The Never Ending Journey

Selected Poems of Po Chu-I
, translated by David Hinton
[Anvil, 200pp, £10.95]
Unlock, Bei Dao, translated by Eliot Weinberger and Iona Man-Cheong
[Anvil, 117pp, £8.95]

This Selected Poems fills a significant gap in the Chinese poetry available in the English language. Even though revered as a canonical author in China, Po Chu-I (772-846 AD) is still little known in the English-speaking world. Individual poems of his have appeared in many anthologies, and in particular his work represents a large chunk of Arthur Waley's Chinese Poems, but anthologising a poet with a prodigious output and a long, varied career has tended to make his work seem indistinguishable from those of his contemporaries. (Waley did in fact write a whole book about the poet, The Life and Times of Po Chu-I, incorporating many of his poems, which rather contradicts the statement on the back of the Hinton translation that 'his poems have been known in the West only through scattered versions…', but Waley's book has been long out of print). This relative neglect has been damaging to any assessment of Po Chu-I, because as a statesman and administrator, his work, seen in its entirety, cuts against the usual Western view of Chinese poetry of this period as quietist, tranquil, concerned with insights gained from nature and inner reflection. There is, in fact, all of this in Po Chu-I's poetry, but he was also a political poet who (and this is where, to me, his greatest significance lies) successfully used his poetry as a tool for reform and against social injustice. While still young, he became an advisor to the emperor, and finding any attempt at reform obstructed by a conservative court, he wrote a series of popular and political poems, the 'new Yueh-fu'. As David Hinton writes in his brief biographical introduction:

     They were a systematic attempt to return poetry to the moral
     dimensions of
The Book of Songs, and they had a very real political
     force as well. As Po's poetry was read and sung throughout the land,
     his 'New
Yueh-fu' not only directly and forcefully influenced the
     emperor, they also stirred up popular indignation and broad support
     for reforms. This made them a double affront against conservative
     elements in the administration.
          (Introduction, xix.)

despite this, some of these poems seem indirect to the modern reader unfamiliar with Chinese history, and more editorial notes contextualising these lyrics would have been useful here, especially since Po Chu-I is reported to have been so intent on writing in an easily understood language that he would, reportedly, recite his poems to an old blind peasant woman, and if there was anything she did not understand, he would throw it out. The titles give an indication of the problem: 'Hundred-Fire Mirror', 'Twin Vermilion Gates', 'Crimson Weave Carpet', 'A Dragon in the Dark Lake' all seem quite culture-specific to me, yet they are glossed minimally or not at all, and I am sure that as a reader I am missing many  references. However, many of the poems speak very powerfully with an anti-war message that has not diminished over the centuries:

     my name was listed on those roles at the Department of War,

     so in the depths of night, careful to keep my plan well-hidden,
     I stole away, found a big rock, and hacked my arm until it broke.

     Too lame to draw a bow or lift banners and flags into the wind,
     I escaped: they didn't send me off to fight their was in Yun-Nan….

     I'm the only man in my district who lived to enjoy old age.

(here I would query the translator's choice of the word 'lame' for having a broken arm, but maladroit expressions such as this are quite rare in the book as a whole. Waley translates the line: 'For drawing the bow and waving the banner now wholly unfit', which also is not great as poetry.).

The political poems are only a small section of this large book, and the chronological arrangement of the whole makes the book read something like an autobiography. Soon after his 'new
Yueh-fu' poems, his mother died, obliging him to enter a three-year period of mourning. After this, he fell from favour at the court, and entered a long period of exile and rehabilitations to various provincial governorships. Although still often powerful, he never seems to have been ever quite as powerful as when he was an advisor to the emperor in his thirties. His poems often reference his age and status, and many of his most powerful poems are from the point of view of a cultured exile from court, facing advanced years.

A characteristic poem from this later period would be 'Up Early' (p. 106):

     Sunrise flares in my room, roofbeams ablaze, incandescent.
     Somewhere a door opens: and it's a booming drum sounded once.

     Our dog's asleep on the stairs, meaning a rain-soaked earth,
     but birds chattering at the window tell me about clear skies.

     Last night's wine not yet thinned away, my head feels heavy,
     and no longer wearing winter clothes, my body's light again.

     Dozing off, it's clear how empty mind is, how thought expires.
     Even dreams of home—these days they rarely go all the way.

This is a poet's translation, concerned with reduplicating effects, finding ways to make the English version work as a modern poem. Waley's version was possibly more accurate, and despite having a metre, is much more prosey. It starts 'The early light of the rising sun shines on the beams of my house', Hinton's lovely 5th line is much more clumsy in Waley's version ('With new doffing of winter clothes my body has grown light'). Waley's last line is different in sense: 'Lately, for many nights on end, I have not dreamt of home'. The only part of Waley's version that is better than Hinton's is line 3: 'The dog lies curled on the stone step, for the earth is wet with dew', which is more compact and explanatory.

We follow the poet as he narrates the course of his life through illness, old age, and the contemplation of his own death. He had a comfortable life: servants, wives, concubines, children. Almost as in a novel we see them come and go, as if in his prolific career (roughly 3,000 of his poems have survived, and he wrote many more) he was able to become his own narrator, distant enough from his own life to view it with detachment and irony. This is the kind of poetry that needs a long tradition behind it: not strenuous, heroic, or particularly religious in the Western sense. Almost like much of our contemporary poetry, its habitual mode is to take an aspect of the writer's life and measure it for ironies or deeper resonances. A luxury that it would take a long time for English-language poetry to arrive at; his life covers the same period as that of the very first recorded poetry in Anglo-Saxon.

Overall, I found the book a pleasure to read. I would only have wished for more explanatory and contextualising notes, and in particular I would have welcomed some remarks on Po Chu-I's poetics, and the clear challenges that Hinton must have faced in translating this fascinating body of work.

A contrasting book of Chinese poetry brought out by the same publisher is Unlock by Bei Dao (published 2006 here, but 2000 in the U.S. Are we that far behind?). This contemporary Chinese poet has in common with Po Chu-I a strain of dissidence, the fact of exile (in Bei Dao's case much more severe, although now apparently revoked), and great popularity. Their differences seem greater. Bei Dao was the founder of a literary group called the 'Misty' poets, so called because they were criticized by the Chinese state for obscurity or 'mistiness' as compared to the state-supported social-realism of sanctioned Chinese literature; a term which the group then adopted for themselves. Thus while clarity was important for Po Chu-I, obscurity or difficulty became a signature for Bei Dao.

To be a dissident from a regime well-known for its monolithic and repressive character might be expected to evoke a poetry of explicit resistance: satire, elegy, argument, condemnation. Being a 'misty' poet, Bei Dao does not use any of these registers. Any references to his home country in this book are oblique. In the years before his exile, Bei Dao must have found that an effective (and more survivable)  answer to totalitarianism is to reject the tools of realism and to construct a discourse that is invisible to the censor and the bureaucrat. In the title-poem (p. 101) he writes 'at the crux of meaning / they slip alongside the executioner'. His poetry in the eighties became very popular among dissidents within China. It seems that this is not obscurity (compared to many poems of the alternative tradition in British poetry, or indeed with earlier modernisms such as surrealism, these translations do not seem particularly obscure), so much as a kind of poetic abstraction. The second poem of the book is a good example. It is called 'Reading' (probably not the town in Berkshire) (p.11):

     Taste the unnecessary tears
     you star stays
     alit still for one charmed day

     a hand is birth's
     most expressive thing
     a word changes
     in search of its roots

     read the text of summer
     the moonlight from which
     that person drinks tea
     is the true golden age
     for disciples of crows in the ruins

     all the subservient meanings
     broke fingernails
     all the growing smoke
     seeped into the promises

     taste the unnecessary sea
     the salt betrayed

I like a lot of this, in particular the word 'alit' which has a wonderful ambivalence here, presumably it functions adjectivally with the meaning 'alighted' (as in, disembarked, on land), but vividly suggesting (as a star does) lit, light. There is an accumulation of
things here, many of them from different spheres or categories. The nouns in this poem are (in order): tears, star, day, hand, birth, thing, word, root, text, summer, moonlight, person, tea, age, disciple, crow, ruins, meanings, fingernails, smoke, promises, sea, salt. An interplay between cosmic, human, and natural things. It is unusual (even in 'difficult' poetry) to see this switching between types of noun-object. The effect seems to be one of opening (the 'Unlock' of the title), inviting a receptivity in the act of reading.

Without exception the translations read fluidly and authentically as poems in English. This is perhaps because the translators worked so closely with Bei Dao. In fact it is almost as if translation is an integral part of the production of this book since it was first published like this, as a parallel text, in 2001, without hope of publication in China. I imagine the readership for these poems is now in fact greater in English than Chinese, a situation which must force Bei Dao into a relationship with the English versions of these poems. The translators consulted closely with Bei Dao and in certain cases, where there was a syntactical ambiguity in the Chinese that would have to be resolved in the English version, Bei Dao actually changed the Chinese version!

For me, these poems are most successful in images and in lines. 'a wisp of smoke conducts an orchestra of streetlights' ('Fifth Street', 107); 'at sunset you listen closely / to a new city / built by a string quartet' (Dry Season', 105);

     I know tomorrow morning
     the repairman will wait in the doorway
     then take the scenery with him
     at opening time he'll replace me
     walking into this book
          ('Poppy Night', 91)

This is a poetry of memory-fragments, openness to thought and impression, with a tone that is actually often similar, in lines and riffs, to Po Chu-I. In 'Moat' (p. 109) he writes 'old now / I'm like a willow sinking into dreams'. There is always the influence of the ancestors. He concludes the same poem magnificently:

     words are bait
     up in the dead the illustrious dead
     fish for us.

I was less sure about these poems, with their deadpan referential titles ('Mistake', 'Postwar', 'Smells', 'Crying', 'Deleting', 'Soap', etc.) work as wholes; sometimes I suspect the connections are unknowable, and the book works as a volume in which the theme is receptivity, openness to impression and memory, drift; a journey in which thought-provoked readers are part of the constellation.

          © Giles Goodland 2006