Spare poems lay bare an old China
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.