Tuesday, October 1, 2013

Jade Mirror

Women Poets of China, edited by Michael Farman

My love affair with (translated) Chinese poetry goes back many years, to my first encounter with Kenneth Rexroth's One Hundred Poems from the Chinese, especially his renderings of the lyric poems of Tu Fu, still among the handful of poems I read regularly, in all seasons, simply as a way of reminding me of what it means to have a human sensibility.  I had looked at the world in the way one does--as a reflection of my ego--and never considered, as the Chinese poets are so fond of doing, that the world isn't a mirror of my being but that I am a mirror of it.

 "A Toast for Men Yun-Ch'ing"

Illimitable happiness,
But grief for our white heads.
We love the long watches of the night, the red candle.
It would be difficult to have too much of meeting,
Let us not be in hurry to talk of separation.
But because the Heaven River will sink,
We had better empty the wine-cups.
To-morrow, at bright dawn, the world’s business will entangle us.
We brush away our tears,
We go—East and West.

Tu Fu often writes, as here, of furtive meetings with friends, of drinking until dawn, of the fleeting nature of joy--the parts of life, in other words, that we want poetry to remind us of, for if poetry does nothing else, it must put us in mind of the ephemeral nature of the things we wish to believe are enduring--love and friendship and pleasure and life itself.  It was from the questionable translations of Rexroth and Pound (via Fenollosa) and Arthur Waley that I first understood, falsely I am sure, the meaning of 'conditioned arising' in Buddhism, the transitory and painfully beautiful nature of human experience as expressed in poetry. 

Garcia Lorca is the Western poet whose sensibility most reminds me of the Chinese poets I admire; the simplicity of his diction, the openness of form, the poetic voice that stands both within and outside of the core of the poem as in this simple verse from Primeras Canciones (1922):
"Half Moon"

The moon goes over the water.
How tranquil the sky is!
She goes scything slowly
the old shimmer from the river; 
meanwhile a young frog
takes her for a little mirror.
("Half Moon," trans. by W.S. Merwin)

My attachment to this form of poetic expression--direct, "unmediated" by conventions of prosody, honest to a fault--led me to the usual folly: I studied Chinese for a while, and when it was clear that I was too dense to memorize let alone reproduce a single character,  I set out to write my own Chinese poems without benefit of the language.  Does it appear an easy matter to write a poem like this one?

"Written in a Pavilion Lost in the Mists"

spring flowers, fall's
full moon:
               the stuff of poems.

cloudless sun. clear
nights. here: mountain
                    spirits, loosed.

no reason I raised
the pearl-sewn blinds.
                won't lower them.

my couch is moved for good now.
I'll turn toward these hills
                and sleep.

(Yu Xuanji trans. by Geoffrey Waters)

What I have noticed is that aspiring poets can reproduce the simple description in this form-- reminiscent of e.e. cummings--but when it comes to the real point of the poem, where the observing eye moves inward, when the poetic sensibility must construct meaning from the passive moment of watching flowers and moon and mountain--this is where the trouble begins.  Most pastiches of this sort of transparent poetry miss the point right at the line "I'll turn toward these hills/and sleep." What? Isn't the romantic (and it is the easiest thing in the world to think of Chinese and Japanese "nature" poets as "romantics"--maybe not as loquacious as Wordsworth, but with the identical set of feelings) supposed to regard the hills?  Isn't it rather anti-climactic to fall asleep?  And that's the way these deceptive poems often work: they take us to the edge of a simple truth and turn it against us--this is the art of disappointment, or of beauty as emptiness rather than fulfillment.

"Inspired by Scenery"

Half window, the entire setting sun
a curtain lifts in the breeze
Little, little pond, pavilion
a bamboo path
Maple leaves drunk red
in autumn color
Two or three rows of geese
centered against the evening sky.

(Zhu Shuzhen, trans. by Emily Goedde)

I have taken these last two examples from the lovely collection Jade Mirror: Women Poets of China, edited by Michael Farman.  Mr. Farman has wisely decided to include an even dozen poets in this collection so that each of the twelve women, whose lives stretch from the period of Book of Odes (600 B.C.E.) to World War II, can be represented by a judicious selection and we can therefore develop some sense of what each poet was attempting to achieve.  As Farman points out in his introduction, it was hardly an easy matter to be a woman and a poet through most of Chinese history.  Convention, gender roles, education, and isolation kept women marginalized from the highly political and deeply masculine world of poetry--the ability to compose verses (if not poems) was, after all, a prerequisite of advancement in Chinese society. We may therefore be especially joyful at the publication of this collection of rare and graceful poems.

Most of these poets were new to me; I especially loved reading Zhu Shuzhen and Xue Tao--wonderful poets whose precise, evocative diction suited their subjects perfectly.  Here is Xue Tao:

Head bent, I stood long
before a rambling rose,

lovely as fragrant basil:
its scent clung to my skirts.

Master Sun of Jadegreen Stream,
explain it all to me--

those shrikes
departing from the east,
those swallows, flying west.

(trans. Jeanne Larsen)

Is the poem lovely as fragrant basil, or the rose?  Why do the shrikes depart from the east?  Has she asked the question or merely anticipated doing so?  Yes, we have to fill in quite a lot, but isn't that the point?

Jade Mirror is published by White Pine Press.


George Ovitt (10/1/13)

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