- 'The Borderland' by Rabindranath Tagore
One by one the lamps on the stage blow out,
The meeting place empties, and a dark stain
Blots out my dream-images like deep sleep,
Hushes my mind like a raised forefinger. The guise
In which I have all along projected myself,
Since the curtain first rose, seems suddenly
Futile. The various marks of my individuality,
Embellished in many colors for the multitude,
Are obliterated; and I look into my depths
And am astonished – as is the boundless sky
When at the close of the day, at sunset’s obsequies,
It gazes at earth’s darkling landscapes and is awed
By the luminous self-projection of its stars.
- Some poems by Wang Wei
This poem is by Saigyo, the Japanese medieval poet extraordinaire:
shibashi tate koso
Next to a quietly flowing stream
In the willow’s shade.
I said, ‘Just a while’
Stopping, standing there
These short poems by Wang Wei, the Buddha Poet of the Chinese Tang Dynasty. They contain veiled references to Buddhist ideas, such as sunyata – the essential ‘emptiness’, or non-substantiality when not viewed through the prism of human conceptualization of reality. They are essentially symbolic meditations on the nature of reality. I have tried to keep parallelism between couplets when I think it may be important.
In the Mountain – Wang Wei
In Bramble Stream, white stones jut out
Cold weather; red leaves are sparse
The Mountain road, originally, has Nothing of Rain
The Sky’s greenery wets My Robe
Alone I sit, amidst a dark bamboo grove.
I strum the lute and make another long whistle
This Deep Forest, which no man can Know
The Bright Moon comes, and together we Shine.
Empty mountain, No Sight Of Man
But one can hear Men’s Chattering Sounds
Returning Shadows enter the deep forest
Returning again to Shine upon the green moss.
My interpretation: Even in a secluded place, the ‘men’s voices’ return, you cannot run from the cares of the world. Like the moss, upon which the sun returns to shine every day and the shadows obscure, a person’s mind lies in the coordinates of reality to where it has been conditioned and must suffer the cares and voices which it has been conditioned to hear
Taiyi Peak approaches the capital
Mountains linking till the edge of the sea
The white clouds, glancing back - meeting
A green haze, entering and looking – nothing
The divided lands round Middle peak, changing
Shade and shine on all the valleys, changing
Wishing for a place where one might stay
Across the river, call for the woodsman.
Villa at the Foot of Mount Chungnan – Wang Wei
Middle years: one with the Way
Late years: a home in the Southern mountainside
I go off often on solitary walks.
These scenes, known only to me.
Walking to the source of the stream,
Sitting, watching the clouds rise up
Sometimes a meeting with an old woodsman
We talk, laugh not knowing when to return.
- River Song, Night in the Tower
by Li Bai
Magnolia oars; a spice-wood sea boat
Jade flutes and gold pipes; from end to end
Gorgeous wine in bottles, a thousand pecks
Carrying dancing-girls; following waves: going, staying…
The Immortal Man waits to Ride the Yellow Crane
A Sea Traveller’s absent mind Follows White Seagulls
Ch’u P’ing’s Poetry hangs on the Sun and Moon
Ch’u King Terrace turned to empty Mountains and Hills
Impulse and intoxication make fall my pen, shaking the Five Peaks
Poem done, laughing proud, rising above the Hermit Land of Blue Coves
Gain, Fame, Wealth, Nobility – if long lasted so
The Han River would still to the Northwest flow.
I have put this poem into the shape of a ship, as much as possible because I have a feeling that Chinese poems about towers and ships and such are using the congruence between the rectangular shape of the poem itself and the rectangular shape of the place of the poet’s standpoint or perspective as a device to play with spatiality. Although the poet is in a boat, a single perspective, his mind floats all over. It drifts freely from place to place, from time to time in a way that suggests the illusory nature of our concept of time and space – a framework which is imposed on raw reality by our mind. The gap between imagination, myth and physical reality is also done away with. The poet’s imagination has the power to make mountains tremble.
The last two lines seem to both deny and celebrate human cares and ambitions. They are merely orientations we use in the world, as is Northwest – but we are still carried along by them. If we must be carried along by them and by the never-ending stream of thoughts and visions, surely we should do so, not by relinquishing – retiring to be with the hermits of Blue Cove – but by embracing the energies of the world in an unattached, celebratory way.
Night In The Tower by Du Fu
The year’s dusk, forces of Ying and Yang hurry in the short days
At the sky’s edge, frost and snow make clear the cold night
Fifth Watch: Drums and Horns Sound a Disheartening Valor
AtThree Gorges, the Riverof Stars’s Shadow Moves, Trembles
TheWildsWeep- from a ThousandHomes,Hearing War andConflict
Barbarian Songs – from Various Places Rise Fishermen and Woodcutters
General Leaping Dragon, Lord Leaping Horse ended up as yellow dust.
Human affairs, messages and letters: O, let silence…
Here the forces of nature are compared to the forces which guide human affairs and ambitions. Cosmic forces, Ying and Yang, guide two armies to oppose one another, just as leads the poet to be moved to awe by the sight of the Milky Way, just as the sun causes men to rise from their beds. The natural world and the forces of ‘civilized society’ are represented by a series of parallelisms in the middle couplets, chosen to have many possible interpretations in the original.
At the conclusion, it is as though although the poet understands the inexorability of these forces and that all things must pass, but he is sometimes led by the cruelties of war to wish for silence, wish for the whole damn dance to cease completely.
- The Brocade Zither
The Brocade Zither
by Li Shangyin
The 50-stringed zither has a sound too baffling to comprehend and this
Has no reason.
For each string, a bridge, each bridge, a resonance
– ah! How I long for the flowering years.
Master Zhuangzhi loses himself in dawn dreams, dreaming that he is a butterfly, awaking to think he still is –
The Wang Emperor who, out of shame, entrusts his spring heart to the cuckoo bird.
Pearls, waxing and waning with the moon, are the tears of the sea people
And the warmth of the sun makes smoke rise from Indigo Fields of Jade.
And, like that smoke, these landscapes,
This feeling: you can wait for it to become memory
Only, at that time, it was already bewildering.
This is a very liberal translation of one of my favorite poems by Li Shangyin (813-58). I’ve added quite a few things to clarify the poem though of course, through clarifying, I add my own interpretation. The problem with more literal translations is I think that that, outside of its cultural context, the poem is too obscure. For example, in the original it says only ‘the Zhuangzhi scholar lost in dawn dreams butterfly.’ The poet would have assumed that his readers would know that this refers to they myth of Zhuangzhi dreaming he is a butterfly so vividly that he awoke to wonder if he still was. Most people reading an English translation will not, so I think it is fair to put in additions like these to elucidate the myths that are alluded to.
The use of Chinese myths and the nature of Chinese poetry writing (which does require temporal indicators in its grammar) causes an additional level of de-centralizing, a play of time, between the present of the poet perceiver and the timeless realm of myth which I have tried to re-create in the translation by interpolating ‘when’ and playing around with tense. More than anything however, this is to try to re-create some of the playfulness of the original.
The final imagery of the smoke, readers would very likely have associated with a comment by Dai Shulun (732-89) who said that scenes of poetry are like the mist that rises from the fine jade of Lantian (Indigo Fields) in the warmth of the sun – they can be gazed from afar but cannot be placed immediately before the eyes. I think that without putting something between this image and the final couplet it is too abstruse so I added ‘and, like that smoke, these landscapes’.
The central theme of the poem appears to be transcendence and transition, of nothing being solid or fixed or quite how it seems, least of all thoughts themselves. The idea of the 50-stringed zither – as well as making a comment on the baffling complexity of existence itself – seems to me probably to relate to the idea, salient in the strongly Buddhist cultural consciousness of Tang, that one consequence leads on inevitably to another (called Dependent Origination in Buddhist thought). Life, our minds, consciousness has too many strings and before we can understand the sounds of one resonance, it has already led onto another, a new thought or sensations, all of which, like the myths in this poem have a transcendental quality – they are neither quite this nor quite that, they slip away always from the strictures of our conceptual grasp. I’ve added ‘each bridge, a resonance’ to clarify the link between the zither sounds and the myths that they engender.
Now Mostly Enjoying:
Chogyam Trungpa. The bad boy of Tibetan Buddhism, provides a new perspective perhaps, particularly for those accustomed to learning that the Spiritual Warrior is a defilement-warrior.
Zizek. Makes philosophy challenging but also quite fun.