and, in meeting, begin to exist.” Moment after moment in our lives, we give birth to a mind that is other than our own, we tend to minds other than our own. It is important to be impeccable with how we engage in that act. This is the deep study of cause and effect, and it is also important to understand that once that life-force takes root, it is its own, it belongs to no one other than itself. Naming is part of that act. The writing of a poem is one such act. So, in this sense, I think you are right, each poem is a seedling very much in keeping with Merwin’s poem. A seedling “standing in the earth for the first time… touching its roots in the earth full of the dead.”
JS: How did you come about choosing the title?
IB: The Chinese language is filled with vocabulary that articulates the infinite. You can see an ancient fascination and reverence with the unknowable vastness that is our world. These names are riddled with this vocabulary. One of the most prevalent images for this vastness is the forest. One of my favorite libraries in the world is what is known as The Forest of Stele located in the present city of Xi’an. It consists of hundreds and hundreds of blocks of stone carved with everything from classic texts to imperial decrees to eulogies to the dead. The earliest of these steles is almost 2,000 years old. The title of this book is a nod to this giant stone library and to the vastness contained in our collective names.
Infinity of Trees
Once planted, the name proliferated.
Today, desert sand fills
around the ancient trunks.
Any footprints quickly disappear.
JS: Can you reflect on the act of translating these names from Chinese to English? How did you come about choosing to give each child’s name a certain translation? There’s no way, at least in my mind, for you to have been able to track down the regional and family context behind each of these names. Without that context, how did you choose to proceed in your translations and conveyance through poems?
IB: There was no feasible way for me to track down the families of each child, or even the family of a single child. Had there been, it would have resulted in a very different project. But that does not mean these names were without context. There was an abundance of context, not least of all being the tragedy of their death.
An essential part of my life is sitting meditation. And I am fascinated with Buddhist visualization sutras. These are sutras that were created to lead a person through a set of images to help them learn to control their mind in meditation. Early on in the process of translating these names, I began to view them as a form of visualization sutra. Each day, a set of names would line up on the horizon of my mind, just as a bank of clouds might move and morph above the ocean. I would sit from the shore of my cushion and watch this bank of clouds changing shapes, call out their forms. Dragon! Elephant! Feather! Some associations stuck, others didn’t. And meanwhile, some of the clouds filled with extraordinary colors, and below some of the clouds there formed a dark column of rain, falling back to the ocean below.
JS: Did the undertaking of this work change you in any way?
IB: I find that moral or ethical clarity is something obtained very slowly. The same is true with empathy. All these qualities, which are the foundation of our humanity, are not innate, rather they grow through practice. Just as a physical workout gives us more physical energy. I think we can also talk about empathy as a form of mind energy. Clarity as a form of mind energy. To commit that energy to language is like cutting a path through a wilderness, or perhaps like setting a large stone at the top of a cliff to crash down through the canyon each time the book is opened.
JS: The field of vision, one inscribed with cultural and semiotic values, and the power dynamics filtering the ways in which we “look upon” a landscape. Language is related to this. As you were making each of these poems, was there a particular field of vision that started to reveal itself to you?
IB: What a fascinating and nuanced question. One of my best friends in China is named Xuelei, which means “to study thunder.” But for anyone born in his generation, it is a political name, meaning “to study Lei Feng,” an icon of the Cultural Revolution. To name your child, your family legacy and greatest treasure, after this political campaign is a powerful signal of your allegiance to the party and the vision it has for society. It is a name that indicates your submission to power. In this one example you can see that there is a vast semiotics to names that very much reinforces things like class structure and other social hierarchies. The entire Cultural Revolution can really be understood as a semiotic battle, because when you control a name, you obtain a vast amount of power. Many of the schoolchildren in the list have names with allusions to powerful individuals in the CCP or aspects of CCP policy and ideology. I generally chose not to translate them as such. In every case, there are meanings to those names that precede those people or ideologies alluded to. No political leader can compete with sun-warmed hair on a horse’s back. No political leader can compete with the glimmering light on the surface of a pond. Whatever revolutionary identity members of the CCP cling to, they forfeited it the moment they claimed the right to take the life of a child.
What really caught my breath in your question is your phrase “look upon.” There is a semiotics of compassion woven through language that is vast and subtle. To the extent that these poems are Buddhist, they are indebted to the Bodhisattva Kuan-shih-yin. She can be understood as a field of vision. Her very name means the Bodhisattva who “looks upon the cries of the world.” She perceives with compassion. Dignity blooms in such perception. It had never occurred to me that this view was subversive. But it is. Violence always begets violence. I believe that language which is built upon the structures of compassion and dignity is the only enduring means we have to counter the will to domination that saturates the human heart.
I’d like to finish with this poem named for this very form of perception.
A grey-blue bodhisattva
with a thousand wings,
each with a thousand feathers,
stands utterly still.
With eyes of a child
it attends to the flowing world.