Tuesday, October 4, 2016

autumn meditation #1

autumn meditation #1

jade dew withers & maims the maple forest;
on Wu Mountain, in Wu Gorge, the air’s bleak & gloomy—

on the river, waves surge to meet the sky;
above the border pass, wind-blown clouds overshadow the earth—

chrysanthemums twice have brought on tears for the past;
a lonely boat the one link to my heart’s homeland—

reminders everywhere: winter clothes cut & measured;
over Baidicheng, twilight song of pounding stones

Jack Hayes
© 2016
based on Du Fu:
秋興八首 (一)
qiū xìng bā shŏu (yī)

Over the next several weeks we’ll be posting our English language versions of Du Fu’s秋興, qiū xìng, or “autumn meditations” series. From a certain perspective, translation is always an impossible endeavor, & translating a poet as great as Du Fu should always be approached with humility. This is even more true when translating a major work like the 秋興, qiū xìng. I do hope our humble versions inspire readers to seek out other versions & also learn more about this truly remarkable poet.

The “meditations” are dense & packed with meaning & allusion, & so notes will be important.  The series was composed in 766 while Du Fu had settled in Kuizhou, specifically in Baidicheng (literally “White Emperor City”) in what is now Chongqing. Du Fu had again moved south after further turmoil in Chengdu forced him to leave behind his “thatched cottage” there, & he spent two years in Baidicheng on the Yangzi, & near Qutang Gorge. During his sojourn in this area, Du Fu wrote around 400 poems, including many of his most notable works.

This is the “Three Gorges” region of the Yangzi, & Wu Gorge, mentioned in the first line, is to the east. It’s also referred to as the Great Gorge, & is the middle of the three. Wu Mountain is north of Wu Gorge. Also in the first line: “jade dew” is a common trope for autumn.

The fourth couplet is of particular interest: based our Sheila’s research, in our reading the preparations for winter are serving to underline Du Fu’s homesickness, already raised in the third couplet. The sound of mallets striking cloth laid out on the pounding blocks was also a trope in Classical Chinese poetry. It typically evokes the melancholy feeling of autumn, as it’s an activity linked to that season. In addition, it can evoke feelings of longing for a spouse who’s absent; for a male poet, it can bring up the idea of a lost domesticity, while for a female poet (or a female speaker written by a male poet) it can bring up feelings of longing for a husband who’s far away, especially one who’s serving as a soldier. In fact, both Du Fu & Li Bai wrote poems in the voice of a woman engaged in clothes pounding while yearning for her husband who’s away in the army, serving in the border passes.

As always, I’m indebted to Sheila for her research & editorial work. We are both indebted to the notes & writings of Burton Watson, Stephen Owen, & William Hung—to name three of the most prominent Du Fu translators—as well as to Tu Fu's "Autumn Meditations": An Exercise in Linguistic Criticism: Tsu-lin Mei & Yu-kung Kao. Harvard Journal of Asiatic Studies, Vol. 28 (1968), pp. 44-80.

Image links to its source on Wiki Commons:Court Ladies Preparing Newly Woven Silk: Cropped from a Song dynasty painting attributed to Emperor Huizong in the style of Tang dynasty painter Zhang Xuan. Between 1100 and 1133. Indian ink and color on silk
Public domain

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