Spare po­ems lay bare an old China

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books -

THIS pub­li­ca­tion of the late po­ems of the fa­mous and pro­lific poet Lu You ( 1125- 1210) is a poignant event for sev­eral rea­sons. It is an­other book by a trans­la­tor whom Amer­i­can poet and trans­la­tor Gary Sny­der de­scribed as ‘‘ the finest, most con­sis­tent, most gen­er­ous trans­la­tor of Chi­nese lit­er­a­ture’’ of the 20th cen­tury.

In­deed, Bur­ton Wat­son is still go­ing so strong that last year Columbia Univer­sity Press put out his ver­sion of Confucius’s Analects , adding to the list of philo­soph­i­cal, his­tor­i­cal and re­li­gious works he has been trans­lat­ing since the 1950s.

The Old Man Who Does As He Pleases , the en­dear­ing pen- name of Lu You, is also a book that Wat­son put out 25 years ago. In that edi­tion Wat­son in­cluded the two types of poem for which Lu You was most pop­u­lar: the fer­vent pa­tri­otic ones fu­elled by the in­va­sion from Manchuria and the po­ems from rural life, the qui­eter ones writ­ten af­ter events or re­tire­ment had put him out of of­fice as a pub­lic of­fi­cial.

In this book we have only the lat­ter or, more par­tic­u­larly, po­ems writ­ten when Lu You was about 80, the same age as his trans­la­tor.

The vol­ume is, then, dou­bly ven­er­a­ble, which ac­counts, I think, for its brac­ing psy­cho­log­i­cal at­mos­phere. Th­ese are po­ems that are serenely wry, beau­ti­fully poised with re­gard to the time and place they are in, at once ca­su­ally earthy and emo­tion­ally re­fined. Ed­ward Said has writ­ten about late style. This book is late style- less­ness that runs deep.

I am speak­ing of the po­ems as works in English, as I do not read Chi­nese. In English, the stamp of Wat­son as a trans­la­tor is lean­ness, con­crete con­ci­sion. He is in key with a tra­di­tion of mod­ern Amer­i­can po­etry that has, since Ezra Pound, grooved on the Chi­nese man­ner with re­gard to im­age and eco­nom­i­cal ut­ter­ance.

But there is more to it than that in this book. Wat­son works with­out or­na­ment. His trans­la­tions con­vey a sense of one bony, clear mind hav­ing en­gaged with an­other, of­fer­ing

In many po­ems you get this kind of epiphany, the sense of an old man sharply aware of his body and its sea­sons. The art is to con­vey a qual­ity of at­ten­tive­ness, whether it is to the ‘‘ pat­ter pat­ter’’ of blos­soms of the pagoda tree or the gourd that holds wine (‘‘ with you, gourd, I share my evening’’). The po­ems at­tend, also, to the events of dis­tant and re­cent past: there is a poem about meet­ing his first wife, an­other about the em­peror who founded the Han dy­nasty; and there is the poem about dis­pens­ing medicine to peo­ple in his dis­trict. Ca­su­ally, know­ingly, mod­estly he lives out his days ‘‘ shoo­ing in the pigs and chick­ens/ be­fore dark­ness falls’’.

To com­ple­ment the scenes that spring out of the po­ems, Wat­son has in­cluded parts of Lu You’s mar­vel­lously vivid diary of 1169 when, as a vig­or­ous young of­fi­cial of the prov­ince, he trav­elled from the South­ern Song cap­i­tal of Hangzhou along the Grand Canal, where the boats were ‘‘ as thick as teeth in combs’’. On a hot day his boat pulls up be­fore the Tem­ple of Orig­i­nal En­light­en­ment, where there is a huge lo­tus pond with count­less tur­tles. ‘‘ When they hear peo­ple talk­ing they all come flock­ing around, stick­ing their necks up and peer­ing at you. The boys tried to frighten them, but they wouldn’t be driven off.’’

A ‘‘ whole scene’’, Lu You might ob­serve, ‘‘ looks like a paint­ing’’. But it’s the real life — fish­ing and fish­er­men, the har­vest­ing and brew­ing of tea, river- cross­ing meth­ods, river­boat be­hav­iour — that is the thing, apart, of course, from the pil­grim­ages to the shrines for other po­ets such as Li Bo. Then they come to the Yangtze River and head up into the gorges: past

the Taoist tem­ples, the God­dess of Shaman Moun­tain and the fear­ful priests whose flutes and strings make mon­keys wail all night. The two sides of the gorge soar up into the sky, their faces as smooth as though they were cut with a knife. Over­head, the sky looks like a strip of glossy silk. The wa­ter has fallen and even in the gorge is as smooth as oil in a cruet. We passed Holy Ma­tron Spring. It is sit­u­ated in a cleft on the top of the rock. If a per­son stands be­side it and gives a loud shout, the wa­ter spurts out, and if he gives a num­ber of shouts, it spurts out a num­ber of times — very strange. ‘‘ Such a boat trip up the river is no longer pos­si­ble,’’ Wat­son notes, ‘‘ be­cause of the dam that has been re­cently con­structed in the gorges.’’ If you want a taste of the old China as the me­dia soften us up for the Bei­jing Olympics, get this book. Barry Hill, whose most re­cent book is As We Draw Our­selves, is po­etry ed­i­tor of The Aus­tralian.

Il­lus­tra­tion: Dave Fol­lett

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