Saturday, January 16, 2016

clear autumn

clear autumn


at autumn’s peak, my asthma improves:
I can comb my white hair myself

I hate taking medicine, the doses changing;
sweeping up the gloom in the stifling courtard—

on a goosefoot cane, & still more guests pay respects;
they adore the strong bamboo: my son fetches poems

this tenth month the great river runs smooth:
a light boat could carry me anywhere

Jack Hayes
© 2016
based on Du Fu:
qiū qīng

Image links to its source on Wiki Commons:
“Bamboo”: Xu Wei, Ming Dynasty, ink on paper
Public domain

There are two lines in the poem where a subtle meaning would be apparent to a Chinese reader—especially a reader in the Tang Dynasty—but not to an English language reader. First, although Du Fu doesn’t use the character for “bamboo” in line 4, it’s clear that the “gloom” in the courtyard is caused by the obligatory bamboo stand that would be found at any home of a man in his station. The bamboo is not only “gloomy” but “stifling” or “smothering”, a fact contained in a single character, & the latter would be very noticeable to Du Fu, since he suffered from a respiratory ailment.

In line 6, the visitors “adore” the bamboo literally, but just as importantly, there’s a figurative meaning here. There was a cult of bamboo at this time, & it was thought to typify the ideal gentleman—it was strong, upright, & “open-hearted” (often translated as “hollow-hearted”, but I believe that gives the wrong connotation in English. So the visitors adore Du Fu’s own “bamboo”—his gentlemanliness & his resilience in the face of age & illness. Grateful acknowledgement to Sheila Graham-Smith for her research on this topic.

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