Review: Babel Via Negativa by Desmond Kon Zhicheng–Mingdé

By Mandy Pannett

Babel Via Negativa Front Cover Desmond KonThis is a book about language – or rather a slantwise glance at its rich complexity, its failure and futility as a means of expression, the babble and babel of it all.

The first section of Babel Via Negativa has the intriguing title “Tweet Goes the Poplar Tree” and revels in juxtaposition and contradiction via single sentence poems. These defy explanation. Their appeal is emotive and associative, for the imagination alone. Among my favourite examples are the following:

A canzone flying, face half-lit.

Firebirds past sea levels.


A turn, hopscotch into the unknown meadows.


Open the bay window.

Like quiet light, Dedalus in a holy hour.

They doused the salted field with iodine and dreams.

Here. Between experience and utterance.

Jeffrey Smart is one of my favourite artists, so I was delighted to find a short section that included him (“Poem in Medias Res”). These lines, “The building seated in its shadow, top row of windows / now shattered glass – a boy facing east …”, provide a perfect reflection, to me, of Smart’s lonely and menacing urban vistas, concrete streetscapes and industrial wastelands.

In “Lost Acts of Translation”, we have further brilliant examples of the juxtapositions at which Desmond Kon excels. In one of them, a gas station attendant’s daughter, reading a novel, is sitting on the pavement next to a smashed-up jukebox while her father considers setting fire to the scene and creating his own sunset. “The colours will walk into each other, no more different than one thought writing itself into the next”, comments the narrator, jolting us back into the past with his remark, “The scroll is crisply burning, as is the painting of Xiamen and its port of 14th century merchants.” The narrator of another passage, looking at a painting, seems to follow this line of thought when he says: “Today is suddenly a day in 1420, yet it feels like any other day. I didn’t know sweat turns green like lime.”

Desmond Kon

Desmond Kon

The section of Babel Via Negativa that I find most appealing and stimulating is “Roundtable on Negative Theology and its Discontents”. Here a host of voices – ancient, modern and fictitious – offer a wealth of wisdom in fragments by discoursing on the via negativa that is both the title and heart of the book. Thomas Aquinas describes the way the human race grapples for understanding in “a kind of confusion”, “a certain darkness of ignorance”, “a sort of thick fog (caligo) in which God is said to dwell”. Augustine asks “in what way, then, does that which does not know itself, know itself as knowing anything?” Gertrude Stein, in one of her beautiful flights of repetition, cries “imagine imagine imagine it in it…” while Franz Wright wonders “What the long sentence / assembled / by cemetery sparrows said”.

This is a profound and fascinating section as is the final “Five Dialogic Encounters”. The whole experience of reading this, Desmond Kon Zhicheng–Mingdé’s poetic masterpiece, has left me with much to ponder, much to research. It is impossible to do justice in a review to the quality and depth of Babel Via Negativa. This is a journey the reader must take for himself.

Here is a final quotation (possibly my favourite) from Michel de Certeau:

“… here is what the final bedazzlement would be: an absorption of objects and subjects in the act of seeing. No violence, only the unfolding of presence. Neither the fold nor hole. Nothing hidden and thus nothing visible. A light without limits, without difference; neuter, in a sense, and continuous.”

Mandy Pannett is a poet, novelist and creative writing tutor. Her poetry has appeared in journals in the UK, Europe, Canada and the States. She has won prizes and been placed in international competitions and has judged several others. She is the author of The Onion Stone (novella) and of five poetry collections: Bee Purple and Frost Hollow (Oversteps Books), Allotments in the Orbital (Searle Publishing), All the Invisibles (SPM Publications), and Jongleur in the Courtyard (Indigo Dreams Publishing).





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