SAFARI seems to no longer work
for comments...use another browser?

Tuesday, January 09, 2007

Paean to The Long Grass Books no. 2: Willow, Wine, Mirror, Moon

Bowing to the Moon /
Willow, Wine, Mirror, Moon:
Women's Poems
from Tang China,
translated with notes
and introduction
by Jeanne Larsen


More to come

Court lady or courtesan, poor official's child or Lady of the Tao, the poets in this little book move inside and sometimes pass beyond "walls within walls within walls." Escaping, they find deep pleasure in nature; returning, they may have an instant of joy or teasing, though more often they pose in attitudes of loss, with happiness already gone by. The world is past or passing: the sea will turn to dust, the husband or lover wing to and perhaps fall on distant, war-tormented ground. "Winsome" girls shine and fade like flowers, and a moon-lit strand of white hair never renews its lustrous black.

The delicacy of these Chinese poems, the formalized and lovely attitudes and subjects--the loneliness of a girl, a woman with her looks disordered by grief, the cloud-and-rain of sex, the flight of seasons, the news of official promotion--are familiar but hold considerable power to allure. Some are surprising. A young man in scholar's robes reveals himself as an impossiblility, a woman who cannot marry an official's daughter without a (very unlikely!) metamorphosis. An elderly woman turns from the moon, remembering her own shining loveliness, when she lived in sensuous "deep red rooms."

Looking at the little Tang sculpture of a lady on horseback at upper left, I see so many elements of what must be a Tang aesthetic. The poems, too, are brightly pigmented, in love with a certain glaze of moonlight, and reveal clarity and charm and humor. Like the terra cotta statue, these poems show a care for images with graceful lines, color, and an imprint of status. The translations occasionally offer a Taoist or courtly phrase that catches me up, and I wonder whether these are the most difficult bits of all to render into English. It's a wonderful gift to have these lyrics--bright fragments of a lost world.

The sketches of figures behind the poems are often of people barely glimpsed, who have left little more than a name. Jeanne Larsen's thumbnail biographies often stand as poignant memorials. Read the poems of the Greenwall Pilgrimage by Praiseworthy Consort Xu, Queen Mother of Shu and her sister, the Exemplary Consort, and then turn to meet their biographies: "These poets came from an impoverished family of Chengdu. Known for their beauty and their poetry, they were taken as consorts by Wang Jian (847-918), the bandit-turned-general who emerges as military governor, and then independent ruler, of Shu (now western Sichuan) in the war-torn years surrounding the Tang empire's collapse. Wang's capital was a haven for literati and artists in that difficult era. When his son Yan ascended to the throne, both women were promoted to ranks suiting the mothers of princes and wielded considerable power. They--and Wang Yan--were killed after Shu's conquest by a short-lived dynasty called the Later Tang." The notes are full of miniature tales of women hemmed in by history and culture. Some were asked to take their own lives as widows or traitors, some were executed, some died of grief. One rose to transcendence and was spotted astride a purple cloud.

This slim house of poems--a monument to study and travel by Jeanne Larsen, back when she was a Comparative Literature graduate student and a poet, before she added professor and novelist to her life-list--opens many windows onto the daughters of Great Tang and the "Five Dynasties and Ten Kingdoms." Each of these poets is bound by her times, yet blossoms despite and because of her setting: "Wherever you walk, flowers / fallen--everywhere / . . . Look with joy on the blessed, / on this radiant age."


Willow Branches
by Zhou Dehua

Along one
bend of the river
Clear, a thousand
willow withies:
twenty years past,
on that old
plank bridge,
I parted from
my love. No word
from him, no
morning still
no news.

Springtime Views in the Land of Qin
by Yuan Chun

Lovely, these views of spring
from up in the Phoenix Tower:

guard posts at palace gates,
walls within walls within walls,

and in His Majesty's garden
trees in the falling rain--

or peaks of the seekers' range
after the skies turn clear.

Wherever you walk, flowers

and palpable, favorable airs,
drenched, when evening comes.

Look with joy on this blessed,
on this radiant age,

as skirts of rainbow silk
take the path of the Taoist Way.

Written at Goldflower-Palace Taoist Refuge
from The Greenwall Pilgrimage Sequence
by the Praiseworthy Consort Xu

Again we reach
Goldflower’s peak.

At Darkmystic City
we sought the Way, returned.

Clouds part:
the shape of things shows clear.

Blackness locks in:
towers, spires, come forth.

Rain washed and the hills
around shine clean.

Winds blow and the road
back home moves into view.

Hills like a green-flashed screen of feathers
channel surging streams.

What need to long for Penglai,
that far-off faerie isle?

Bibliography of Jeanne Larsen

Willow, Wine, Mirror, Moon: Women's Poems from Tang China
click here to see a sample, or buy a copy from BOA Editions, Ltd.
Manchu Palaces novel
Bronze Mirror novel
Silk Road novel
James Cook in Search of Terra Incognita poems
Brocade River Poems: Selected works of the Tang Dynasty Courtesan Xue Tao
translated poems
Engendering the Word (co-editor) critical essays

Links to poetry and prose on Jeanne Larsen's web site: Four Little Tales; from The Starry Messenger (a narrative sequence of poems); from 10,000 Bodhisattvas (a very different sequence); from Hell & Heaven at Tateyama (creative nonfiction)

Illustration: The Tang sculpture of a lady on horseback was collected . . . some time ago, but where? I'll have to see if I can find her again.

Comments from Jeanne Larsen

Some time ago, sculptor Chris Miller posted some Tang figures in rainbow glazes on his MountShang blog, and we recently talked about the poem with "rainbow silks." He asked a question that I sent on to Jeanne: "The Tower reminds me of the one built by the great genius-villain-warlord -- of 'Romance of Three Kingdoms' whose greatest ambition in life was to obtain the world's most beautiful woman and install her in a magnificent tower built to his specification. (story based on history of 2nd Century -- and fictionalized about 900 years later.) . . . I'm curious about how the translator came up with the last line "Take the path of the Taoist Way" (since "tao" means "way" -- as in "the way birds fly" -- the "way the seasons change" etc -- so I question where there would have been a specific reference to the cult of Taoism -- as this translation seems to imply.) "

Jeanne Larsen responded in an informal email with some interesting thoughts in reply. Here is part of what she had to say, with some light editing and cutting (at her request):

There are so many towers in poems in women's voices in China --a "tower" sometimes meaning simply a building with more than one story. So the word comes into Tang poems loaded with traces of beautiful and often, neglected, women from at-least-fairly affluent households. (See Yu Xuanji's beautiful "Another Poem on Riverside Willows Trees" or Guan Panpan's three on "Swallow Tower ".) The Romance of the 3 Kingdoms has been on my Must-Reread [in translation, let me add!] list for, um, several decades now--so thanks to yr sculptor friend for another nudge. Oddly, I've been thinking about it lately, but for its warrior-heroes, not women.

'Fraid I'm not going to be able to give a satisfactory explanation without the original text. But I can say that "the path of the Taoist Way" does attempt to catch the range of meanings of the Chinese word tao—to include "road/path", "a philosophical/religious system/perspective", “philosophical Taoism [Taojia]”, "the Tao [that un-namable source of the 10000 things] spoken of in the Tao te ching (AKA Daode jing)", "[so-called] Popular Taoism [Taojiao]”—i.e., much of Chinese 'folk religion', with imperial pantheon and assorted other goddesses and such, and assorted Taoist practices—fairly esoteric alchemical/dietary/sexual/breathing/visualization technologies for spiritual self-cultivation. Also, whatever other words/phrases might go on that list of English rough equivalents, though I'm not sure "way" in the sense of "manner” is quite within the range--more like "way" as in "way of life". (In Japanese it's sometimes pronounced "do" as in Akido (the Way of Harmonized Energies), Chado (the Way of Tea), Bushido (the samurai way) and suchlike.

“Path” catches a lot of it, especially if one includes new-age-y uses of that word, but surely not all. So my version offers 3 English words attempting to triangulate, and necessarily imperfectly, on 1 especially rich Chinese one. One of the many bits of clumsy galumphing that translators of poetry are regularly reduced to, and I galumph as much as any.

I wouldn't have included "Taoist" in the English if I hadn't been convinced that that was a grammatically & contextually legitimate reading of the original. Again as far as close-up grammar (Arugh! I'm beating my head against my desk...what IS the original wording?), I think it's there. Could get into it on word-by-word level next week if requested. As for context--well, the poet speaks from the social role of a woman who has taken Taoist orders (she’s a "Taoist nun") and as my brief note suggests, there's a subtle tone of sorrow and disillusionment throughout this poem that sets up a longing for something other than just a pretty poem about life locked up inside the harem walls. (See her bio note.) Could I have over-translated? Well, sure. But I think I’m not the only person who has read the poem w/ these overtones—again, I need my notes.

Yuan Chen's poem as I did read, still read, it isn't so much a reference to a "cult" as a sad awareness that transient beauties are not, ultimately, the means of lasting happiness, and that lives restricted by gender roles (however materially privileged) might include some yearning for spiritual fulfillment. Will the palace women inside the walls really go anywhere with that yearning? Dunno. As my note says, "Is this fact, or [the poet's? the palace women's?] wish, or some of each?" Love the ambiguity, however, the multiple possibilities--I'd rather the poem, instead of delivering a rant on patriarchal oppression or a sermon on the value of spiritual praxis, left us all scratching our heads, a little uncomfortable, wondering . . .

If you have a question for Jeanne Larsen, leave it in comments, and I'll see if we can turn up a reply.

She says that she'll "be glad to respond to others too."

And for Chris-the-sculptor: "I have a little replica of a Tang camel rearing its head back in my study—got it in Xian (the modern city built atop the Tang capital), natch. I liked the modern piece on the Mount Shang site quite a lot."

The Paean to The Long Grass Books no. 1 is here.



  1. Glad I can finally leave a comment, seems Blogger has been down a lot today.
    I am not a poetry lover but these translation are beautiful. The initial concept, that poetry is the form of choice for superior thought and sentiment and not simply a stenographic account of dog walking, coffee and alienation, is radically different from what we have for the last 50 years called poetry. Huzzah to Dr. Larsen for making this beauty accessible to use today. Also, I read "Silk Road" many years ago and loved that book.

  2. I love it that they are starting to put in the translated poetry in the university classes.

    I took an Asian history course and they included some in there as well.

  3. Fooh!

    Comments & Blogger have not been working all day--I think it will be better now. Sorry if you tried to leave a comment, and thanks to anonymous for repeat trying!

  4. The poetic speaker in "Willow Branches" seems to be an OMG (one-man-girl)-- even after THE man has left -- just like the woman here, 1200 years later.

  5. Of course you know I love poetry, and this just touches my heart. I think women across the world have bonds that reach beyond continents, and even time. Women's issues seem to be women's issues no matter where you are or how old you get to be.

    I am going to buy this book. Really I am.

  6. I love the sparseness. I think the lack of words - the way there are so many wonderfully placed gaps for the reader to fill - is a large part of the charm of this poetry.

    My question is how important was travel in the writing of this book?

    Beautiful post, Marly.

  7. Hello, all--

    Jeanne was going away, but I think she should now have returned. So I'll see if we can find her. And I hope for no more Blogger troubles.

    It's the very first snow day of the school year!

  8. Lovely, lovely. Also enjoyed the FOOH(s).

  9. Snow day! And see, people are gathered in your online salon to read and comment and take in the beauty.
    It would be interesting to have Jeanne comment on the process of translation from a visual/pictograph language (and from a tonal one as well--I have always wondered if the knowledge of the tonal differences might kind of over-lay a word or phrase for someone who really, really knew the language). Of course, I wonder about a great many things!
    And yes, the blog queen is right, one of the most moving things about reading poetry from long, long ago is how it catches us--how we relate from our human lives, as women or mothers or lovers.
    And that knowledge that long ago eyes looked on beauty and grief, and long ago poets made it into something lasting.

  10. I wore my pink snow bunny boots to class tonight and its not even snowing here!

    Have I told you lately how happy I am to be in the intellectual community of your making.

  11. Aw, that's so sweet!

    Thanks, everybody. More Larsen notes up soon.

  12. We're having internet connection troubles again, but, using dial-up, wanted to say how much I enjoyed reading these poems and Jeanne Larsen's comments. It struck me that the struggle she describes to express the original, Chinese concept in English is not dissimilar (even in degree) from the struggle I feel in putting on canvas the images and/or impulses that erupt quickly from whatever it is and wherever it is. It's like trying to stick pins in butterflies to make them stay still. (Marly, feel free to gong me for really icky and overblown metaphorizing.) I wonder how Larsen would compare the act of translating with the process of writing her own stuff. Maybe her psyche is less disjointed than mine. Wouldn't doubt it.

  13. It never occurred to me -- 50 years ago when I began reading in the Hyde Park (Cincinnati) public library -- that someday books could be interactive !

    Now, I'm going to order Jeanne's book - and soon will have plenty more questions for her -- especially about the sociology of Taoist nuns.

    I saw a great 19th C. painting by one in the Smart Museum (Univ. Chicago) about 5 years ago -- but, so far, that's all I know.

  14. What is the relationship between the poems the translator translates and her own poems? Has translating changed her idea of what a poem is?

  15. Finally got my copy of 98 Reasons for Being...can't wait to have read it all so I can ask Claire a Q or two.

    And I need to re-read this post a few more times before I have something share-worthy other than the usual "Good Gawd, I am so glad I'm reading this!"

  16. Lori, thanks for the IIMR post! Also, I'm glad you're glad.

    And feel free to leave Clare a question below her Long Grass Book post--I'll make sure she gets it. (She's a 'Clare' with no 'i.' My book of poems is 'Claire' with an 'i.' Life is so confusing, ain't it?)

    Various & sundry,

    Jeanne will be back for questions, sooner or later. She spilled coffee on her home computer keyboard, so she has to write at work at the moment--and that's a place where she is rather busy. But she hasn't quit drinking coffee at the computer... Look for answers by the end of this week.

    Next up: a lively I Interview My Readers no. 2. I've got it and think I'll wait to post on Tuesday, when people aren't zipping about the world on vacation.

  17. Here's Jeanne, translator and lover of medieval Chinese poetry, to say first of all that Chris Miller can find in the back pages of WWMM some sources that will give some info on those amazin' Ladies of the Tao (sometimes spelled "Dao" these days, eh?). See especially Suzanne Cahill's smart & knowledgeable work. There's a bit in Grant & Idema's rich & hefty book The Red Brush, which also has scholarly translations as well as bio info on some of the poets in WWMM, plus others from other eras. The last essay by Edward Schafer (he was Cahill's teacher, and a Sinologist with a real passion for words & lore) in my biblio would also be of interest.

  18. Okay, so Laura asked about the move from Chinese to English and yeah I do like the anology to going from whatever-in-the-head to art-on-canvas. I find that when doing literary (!) translation, I have to let the work simmer for a long time (years) in order to get out from under the tyranny of dictionary-speak. I read the poems, look stuff up, catch allusions/puns/resonances/whatever, write a faithful English translation, polish it like the obsessive freak I am until it sounds like a poem...and then I often have to let it go until I can stop translating and find the way to say that in English...with of course the usual tug of rhythm, sound association, cadence, whatever, pulling me onward, as when writing my own poems. SOOOO: it's someone else's butterfly, and I can't just paint it with a spray-can marked "New Lingo"; that creates those useful but utterly unaesthetic clunker-translations that the word-for-word people write. Instead I have to suck that fluttering thing in with a great big inhale, let its oxygen circulate through my blood & guts (including brain-gut), and then with luck I breathe out, well, maybe caterpillars. Or maybe a butterfly in a Frenchified Anglo-Saxon hue.

  19. About tonal language, per jarvenpa's post: oh, Chinese is such a cool language. (Is there any language that isn't, I do wonder...) But be a bit wary of that "pictograph" stuff. Most Chinese charcters aren't really pictoral, despite the interesting exceptions to that general rule you may have heard about. Of course, once in a while, it surely seems an artful poet is aware of the look of his/her words. (e.g., the great Wang Wei, writing from his Buddhist perspective about simple things, may use charcters that are more simply written, but that's like someone writing an English poem in one-syllable words instead of fancy Latinate ones, no more). Still, many characters do have a picture-like element (tree, mountain, woman)along with a kinda-phonetic part. And a poet can use that as a poet in English might exploit a word's etymology, or its associations from some famous poem in the past.
    So, sure, that makes a kind of "layover" in a way. But it's as rare and subtle as, um, um, that Wordsworth poem,whatever it is, about the full moon that uses a lot of moony letter "o"s.
    As for the tones, well, some Chinese poems have patterns of tone, just as some poems in English have patterns of stressed & unstressed syllables (while others are in "free verse", right?) or just as poets writing in Greek or Latin made patterns ("meter") out of the duration (length) of syllables, going long/short/long/short or short/short/long/short/short/long, or whatever.
    Poets in any lingo are gonna LISTEN to their own sound system and then play games / weave patterns with whatever resources are there to be messed around with. So I don't try to bring over into English the tone-pattern (where it exists) in the originals [how could I?], and I don't try to maintain the actual syllable count (most of the originals for WWMM have either 5-syll. lines or 7-syll., since you couldn't squeeze all the info/images into so few syll.s in English. (And besides, Marianne Moore & English haiku notwithstanding, our ears generally aren't tuned into the particular music of syllable-count poetry.) But for some poems I do, like other translators before me, use 5 or 7 stressed syllables per English line (or short stanza) to suggest the way the Chinese line moves.
    Prof. Larsen will lecture on caesurae some other day, perhaps. Meanwhile, I love how people here are really thinking about the FABRIC of poetry. A tuned-in crowd...

  20. Oooh, now THERE'S an image! Sucking in a butterfly and breathing out Anglo-French caterpillars! William Steig would be all over that if he stopped in and read your response, Jeanne. Thank you very much for it, by the way. Now I can really see where the artistry lies in your way of translating---gosh, it's an arduous process. But your caterpillars are lovely.

  21. Silk-worm moths! That's what we need! More silk-worm moths. Think of the web-spinning metaphors there...

  22. I think I'd also pick the one called "Willow Branches"- as one of the few poems that seems to stand on its own in English. Most of the others just feel so inaccessible to me - like a secret, passionate chamber for whose lock I lack the key.

    Often the lines of English are broken as if to indicate the spaces between each chinese character -- and the transitions are so difficult for me -- they feel like words generated by a random-chinese-word generator: sky - pearl - mist etc.

    I wish the publisher had combined the bio - the notes - and the translation all on the same page -- because I usually needed all three to get anywhere -- and I wouldn't mind having even more detailed notes. (like an "Anchor Bible" of Chinese poetry -- that's what I'd
    like to see!)

    Oh -- here's another idea I really liked (it seems so true -- but it never occurred to me before):

    "Once a human heart takes leave, it won't return. Yet months and harvests never fail to arrive in season"

  23. While I didn't feel as you do, I love the description of the secret, passionate chamber without a key...

  24. What a fantastic blog. I certainly hope mine will be half as nice. Audio Book

  25. Why is it that when I go to sleep everyone else wakes up! There's a lot here Marley!

    Willow, Mirror and Moon yes but Wine seems misplaced somehow or perhaps mistranslated.

  26. Robert, how did you end up at this old post? But I'm glad you found it! I must've left that link somehow... because I was looking at this yesterday.

  27. Excellent, what a web site it is! This blog provides helpful facts to us, keep it up.

    Oops, Balrogs ate half your comment! They find business links very tasty...


Alas, I must once again remind large numbers of Chinese salesmen and other worldwide peddlers that if they fall into the Gulf of Spam, they will be eaten by roaming Balrogs. The rest of you, lovers of grace, poetry, and horses (nod to Yeats--you do not have to be fond of horses), feel free to leave fascinating missives and curious arguments.