“One is startled—by a color, into being,” writes anthologist and translator Wong May as she considers a poem by the Tang Dynasty poet Wang Wei. Nothing happens in the poem, except that the color of moss amazes the poet on a dreary day. Yet, that color becomes a doorway to sudden presence. In her comprehensive new anthology of Tang Dynasty poets, In the Same Light: 200 Poems for Our Century, Wong May has curated an exhibition that surprises, shocks, delights, and confounds the reader into deeper being and a deeper understanding and appreciation of this renowned era of poetry.
Featuring thirty-eight poets, spanning the years 619-927 CE, all in startlingly contemporary translations, the anthology takes the reader on an epic journey through Tang Dynasty China. From some of the poets, we read only one or two poems, from others, dozens. The indispensable afterword is written in a sort of prose poetry itself—nearly one hundred pages long and divided into seventy numbered sections, which are accompanied by drawings of a mystical rhinoceros in the margins who offers impertinent commentary. The afterword acts as an erudite, inventive, and playful guidebook.
For instance, we learn that poetry held pride of place during this golden age in China: “Poetry was street art & signage, posted in remote temples, in taverns, in relay stations . . . recited by court ladies & courtesans, by herdsman, woodcutters, farmhands, collected & copied by friends as keepsakes, traded in the marketplace for tea & wine.” May tells us how in medieval China, the ability to write poetry was used to measure a person’s level of wisdom and insight and, therefore, his fitness for civil service. “In Tang we saw a republic of poetry, the golden age when every office was held by a poet.” Poets were tested in their poetic ability and hired by the courts and Emperor. “A couplet could win you an influential post, an inept word could doom you.” But these influential posts were fleeting, as all too soon, the poets were thrown in jail, exiled without their families, or executed when they fell out of favor or a new ruler came into power. Du Fu tells us:
Good writers are rarely spared.
The demons of this world
Their gargoyle faces
Are made glad
Whenever men of talent hobble.
And so this is a collection of poets who spent most of their lives in exile or secluded in the mountains, often enduring great hardship, though they once held positions of honor. “It was a rare Tang poet who had not known some form of persecution,” Wong May tells us. In the very first poem of the collection Liu Zongyuan, a former officer of the imperial court, hears an ape wailing in the distance, but confesses that he himself has suffered so much he has “no more tears to shed.” May points to the similarities of the brutal age of Tang poetry to our own world—civilization in collapse today, along with the atrocities and “cultural cleansing” we still carry on. “Apocalypse Tang, Apocalypse Now,” she writes.
In the afterword, May shows a deeply nuanced understanding of Tang poetry, and the history and culture surrounding it, as well as the history of world poetry and literature, as she references William Butler Yeats and John Ashbery, Louise Glück and William Shakespeare, Emily Dickinson and Franz Kafka, and even shares the revelation that in Inuit the word for “‘to make poetry’ also means ‘to breathe.’” The reader will learn a tremendous amount about Chinese poetry and China during the Tang Dynasty, but also about poetry throughout the world, the various roles poetry has played, and how it works its magic. May offers an invaluable guide to her process of translation and to these poems. She shines light on the missing context for one who is not a scholar of Chinese poetry, culture, and history, but does so in a style that is engaging and adventurous, taking readers on a wild and far-ranging journey through these poems, and even referencing works by these poets that are not included in the collection. Perhaps she does this to remind us that we are only reading a small fraction of their work. For instance, we are told that from Du Fu alone 1400 poems remain. In his praise on the back of the book, Harry Josephine Giles writes of the afterword: “No mere translator’s note, this capacious essay is historical, critical, comical, personal, structural and mythical by turns.” Indeed it is.
May tells us that a Tang poem may be read like a Japanese rock garden, a bed of raked gravel with a few large stones carefully placed. In each case, austerity, spaciousness, and weight are given to a few words (or stones) or a single image, and the way these play off one another. These poems, like the garden, refuse to explain, and instead merely present what is. They are meant to be savored like sipping tea, and like tea, they deepen with longer steeping. Heavily influenced by Chan (Zen) Buddhism, but also by Confucius and the Dao De Ching, they reveal brief sketches of a single moment in time, inviting the reader not to view the moment from a distance, but to enter in. Liu Zongyuan again:
I have long forgotten what was on my mind.
So what was it
That startled the marshland deer?
Or Jia Dao in “Not Finding the Recluse”:
—So where is the Master?
But the Mountain
Using astute observation—“grief makes one’s ears keen,” the poet Du Fu tells us—and austere, sometimes fragmented language, these poets honor life’s simple gifts, even though they are ill, lonely, disgraced, exiled, and poor. Yet, within the overarching aesthetic of Tang poetry, we see a wide range of moods and styles. Du Fu, who receives more pages in the anthology than any other poet, shows many of these moods himself. Wong May says of Du Fu that he writes “with no design or intent on poetry . . . with equal ease in war & peace; it is whatever he couldn’t help but notice.” He is often melancholy but then will suddenly show a moment of wry humor as in:
Meals from the market came
Quite a way
Have little flavor.
One helping & you won’t want more.
In another poem, he cuttingly condemns the costs of political upheaval and war:
The Western province has long since been
A floating frontier
Our emperor’s thirst for land knows no bounds.
As May tells us, “The workshop of the poets happened to be the killing fields of China’s tumultuous Middle Ages.” We read of overthrown regimes, ruined palaces, deserted towns, and conscripted soldiers. We learn that in Du Fu’s lifetime, the An Lushan Rebellion left “two-thirds of the Chinese population dead or displaced.” Yet, she also tells us that “when the country & all else was disintegrating, there remained for some the integrity of words.” Clearly in love with her subject, May proclaims, “reading Du Fu, who foraged in the wild for ten years during the war, is to learn how poetry enables life.” Wang Wei, another of the poets in the collection, manages to find acceptance and tranquility in his haiku-like poems:
I go where the spirit takes me
Will not strive for beauty
Nor seek other company,
Needs to know.
In the lucidity, spareness, and simple elegance of the lines, devoid of posturing or pretense, the poems in this anthology remind me of late W.S. Merwin. Restraint and understatement are hallmarks here. And though set in a very different time and place than the ones I inhabit, they often feel timeless, even contemporary, in these translations. At the same time, I felt, as I wandered through the collection, very much like a foreigner, clutching my guidebook (the afterword), peering at a culture far removed from my ken. Yes, human life has similarities in all times and places—war, grief, the beauty of spring blossoms, the sound of rain in the night—and these bring the pleasures both of recognition and of seeing anew—but I also felt myself to be an outsider, not versed in the history, not steeped in the landscape and ethos of the times, at a loss to fully appreciate the many nuances of the poems at times. And I couldn’t always follow the odd logic of May’s translations. I felt like a tourist in a museum of great antiquities being led by a strange and wonderful docent, learning and appreciating as I went but also aware of my deficiencies. Nonetheless, there are abundant pleasures to be had on a first reading and more revealed with subsequent readings.
May chooses some surprising words and syntax, is playful with punctuation, and at times is suddenly colloquial in her efforts to bring these poems across to contemporary readers. Lines such as “What is left, / Today’s day messes up my heart, / All day” or “Wild bamboos divvy up the sky’s azure” remind me of the modernizing of Rumi by Coleman Barks or of Hafiz by Daniel Ladinsky. But May is more avant-garde in her approach to these poems. She forgoes entirely the strict formal construction of the originals, which, we learn from the afterword, were always in quatrains or octaves, following a very precise parallel construction. Instead, May’s translations make liberal use of white space, indentation, and unusual punctuation and capitalization, making the poems appear like Chinese ink paintings in the way they spill down the page, yet with a decidedly experimental flair. These are nothing like Witter Bynner’s translations of yore. Compare the first two lines of Bynner’s translation of Li Bai’s “A Farewell to Meng Haoran on his Way to Yangzhou”:
You have left me behind, old friend, at the Yellow Crane Terrace,
On your way to visit Yangzhou in the misty month of flowers;
With Wong May’s translation of the same poem, which she entitles “Seeing Meng Hao Ran Off at Yellow Crane Tower”:
Taking leave of the Yellow Crane Tower
In the month of March
The misty city of
Flowers & willows
A glut of catkins downstream
Li Bai, as translated here, is terse and elliptical. His poem “Autumn Air” ends:
But to see you in the next place
Who knows on what strange day
If we live past this hour this night
The same lines, translated by Mark Alexander read:
We think of each other – when will we meet?
This hour, this night, my feelings are hard.
The profound differences between the written Chinese language of ideograms, which has no punctuation, and the alphabetic language of English necessitate a wide leap from the translator, perhaps a bit like translating a song into sign language. So, one gets the sense that both the more formal translations of Bynner and the contemporary word paintings of Wong May are equally far afield of the experience of reading the originals, and May admits these challenges in the afterword.
The poems here are beguilingly epigrammatic, yet behind that scrim, complexity and audaciousness are revealed. These poets, who have lost so much, pay homage to familiar themes of nature, poetry, friendship, hardship, and the pleasures of drinking in crisp images and unadorned statements, but they eschew melodrama and often obscure the self altogether. It’s as if they were making music with only the five notes of the pentatonic scale, or painting with an intentionally limited palette, allowing the spaces and silences, what is not said, to say as much as what is. As the jazz great Miles Davis once said, “It’s not the notes you play, it’s the notes you don’t play.” Or as Wong May so eloquently puts it, “Between the lines, the words—the unsaid, thick & fast like wool; the unsayable writes itself.” This is poetry of inference, of direct experience from which the reader is left to make meaning or simply to fall into the experience. Wallace Stevens wrote:
I do not know which to prefer,
The beauty of inflections
Or the beauty of innuendos,
The blackbird whistling
Or just after.
Du Fu puts it this way:
The grass in the sun
Is blue-green in spring & splendid.
Well behind the foliage the goldfinch empties himself
Song after song, heart
& soul, waiting on
This is a poetry of deep listening. Hence all the white space in which the things of this world arise and into which they disappear like the sound of a bell echoing through a mountainside. As Li Shangyin writes:
Early evening clang
Yet there are plenty of decidedly human moments as well, as in Meng Jiao’s “Song of the Departing Son,” when a mother sews clothes for her conscripted son, which ends affectingly:
& who says the grass
basking in premium spring
what’s / pulling
its / inch-high / heart
In the end, the pleasures of this collection far outweigh its challenges, and patience pays. Patience is not a quality much favored in contemporary times, but it is a valuable one, and one which these poems and this collection both celebrate and reward.
About the Reviewer
Maxima Kahn is a writer, teacher, and firekeeper who lives in the mountains in Northern California. Her first full-length collection, Fierce Aria, was published by Finishing Line Press in 2020. Her work has been featured in numerous literary journals, including the Louisville Review, Wisconsin Review, Sweet, and many others, and she has twice been nominated for Best of the Net. A former teacher of creative writing at the University of California, Davis Extension, she has taught privately through her own creation, BrilliantPlayground.com, since 2004. She is the recipient of scholarships and fellowships to the Community of Writers and the Vermont Studio Center. She is also an improvisational violinist, an award-winning composer, and a dancer. www.MaximaKahn.com