Friday, December 22, 2017

Three Poems for Chang’e


on the candlelit mica screen, a distant shadow;
Heaven's River ebbs slowly, the morning star sinks low—

Chang’e must regret stealing the elixir of life:
blue of sea, blue of sky, her dark heart, night after night

translation © Jack Hayes 2017
based on Li Shangyin: 嫦娥

Mid-Autumn Moon

insects hidden under grass, frost atop the leaves;
a vermilion balcony presses against the bright lake—

the Rabbit chilled, the Toad cold, the Cassia blossoms white:
this night must be gut-wrenching for Chang’e

based on Li Shangyin: 月夕
yuè xī

Frost Moon

once expeditionary geese are heard, cicadas fall silent;
the hundred-foot tower connects river and sky—

Blue Maiden and White Lady both can endure cold;
in the moon, within frost, they compete in beauty

based on Li Shangyin:  霜月
shuāng yuè 

This set of translations would be more appropriate for the Mid Autumn Festival, Zhōngqiū Jié, which is the full moon closest to the Autumn Equinox. But rather wait until next September, I’m posting them now.

We have no way of knowing whether Li Shangyin intended these poems as a complementary set or as distinct & individual compositions. James JY Liu in his seminal work on the poet, The Poetry of Li Shang-yin: Ninth-Century Baroque Chinese Poet, does place the poems together & discuss them as a group. Poet David Young also places the poems together under the title “Three for the Goddess of the Moon” in his Five T'ang Poets. Since Young is a poet & not a Sinologist, I assume in grouping the poems together he is following Liu either directly or at second or third hand.

For more information on the Chang’e myth, see the Wikipedia page. Briefly, Chang’e stole the elixir of immortality & flew to the moon, where she lives with a rabbit (or hare) who pounds herbs into the elixir of immortality with a mortar & pestle & a three-legged toad. There is also a cassia tree on the moon in this myth. Chang’e is the “White Lady” mentioned in the third poem (素娥, sù é), while the Blue Maiden (青女, qīng nŭ) is Qing Nu, the Goddess of Frost & Winter.

As is the case with almost all the Chinese translations, grateful acknowledgment is due to Sheila Graham-Smith, who did a marvelous job of elucidating the first line of the first poem.

Image links to it source on Wiki Commons:
Chang'e flees to the moon: from Yoshitoshi’s 100 Aspects of the Moon. (1885-1892)
Public domain.

Monday, December 18, 2017

In the Classical Style

In the Classical Style

this lifetime passes, a wandering guest;
this death, like someone who returns home—

an upstream journey between earth and heaven,
then the grief of dust across ten thousand years—

the moon rabbit grinds the elixir in vain,
the tree of life already turns to kindling—

white bones lie desolate, without voice,
while dark pines rejoice, sensing springtime—

ahead there’s sighing, behind there’s sighing too:
this glory of a brief day, what’s it worth

translation © Jack Hayes 2017
based on Li Bai: 拟古
nĭ gŭ

This poem has been titled “Old Dust” in other English translations, though that isn’t the meaning of the characters passed down in Chinese tradition as a title: 拟古. It’s worth noting in this context that Li Bai has a series of fifty poems titled古風 (gŭ fēng), which might be translated as “Antiquity”, or “Ancient Airs” or “After the Classics” or some similar phrase. Victor Mair has translated the whole sequence in his excellent Four Introspective Poets, & Paula Varsano has translated a number of the poems in her study, Tracking the Banished Immortal: The Poetry of Li Bo and Its Critical Reception. My sense is that Li Bai in this poem is also deliberately looking back to his classical predecessors.

Image links to its source on Wiki Commons:
Sunset at Mt Tai in Shandong province, China, January 2005. Photo by Wiki Commons user Pfctdayelise, who makes the image available under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.5 Generic, 2.0Generic & 1.0 Generic licenses.

Friday, December 15, 2017



in the fourth watch the mountains spew up the moon,
in night’s remains, waters illuminate the tower—

in essence, a dusty case revealing a mirror,
curtains raising themselves in gusts to the topmost hook—

the Rabbit ought to ponder my crane-white hair,
but the Toad only longs for my sable coat—

I mull over the Widow Lady Chang-E,
how she bears the chill of the ninth month

translation © Jack Hayes 2017
based on Du Fu:

Chang-E is the Moon Goddess, & her companions are the Jade Rabbit (or Hare), who pounds herbs into the elixir of immortality, as well as a Toad, often depicted with three legs. Chang-E pilfered the herbs of immortality from her husband, the mythical archer Yi, & flew to the moon. In poetry, she is often a figure for loneliness.

Image links to its source on Wiki Commons:
Tang dynasty (618-906) bronze mirror with moon goddess and rabbit design. Photo by Wiki user Hiart [link provided on Common is empty], who publishes it under the following license: This file is made available under the Creative Commons CC0 1.0 Universal Public Domain Dedication.

Tuesday, December 5, 2017

The Locomotive

is no bigger than my thumb,
a tree’s straight-grained
fragment milled to a shape
implying dynamics,
but parked on the bookshelf
it doesn't budge an inch,
except as we all do in earth’s
thousand mile per hour spin—

the locomotive’s out of proportion
with the globe’s caravels
sailing two-dimensional seas;
the wall clock above,
with scalloped blossom edge, forms
a sort of compass rose,
& the ballast of books below—
                                             there’s not enough time to

read everything & still set foot on
a sailing ship bound for purple
mists on the horizon between Yachats &
Ise Jingu when the wind blows
from the west in summer filled with
invisible kanji & the steps of
Basho in the snow as he lost himself in
eternity beside sun & moon—

Asian pears in a bowl in the
kitchen; I could fetch one here
but I’m typing instead in syncopation
with the clock, thinking about painting
these walls light green perhaps;
the Anglo-Saxon grammar
on the bottom shelf & the crow
outside the window discuss winter—

beyond the carved

boxwood Guanyin on

the sill green


lean in to listen

Jack Hayes 
© 2017