2,000 Ways of Looking at Wang Wei (and I still can’t resist)

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The subject of Nineteen Ways of Looking at Wang Wei: How a Chinese Poem is Translated, these four lines have not suffered from lack of translation. Gary Snyder’s rendition is beautiful – some might say perfect – as is Burton Watson’s. And then there’s Octavio Paz’s version. Yet I persist…

The transliteration on Chinese-poems.com (which differs from that offered by Eliot Weinberger):

Empty hill not see person
Yet hear person voice sound
Return scene enter deep forest
Duplicate light green moss on

And my take:

Deer Sanctuary

There’s no one on this empty hill,
but I hear someone talking.
Sunlight trickles into the forest,
reflecting onto the green moss.

Time and again Weinberger objects to an explicit first person observer, but to my ear it flows better. I’ve tried to retain a sense of precision in observation and at least a hint of duality, and believe that I’ve succeeded, at least in part. Having carried this poem with me for more than two decades, only now have I felt up to the task of adapting it. I chose the title “Deer Sanctuary” because in my neck of the woods spaces enclosed by “game fences” are generally meant for hunting. We Texans do love our venison. But the poem, to me, is ultimately peaceful. Hence my title.

I was flattered when Sam Hamill contacted me after this first appeared in 2014. We had a brief exchange about the sun and moss and academics that I’ll cherish forever.

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This originally appeared on the blog in April 2014.

 

Late Night (after Li Po)

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The moon smiles upon my bed.
I consider frost and ice,
and raising my head, the bright sky.
Lying back, I think of home.

 

Once again, I’ve attempted to shiver myself into a timeless piece. I can only hope that my version does not offend.

 

The transliteration from Chinese-Poetry.com follows:

Bed before bright moon shine
Think be ground on frost
Raise head view bright moon
Lower head think home

 

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This originally appeared here in March 2014.

Cedar Grove (after Wang Wei)

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Cedar Grove (after Wang Wei)

I sit alone among the cedars,
play my guitar and hum.
In this dark forest
no eye spies me but the moon’s.

My take on Wang Wei’s “Bamboo Grove,” from this transliteration copied somewhere along the way:

alone sit dark bamboo among
strum lute again long whistle
deep forest man not know
bright moon come mutual shine

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“Cedar Grove” made its first appearance here in March 2014. I adapted it to fit my circumstances…

You might find the Wikipedia entry on Wang Wei of interest.

Lament for Five White Cat (after Mei Yao-ch’en)

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Lament for Five White Cat (after Mei Yao-ch’en)

Five White cat always made sure
no rats gnawed my books,
but this morning Five White died.

On the river I offered up rice and fish,
and buried you in its lazy currents,
chanting my lament. I could never neglect you.

One time you caught a rat
and carried it squealing around the yard
to frighten all the other rats
and keep my cottage clear of them.

We’ve shared space aboard this boat,
and although the food is meager
it’s free of rat piss and droppings
because you were so diligent,
more so than any chicken or pig.

Some people speak highly of horses,
saying nothing compares to them or donkeys.
But we’re done with that discussion!

My tears prove it so.

* * *

The transliteration from Chinese-poems.com:

Self have 5 white cat
Rat not invade my books
Today morning 5 white die
Sacrifice with rice and fish
See off it at middle river
Incantation you not you neglect
Before you bite one rat
Hold in mouth cry around yard remove
Want cause crowd rat frightened
Thought will clear my cottage
From board boat come
Boat in together room live
Dry grain although its thin
Evade eat drip steal from
This real you have industriousness
Have industriousness surpass chicken pig
Ordinary person stress spur horse drive
Say not like horse donkey
Already finish not again discuss
For you somewhat cry

A Song Dynasty poet, Mei Yao-ch’en (or Mei Yaochen) died in 1060. His great poems live on.

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Night Journey (after Tu Fu)

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Night Journey (after Tu Fu)

Wind bends the grass along the road.
A lonely truck passes by.
Stars reach down to touch these hills
and the moon drifts behind.

No one will ever know my poems.
I am too old and ill to work.
Circling, floating, who am I
but a vulture looking down.

First posted in March, 2014.

This is not a translation, but rather a version, my “take” on a famous Tu Fu poem. I claim no abilities in translation, neither speak nor read Chinese, and instead depend upon the skills of those who have ventured into these difficult reaches. This is where the poem carries me, a middle-aged Texas hill county dweller, in the Year of the Horse, 2014.

“Night Journey” is included in my micro-chapbook, No Eye But The Moon’s, available via free download at Origami Poems Project.

Here’s the transliteration on chinese-poems.com:

Nocturnal Reflections While Traveling

Gently grass soft wind shore
Tall mast alone night boat
Stars fall flat fields broad
Moon rises great river flows

Name not literary works mark
Official should old sick stop
Flutter flutter what place seem
Heaven earth one sand gull

My goal was to retain the mood, as I understand it, of the original, and to place it into my personal context. An interesting exercise.

Spring Night (after Wang Wei)

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Spring Night (after Wang Wei)

Among falling devilwood blossoms, I lie
on an empty hill this calm spring night.
The moon lunges above the hill, scaring the birds,
but they’re never quiet in this spring canyon.

Another try at an old favorite…

I consider this adaptation rather than translation, but perhaps appropriation or even remaking might be more accurate.

Here’s the transliteration from chinese-poems.com:

Person idle osmanthus flower fall
Night quiet spring hill empty
Moon out startle hill birds
Constant call spring ravine in

So many choices, none of them exactly right, none of them entirely wrong. How does one imply idleness, what words to use for “flower” (blossom? petal?), or for that matter, “fall” (descend, flutter, spiral)? And how to describe a moonrise that scares the constantly calling birds? My first attempt began:

“I lie among the falling petals”

but it seemed vague. The word “osmanthus” fattened my tongue, or so it felt, but the osmanthus americanus, otherwise known as devilwood or wild olive, grows in parts of Texas. So I brought the poem closer to home.

I considered naming the birds (quail came to mind) but decided against. In this case the specificity felt somehow intrusive.

My hope is that I’ve managed to amplify, in some small way, previous iterations, and that while the edges are still a bit blurred in morning’s first light, perhaps they’ll become slightly crisper by the evening.

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“Spring Night” last appeared here in February 2018.

Incongruities

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Years ago, I worked in a library…

Incongruities

so little depends
upon

the half-Japanese
bookman

reading Italian
haiku

in the Texas
library.

Once again, my apologies to William Carlos Williams, whose poetry inspires and therefore often bears the brunt of my little diversions into whimsy. “Incongruities” first appeared here in October 2015. The original WCW poem can be found here.

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Apricot House (after Wang Wei)

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Apricot House (after Wang Wei)

We cut the finest apricot for roof beams
and braided fragrant grasses over them.

I wonder if clouds might form there
and rain upon this world?

 

The transliteration on Chinese-poems.com reads:

Fine apricot cut for roofbeam
Fragrant cogongrass tie for eaves
Not know ridgepole in cloud
Go make people among rain

Each adaptation poses its challenges, and this one was certainly no exception.
First I identified key words and determined how or whether to use them.
Apricot, roofbeam, cogongrass, eaves, ridgepole, cloud, people, rain.

Apricot was a given. It offered specificity, and feels lovely in the mouth. Roof beams, as well. Cogongrass didn’t make the cut. It is indeed used for thatched roofs in southeast Asia, but it felt clumsy; in this case, the specificity it lent detracted from my reading. And rather than use “thatched” I chose “braided” to imply the layered effect of thatching, and to imply movement, to mesh with and support the idea of clouds forming and drifting under the roof. “Not know” posed a question: did it mean ignorance or simply being unaware, or perhaps a state of wonderment? I first employed “unaware” but thought it took the poem in a different direction than Wang Wei intended (but who knows?). “Ridgepole” seemed unnecessary. So I chose to let the reader follow the unsaid – using “form there” to reinforce the impression already shaped by the roof beams and the grasses “over them.” I admit to some trepidation over the second couplet. It may still need work.

 

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“Apricot House” first appeared here in December 2014.

 

Lake Pavilion (after Wang Wei)

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Lake Pavilion

The boat carries the honored guest
so regally across the lake.
We look out over the railing and sip our wine.
Lotus blossoms, everywhere.

As is nearly always the case, I had more questions than answers when I first considered this adaptation, beginning with “what is happening here?” Yes, someone crosses a lake to meet a guest, they drink wine and see flowers in the water. But what does this signify? From my 21st century Texan viewpoint, the poem seems to be a piece about spiritual passage, and I colored my version with this in mind, using visual references to capitalize on and support the theme – crossing a body of water, looking outward, and of course, observing the lotus flowers, which hold great symbolism in Chinese and Buddhist culture.

The Chinese-poems.com transliteration:

Small barge go to meet honoured guest
Leisurely lake on come
At railing face cup alcohol
On all sides lotus bloom

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This first appeared on the blog in November 2014. My, how time has passed.

Letter to Marshall from the Scarecrow’s Pocket

 

Letter to Marshall from the Scarecrow’s Pocket

Dear Daniel: How fortunate we are to tap into this medium of ether
and zeros and ones and all the combinations employed in our paperless
context. I am drawn to the concept of text as textile, as an entity
woven into the fabric of communication. Who knew that simple lines,
dots, dashes and squiggles would someday depict so well our
abstract beginnings and fingered desires, from counted goats and
jars of oil to the tattoo on a beloved’s inner thigh. The gap between
thought and graphic representation, whether on paper or glowing
screen, seems heightened these days, in spite of their ubiquitous
presences. I scratched my name onto the frozen creek’s surface,
only to watch it subsume as the mercury rose. I report this only
because you’ve scribed too well that feeling of treading on uncertain
surfaces, of words expanding in meaning and dragging us along
separate byways, fork into fork, under and through what we
never considered. That is our fate – to emerge from the pocket,
folded, wrinkled and smudged, smelling of makkoli and fish
markets and unwritten phrases stored in rice jars, our personal
creases expanding as we inspect the characters found there, some
crimped, others elongated, still others nearly invisible but apparent
through indentation. Translate these and what have you but a history
of glorious failures and unfelt victories in marks, on white,
somehow of note, if only to oneself. Success is a stranger’s smile,
an omelet cooked to order and eaten with gusto. It pulses
in the doing, in the unsteady drip from the faucet with a desiccated
washer, and the ink staining the page symbol by line. I know only
what I know, which ain’t much, but I keep trying to learn, to
cobble together these odd symbols into assemblages greater than
myself. As if anyone would notice. Say hello to the marred, the
cracked and disheveled of Jeju, and I’ll return the favor from
my hideaway in the Texas hills. As always, believe. Bob.

 

“Letter to Marshall from the Scarecrow’s Pocket” first appeared on Vox Populi in July 2018. I am grateful to Michael Simms for publishing this piece (and others).