The Poetry of Ruan Ji and Xi Kang

The Poetry of Ruan Ji and Xi Kang

The Poetry of Ruan Ji and Xi Kang trans. by Stephen Owen and Wendy Swartz
De Gruyter, 2017. 406 pp.
Reviewed by Anthony Madrid

About Xi Kang I know nothing, except he was friends with Ruan Ji. The latter is a super big deal and pretty much always has been since the third century CE, when he “flourished”—and so naturally he gets top billing here. It’s not just alphabetical.

My own introduction to Ruan Ji was the twenty-one poems by him included in one of the best Chinese-poetry anthologies that ever was: An Anthology of Chinese Verse: Han Wei Chin and the Northern and Southern Dynasties, by J.D. Frodsham and Ch’eng Hsi (Oxford, 1967). The annotations there are just what you want, but you only get twenty-one poems. Starting now, though, the excited reader has someplace to go for the other sixty-some items in the Ruan Ji canon.

Stephen Owen, who is around 250 years old, and has been at Harvard since birth, translates and footnotes all the Ruan Ji poems; Swartz handles the Xi Kang. And how are the Owen translations? Well—they’re not art. They help you parse the Chinese, and believe me, you need help.

The footnotes are really the thing. Beyond that, you have to use your imagination.


ANTHONY MADRID lives in Victoria, Texas. His poems have appeared in Best American Poetry 2013, Boston Review, Fence, Harvard Review, Lana Turner, LIT, and Poetry. His second book is called TRY NEVER (Canarium Books, 2017).