Sunday, January 31, 2010

Unreal Towers/Unreal City

What is the city over the mountains
Cracks and reforms and bursts in the violet air
Falling towers
                                 - Eliot

Imaginary Philadelphia

               …just behind the flatness of today and the thoughts that I think right now, there rise the imaginary towers of the future… naturally they can only be ethereal. We think: perhaps our children, or their children, will be the fortunate ones, the generation that moves into those towers of the light. They will love each other and they will love the earth and the sky; they will live in balance between desire and fulfillment; they will have time to think clearly, as they walk through the beautiful towers, and the great parklands surrounding them. They will admit they know nothing of death, yet they will not fear it. Their cities will resemble the high music of freedom; so we think…

The Fossilized Village

                 So we think, exactly as every generation has thought since the first stone was set up on end. So shall our children think, and theirs. The imaginary towers, ethereal, unreal, beauty upon beauty, cripple us; we stumble, for we cannot look down at our feet. Our real cities crumble or burn, and we cry out, surprised, anguished, that the crystal towers will never be built; the future will not traverse time and save us from this flat brick wall. Behind the towers is only a null sky, a white void. Mene, mene, tekel, upharsin.


Saturday, January 23, 2010

Yet Another Poem re. Life, Death &c.

All True, All Real

Late afternoon, sunlight washing across the snow

through the bare maples, the ragged locust

the fieldstone walls –

today my father feeling his age,

his energy swiftly ebbing, so he said,

though he walks and works as always

I walked alone down to the pond

the deer carcass on the ice now gnawed

down to fur and rib-cage

across to the hedgerow, the brambles,

a few shafts of light seeping down

from the rise, undulant on the white

I hop the wall into the cemetary

say hi to Gramps and Grandma Alice

wander the crunchy crust among the veterans

each with their small flag illuminated

in respectful silence

and the oldest stones now illegible

lines of poetry trailing off into lichens,

some who lived through nearly all

of the nineteenth century

now fallen from their small base

and lying in the snow; others still spiffy

and honored with plastic flowers and bunnies.

Later, from the picture window we saw

a grey fox loping south, pausing now and then

to listen for mice under the crust of the snow.

Addendum: 3:00 am, January 23rd

The dividing line – infinitely thin, intolerably bright –

the mind's unknowable event horizon

the fox skimming over the snow's crust...

Three lines to sum up life and death?

Could be sheer gall, a thumb in God's eye;

could be mere courage, laughter in our marrow.

Tu Mu: Dragon or Rat?

November 15, 2009

A Necessary Desecration

Question: Tu Mu, great poet from the late T’ang dynasty period: What Was He Really Like?

Read, if you will, this small priceless jewel from a forgotten millennium:

Easing My Heart

By rivers and lakes at odds with life I journeyed, wine my freight:
Slim waists of Ch’u broke my heart, light bodies danced into my palm.
Ten years late I wake at last out of my Yang-chou dream
With nothing but the name of a drifter in the blue houses.

- translation by A. C. Graham

Now, compare that to this translation by Leonard Pratt and/or Chang Su-hui:

Banishing Care

Wandering the country with my wine,
I found the girls here so very fine.
Ten years since I woke from Yang-chou dreams
With a bad name in pleasure houses.

These two translations are so disparate that they might as well be two different poems altogether. A. C. Graham’s version presents a beautiful bittersweet blues riff; in a few words we have a fully realized portrait of a man, probably in his thirties, who has come to understand the costs of his decade of pleasure, but will never regret those slim waists on his palm. Implied are ambitions forgotten and youthful promise thrown away; the Western reader hears Fitzgerald asking, “What do the vintners buy / one half so dear as what they sell?”

In almost painful contrast the Pratt/Su-hui translation is suspiciously like drinking doggerel, found on bathroom walls. We who are not scholars of classical Chinese literature are left wondering what the real Tu Mu might have meant and felt; we can try to find our way through the maze of learned justification and historical context, and read everything available on the period, and still perhaps have some lingering suspicion that the brilliant and sensitive poet might have been something closer to a barroom versifier whose mystique has been inflated over the centuries, using the handy bicycle pump of critical elaboration and romantic imagination. This problem resembles, in miniature, a lot of other subtle, open-ended questions whose resolution will never be definitive, but whose investigation is nonetheless rewarding: the origin of the universe, the genesis of life on earth, the maintenance of a happy marriage. This type of question engenders endless ratiocination because the available evidence is incomplete, ambiguous, perhaps contradictory; we are forced to abandon scientific and mathematical rigor and plunge into the swamp of intuition, of ‘connected knowing’, and employ Occam’s Razor and the collection of a large context-collage in order to at least put a limit around the edges of the inchoate, unruly question. For one of the premier examples of the usefulness of this sort of mentation, see Lucretius’ The Nature of Things. Using little more than ordinary observation and reasoning, he constructs a remarkably accurate atomic theory. It seems unlikely that this was just dumb luck; but the actual chain of events in arriving at the answer remains mysterious.

In reading a dozen more quatrains by Tu Fu, it seems on the surface quite unlikely that they are just doggerel electroplated in the gold-salt bath of A.C. Graham’s poetics, if only because the typical subject matter is highly rarefied, so that it is generally rather difficult to reverse-engineer them into dross:

Graham translation:

Recalling former Travels No. 1

Whirled ten years beyond all bounds,
Treating myself in the taverns, drinking my own health.
In autumn hills and spring rain in the places where I idly sang,
I lolled against the pillars of every monastery in Chiang-nan.

Poorly recalled and scrawled on a stall door:

Ten long years I faked it as a monk,
Hitting every tavern and getting stinking drunk.
In autumn and in spring I’d be busting out in song,
loitering in monasteries, getting kicked out before long.

That one is actually fairly easy. Let’s try something much more ethereal:

Graham translation:

Traveling in the Mountains

Far up the cold mountain the stony path slopes:
Where the white clouds are born there are the homes of men.
Stop the carriage, sit and enjoy the evening in the maple wood,
The frosty leaves are redder than the second month’s flowers.

and retooled by some yahoo:

Up in these hills the road is rocky and steep,
But even up here there’s the house of some creep.
If you park your car in the evening to have a little fun,
You might enjoy it even more than when you were young.

Hmm. It’s not as difficult as I had thought. Could it be possible that every poetic sentiment, no matter how refined, has its initial root down in the groin somewhere, in the animal yearning for completion? By the wispy beards of P.B. Shelley and Little Johnny Keats, say it ain’t so! Let’s try one more time:

Shih Ch’ung’s ‘Golden Valley’ Garden

…Just then Ch’ung was feasting on the top story of his mansion. “Now I shall be executed on account of you”, he told Green Pearl. She answered weeping: “It is right that I should give my life in your presence.” Then she threw herself from the top story and was killed. (Biography of Shih Ch’ung (249-300))

Scattered pomp has fallen to the scented dust.
The streaming waters know no care, the weeds claim spring for their own.
In the East wind at sunset the plaintive birds cry:
Petals on the ground are her likeness still beneath the tower where she fell.

which might translate downward as:

Some years you eat the bear, some years the bear eats you.
Old Man River he don’t give a damn, and the kudzu climbs down the flue.
The crows’ll strip your bones as the sun goes down;
She ran and jumped, and the stones bounced when she hit the ground.

It’s kind of addictive, actually, but I’ve more or less disproved my hypothesis that an accumulation of context can pin down the soul of a poet dead now these thirteen centuries. Tu Mu exists as a world treasure, in a floating concatenation of feelings in those privileged to have read him closely, either in the ‘original’ or through a gifted translator/poet in another language. The amount of drift or evolution of his legacy through the centuries is unknown; we can only hope that there is a link to his true soul, however tenuous, that yet persists, like the faint, fading fragrance of the long-gone sing-song girl that permeates the whole T’ang dynasty:

Farewell Poem
(second of two to a girl of Yang-chou)

Passion too deep feels like none.
While we drink, nothing shows but the smile which will not come.
The wax candles feel, suffer at partings:
Their tears drip for us till the sky brightens.

And transmogrified:

We liked each other too much to fake a big scene;
We pounded down the shots, but couldn’t raise a smile.
The candles burned down, and nothing could be seen;
The mattress took a pounding to last for a while.

All right! I admit that I’m just fooling around with it now. How dare you question my undying love for the poetry of Tu Mu just because I was bored and needed diversion!

So now, unable to prove the essence of Tu Mu through an accumulation of context, I must fall back on the less rigorous but more versatile tool of Occam: just how likely is it that all those Chinese aesthetes and scholars and critics and historians were wrong about the real Tu Mu, gradually glorifying him down through the shifting dynasties and the untidy, chaotic interregnums of the passing centuries? Not very likely – and that’s good enough for me.

Sorry, old boy – I’m sure you’ll understand – the wine was also to blame for this.


Poems of the Late T’ang, Penguin Books, Translation by A. C. Graham, 1965

Six Records of a Floating Life, by Shen Fu, Penguin Books, Translation by Leonard Pratt and Chang Su-hui, 1983



About Me

My photo
He clasps the crag with crooked hands; Close to the sun in lonely lands, Ring'd with the azure world, he stands. The wrinkled sea beneath him crawls; He watches from his mountain walls, And like a thunderbolt he falls.