Friday, April 29, 2016

Chinese Garden octet

a scarlet camellia blossom on a stone,
passing from one form of beauty to the next form—

in this third spring of friendship a turnip cake
split into portions with chopsticks in the tea house—

overlooking the lotus-strewn pond this golden
blossom that isn’t mentioned in the guidebook—

60 Aprils: blue blue iris confusa;
another’s regard: a flower you can’t name—

Jack Hayes
© 2016

Monday, April 25, 2016

at Qutang Gorge meditating on ancient times

at Qutang Gorge meditating on ancient times

southwestward ten thousand gullies flow in;
the strong contender split the two cliffs—

the earth gave way, the mountain split to its base;
Long River arrives from the Cave of the Moon—

pared down to accommodate Baidicheng,
the curve of the void conceals the Sun Terrace—

this act of chiselling: impressive, sublime:
but the power of the Potter’s Wheel is vast! 

Jack Hayes
© 2016
based on Du Fu:
Qú Táng Huái Gŭ

Qutang Gorge is the westernmost of the Three Gorges  (Sānxiá or 三峡) on the great river the Chinese call the Cháng Jiāng (“Long River”), 长江, & westerners refer to as the Yangtze.  The ancient town of Baidicheng (White Emperor Castle) is located at the mouth of the Qutang; the town is of particular interest because it’s the resting place of Liu Bei, the founding emperor of the Shu-Han during the Three Kingdoms period, & a site of worship for both Liu Bei himself & also his renowned chancellor, Zhuge Liang. Du Fu was in particular an admirer of Zhuge Liang, & addressed a number of poems to him.

It’s always impressive how much material the great Chinese poets can weave into a short form. Here Du Fu is meditating on the forces that shaped Qutang Gorge, both the labors of Yu (the "strong contender"), the mostly mythical ruler who tamed the floods & established the legendary Xia Dynasty (circa 2200 BCE).  While there’s no actual historical record of Yu or the Xia until the Western Zhou Dynasty, over a thousand years after the traditional dates for this ruler, he plays a large role in China's mytho-historical narrative.  Yu’s labors are here contrasted with the vastly more impressive effects of cosmic forces, as symbolized by “the Potter’s Wheel” (陶鈞).

The Sun Terrace is a temple located some distance from Qutang Gorge. It's also worth noting that the character translated as "void" (空) has among its many meanings the sense of Buddhist Sunyata & Daoist "emptiness".

As always, deep gratitude to my partner Sheila Graham-Smith for her crucial help with this translation.

Image links to its source on Wiki Commons“View of the Qutang Gorge along the Yangtze River from Baidicheng”: by Tan Wei Liang Byorn who makes it available under the following licenses: the GNU Free Documentation License, Version 1.2 or any later version; & the Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Unported license.

Tuesday, April 19, 2016

spring view

spring view

in a shattered nation mountains & rivers endure;
in the city this spring, trees & grass grow lush—

in keeping with the season, dewy blossoms weep;
regretting their parting, birds seem skittish—

beacon fires have burned for three months running;
a letter from family is worth ten thousand gold—

I worry my hoary head till the hairs grow sparse:
soon there won’t be enough to hold a hairpin

Jack Hayes
© 2016
based on Du Fu:
chūn wàng

Note: This is one of Du Fu’s most famous poems & has been widely translated. The last couplet proved a conundrum for my translating partner Sheila Graham-Smith & myself. In this “final” version, we’ve gone with a conventional reading. All major English translations have to do with the fact that the poet is rubbing/scratching/worrying his head so much his hair is falling out, & it will soon be so thin it won’t hold a hairpin. It was common for Chinese men to do their hair up in a topknot held in place with a hairpin. See illustration.

Sheila however pointed out that the final two lines could mean something like “worrying my white head changes little/these troubled longings couldn’t overcome a hairpin.” Sheila is a talented poet, a fantastic reader of poetry, & someone with an uncanny intuition when it comes to interpreting poetic lines (whether in her own language or in another); her arguments always carry great weight, & while she eschews taking any credit for the translations themselves, this project would never have gotten as far as it has without her dedication & insight.  In fact, the characters certainly could mean exactly that.

Still, at this point at least we’re going with the conventional reading. We called in a fluent Mandarin speaker & scholar on the question, & that person came down—though not decisively—on the conventional side.

In any case, it’s an interesting problem. Classical Chinese is famously ambiguous, & Classical Chinese poetry even more so. The whole question reminds me of translator Stephen Owen’s remark that no one has enough Chinese to really understand Du Fu; & Owen should know: he’s translated the entire opus of the great Chinese poet.

Images links to their sources on Wiki Commons:
1. Tang Dynasty hairpin.
Photo by Wiki user Daderot who makes it available under the following license:
This file is made available under the Creative Commons CC0 1.0 Universal Public Domain Dedication.
The person who associated a work with this deed has dedicated the work to the public domain by waiving all of his or her rights to the work worldwide under copyright law, including all related and neighboring rights, to the extent allowed by law. You can copy, modify, distribute and perform the work, even for commercial purposes, all without asking permission.

2.  12th century illustration of Hanfu. Public domain.

Monday, April 18, 2016

meeting Li Guinian by chance south of the river

meeting Li Guinian by chance south of the river

I sought & found you often in Prince Qi’s residence
& heard you sing how many times in Cui Nine’s hall?

south of the river the landscape appears exquisite:
now as blossoms fall to meet you once more by chance.

Jack Hayes

© 2016
Based on Du Fu:
jiāng nán féng lĭ guī nián


  • Li Guinian was a renowned singer & a leading figure in Emperor Xuanzong’s musical troupe. It’s worth noting that the times Du Fu would have seen Li Guinian at Prince Qi’s residence would have been before the chaos that ensued following the 755 An Lushan rebellion. The poem dates from the last year of Du Fu’s life, 770, when both he & Li Guinian have been displaced to the southern provinces following 15 years of turmoil within the empire; they are now far from the northern Imperial city of Chang'an referred to in the first couplet.
  • Prince Qi was the brother of Emperor Xuanzong & himself a noted patron of the arts
  • An original note from Du Fu: “Cui Nine was Cui Di, Director of the Palace Administration, the younger brother of the Secretariat Director Cui Shi” – this is quoted by Stephen Owen in his complete Du Fu.

Image links to its source on Wiki Commons:
"Branch of Flowering White Jasmine": This album leaf painting of ink and color on silk is attributed to the early 12th century Chinese artist Zhao Chang. 
Public domain

Friday, April 1, 2016

April love song composed in February

this morning’s clouds scattered blushing petals
east, hung suspended as I
        dozed on the couch under white purple
orchids discovered at my doorstep in last week’s drizzle:
the train whistle blew 9 times to the west &
further & further the sound rippled
each time before touching my body—

next time I walk by the swollen river I’ll ask
Canada geese to carry my message north to
your house by another seashore:
        please come someday when
boughs on the avenue float in folds of coral
kwanzan blooms & I will kiss you fully on the mouth
all the kisses I owe till we nap beneath that same
bay window in mid-
morning light spreading white rhododendrons:
you needn’t fly home till the next true west
chrysanthemum moonset

Jack Hayes
© 2015