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However varied their styles, poets writing in English today still rely on the early-twentieth-century Imagist principles of clarity, directness, presentative imagery and rhythm based on cadences. Although Imagism, revolutionary in its time, gathered force from several classical traditions, Chinese poetry was at the forefront.
Now, Crossing the Yellow River shows anew the vitality of classic Chinese poetry. Sam Hamill's collected translations contains beautiful versions by more than sixty poets, from the Shih Ching, or "Classic of Poetry" (10th century-600 BCE) through the eighth-century masters, Tu Fu, Li Po and Wang Wei, to the sixteenth-century poet Wang Yang-ming.
As W.S. Merwin writes in his elegant introduction, Hamill's translations stand in a long tradition of modern versions of classic Chinese poetry, notably Arthur Waley's 170 Chinese Poems of 1918. Merwin adds: "Sam Hamill's work, like Waley's, represents a lifetime's devotion to the classic originals, which survived in a long, subtle, intricate current."
Earlier than Waley's work, Ezra Pound's slim book Cathay (1915) was a landmark in poetry as well as in translation from the Chinese. Pound's contemporaries valued the tactile images and the musical freedom based on the concurrence of sounds rather than on rhyme and fixed stress counts. Still, his versions were marred by inaccuracies (such as referring to the "River Kiang" as though the river had a name, when actually the word kiang means river). "The Chinese Written Character as a Medium for Poetry," an essay written by Ernest Fenollossa and edited by Pound, introduced a new poetic method in which clusters of images and ideas (similar to what is conveyed in Chinese written characters) would take the place of the old logic and sequence of European poetics.
Following Pound's directness and musical freedom, Hamill returns to form, but in a far more natural way than did Pound's Georgian predecessors. For example, in translating the work of Tu Fu (712-770) Hamill observes the couplet that follows syntactical parallelism, as in "The palace walls will divide us/and clouds will bury the hills" ("Taking Leave of Two Officials"). Rightly the tone supersedes regularity of meter and rhyme, but in his
approximation of original forms he uses assonance, consonance and near-rhyme. (Caveat: I can compare English versions but since I do not read Chinese, I must rely on intuition, as well as the work of scholars elsewhere.)
The poems are radiant. "Taking Leave of a Friend," by Li Po (701-762), reads in its entirety:
Green mountains rise to the north;
white water rolls past the eastern city.
Once it has been uprooted,
the tumbleweed travels forever.
Drifting clouds like a wanderer's mind;
sunset, like the heart of your old friend.
We turn, pause, look back and wave.
Even our ponies look back and whine.
Li Po evokes the torment of emotional ambivalence with startling truth. The first two couplets contain natural images in motion, capturing the wanderer's intention: mountains that rise, water that rolls, tumbleweed that travels. The second set of couplets present images of fixity that also imply mortality. He is compelled to roam and he is attached--as are we all.
Here is the title poem of this collection, "Crossing the Yellow River," by Wang Wei (701-761):
A little boat on the great river
whose waves reach the end of the sky--
suddenly a great city, ten thousand
houses dividing sky from wave.
Between the towns there are
hemp and mulberry trees in the wilds.
Look back on the old country:
wide waters; clouds; and rising mist.
The metaphor, crossing the river, implies boundaries between present and past, change and habit, youth and the sense of aging (the latter prevalent in this anthology). By and large, the poets here attempt not the big emotion, which by itself can be intimidating, but the smaller fissures of that emotion. They deal with innuendoes, with truth relayed as it is in common speech, through bits of information, through sudden juxtapositions, through offhand observations of nature. From T.S. Eliot and Marianne Moore down to the present, this kind of emotional accounting prevails: I think immediately of poems such as Moore's "The Paper Nautilus," Eliot's "Preludes," Philip Levine's "Milkweed" and Karl Kirchwey's "In Transit," among others.
Li Ch'ing-chao (1084-1151), is one of the book's few poets known to be a woman. Hamill notes that she was one of China's greatest and also "one of the most influential critics of her age." "To the Tune: Boat of Stars" brings back to me Ezra Pound's remarkable adaptation of Li Po's "The River Merchant's Wife." Her poem begins:
Spring after spring, I sat before my mirror.
Now I tire of braiding plum buds in my hair.
I've gone another year without you,
shuddering with each letter--
I'm intrigued, too, by the work of an earlier poet, Tzu Yeh (fourth century). Like the speakers of the early Anglo-Saxon poems, such as "Wulf and Eadwacer" and "The Wife's Lament," the personae often are of women, but the author is unknown. The poems are brief, even slight, but their wit leaves room for growth in the reader's mind. Here, for instance, is "A Smile":
In this house without walls on a hill,
the four winds touch our faces.
If they blow open your robe of gauze,
I'll try to hide my smile.
Hamill's revised translation of Lu Chi's Wen Fu: The Art of Writing, a third-century ars poetica, reveals practices that are valuable for our time. More than a handbook, it counsels the mind and the spirit, which are all of a piece with style in Confucian Chinese thought. From Lu Chi's poetic treatise come these important maxims:
As infinite as space, good work
joins earth to heaven
Although each form is different,
each opposes evil:
none grants a writer license.
Language must speak from its essence
to articulate reason:
verbosity indicates lack of virtue.
Some of Lu Chi's injunctions are familiar ground rules:
Only through writing and then revising
may one gain the necessary insight.
Others are subtle but immensely meaningful:
Past and present commingle:
in the single blink of an eye!
Emotion and reason are not two:
every shift in feeling must be read.
The wen of Wen Fu means literary arts. In Confucian China, Hamill tells us, writing was inseparable from morality in that truth meant naming things. The fu is the form, whose syntactic parallelism strikes this listener as having affinities with passages in the Hebrew Bible, notably the Song of Songs.
As in the poetry anthology, Hamill's ease conveys profound ideas and intricate images with simplicity, naturalness and directness. The Wen Fu has appeared in other translations. When I was a teenager trying to write poetry, a family friend gave me for my birthday a desk dictionary and the Bollingen edition of E.R. Hughes's Lu Chi's Wen Fu, AD 302, which includes the document's history as well as a translation. I read it, but not happily, for the writing is ponderous. On the other hand, Hamill's prose is a fresh breeze.
Hamill is founding editor of Copper Canyon Press and a prolific author--the latest and best of his own poetry collections is Gratitude (1998). In "Discovering the Artist Within," he tells a disconcerting but lifting story of how he came to poetry. Orphaned at the age of 2, adopted, later beaten and sexually molested, he grew up to commit unlawful acts. Throughout his difficult early adulthood, though, he held to his literary talent as to a life raft. Among the contemporary poets whose work saved him and his writing were the Beat poets, Gary Snyder and especially Kenneth Rexroth, whose One Hundred Poems From the Chinese Hamill thanks in his new volume. It was from Rexroth he learned the discipline that poetry required. Three years in Japan--two in the Marines and one on a fellowship--added to his expertise as an Asian linguist as well as to his Zen practice.
Devotion aside, these books will endure. Their tone is a combination of zest, generosity and humility. "We are fortunate to live during the greatest time for poetry since the T'ang Dynasty," Hamill writes in his introduction to Crossing the Yellow River, aware that the classic Chinese poems capture the essence of today's practice. His humility is apparent from the last sentence of his introduction, an impassioned stance for our casual age: "I sit at the feet of the great old masters of my tradition not only to be in a position to pass on their many wonderful gifts, but to pay homage while in the very act of nourishing, sustaining and enhancing my own life."
Certainly...get him hanged! Why not? Anything--anything can be done
in this country. --Joseph Conrad, Heart of Darkness
So here we are, barely into the next century, and the indications
couldn't be better. Peace and prosperity rule. Forget World Wars I and
II, the Nazi death camps, the gulag, Hiroshima, even Vietnam. Forget
that whole last benighted century of ours, that charnel house of
darkness in the heart of the West, or the Free World as we called it,
until, ever so recently, the whole world was freed. That's old news. It
was old even before the "short Twentieth Century," which began amid
nationalist cheers in August 1914, ended early as that wall in Berlin
came down. It's hard to believe now that in 1945, after Europe's second
Thirty Years' War, the civilization that had experienced a proud peace,
while dominating two-thirds of the planet, lay in ruins; that it had
become a site of genocide, its cities reduced to rubble, its fields laid
waste, its lands littered with civilian dead, its streets flooded by
refugees: a description that today would be recognizable only of a place
like Kosovo, Chechnya or Sierra Leone.
What a relief, when you think about it; more so if you don't: Mass death,
massacre (every acre of it), the cleansing of civilian populations, the
whole bloody business has finally been handed back to the savages in
countries nobody who counts really gives a damn about anyway. After all
these years, we face a world in which genocide happens in Rwanda or East
Timor, slaughter and mass rape in the cesspool of the Balkans, which
hardly qualifies as Europe anyway, or in African countries like
Congo--and most important of all, they're doing it to one another. Even
when it comes to nuclear matters, the MAD policies of the two
superpowers have been deposited in the ever-fuller dustbin of history
(though most of the weapons linger by the thousands in the same hands),
and the second team, the subs, have been called in. Now, Indians and
Pakistanis have an equal-opportunity chance to Hiroshimate each other
without (at least initially) involving us at all.
We always knew that violence was the natural state of life out there;
that left to their own devices they would dismember one another without
pity. We've more or less washed our hands of mass death, the only
remaining question being: If they slaughter each other for too long (or
too many gruesome images appear on our TVs), do we have a moral
obligation to intervene for their own good?
With history largely relegated to the History Channel and hosannas to
the Greatest Generation, the disconnect between the exterminatory
devastation of 1945 and our postmillennial world of prosperity seems
complete. So it's hard to know whether to respond with a spark of
elation or with pity on discovering that a few intrepid writers--Mark
Cocker, Adam Hochschild, Jonathan Schell and Sven Lindqvist--have begun
an important remapping of the exterminatory landscape of the last
centuries. (As an editor, I should add, I have been associated with
Hochschild and Schell.) Interestingly, none of them are professional
historians; and I hesitate to call them a grouping, for they seem
largely ignorant of one another's work. Yet their solitary efforts have
much in common.
They have taken remarkably complementary journeys into the West's now
largely forgotten colonial past. Considered as a whole, their work
represents a rudimentary act of reconstructive surgery on our collective
near-unconscious. They are attempting to re-suture the history of the
West to that of the Third World--especially to Africa, that continent
where for so long whites knew that "anything" could be done with
impunity, and where much of the horror later to be visited upon Europe
might have been previewed.
Worried by present exterminatory possibilities, each of these writers
has been driven back to stories once told but now largely ignored. Three
of the four returned to a specific figure, a Polish
seaman-turned-novelist who, as a steamboat pilot in the Congo, witnessed
one exterminatory moment in Africa and on the eve of a new century
published a short novel, Heart of Darkness, based on it. Of the
four, only Hochschild has done original historical research. But that,
in a way, is the point. They are not telling us new stories but
reclaiming older ones that have dropped from sight, and so
re-establishing a paper trail on extermination without which our modern
moment conveniently makes no sense.
To watch the pair of house finches
that frequent the neighbor's feeder,
I leave the charcoal blinds pulled up.
The berry-splashed chest of the male--
each morning--makes me pause.
He flits away when full, or troubled
by the cat behind the window pane.
But he's back again within the hour.
Evenings, we owe our different debts
to the woman who fills the feeder tray,
who also chooses open blinds
and wanders room to room, past
the long blue light of the aquarium.
(She caught me watching yesterday.)
The fish, from here, are almost still,
a drifting string of colored lights.
Her boyfriend's echoes of her name
reverberate and scare the cat;
bird seed scatters with the flight
of startled finches. Sunflower seeds,
far from the flower they once composed,
lie like black collapsed stars.
Looking back, the language scribbles.
What's hidden, having been said?
Almost everything? Thrilling to think
There was a secret there somewhere,
A bird singing in the heart's forest.
Two people sitting by a river;
Sunlight, shadow, some pretty trees;
Death dappling in the flowing water;
Beautiful to think about,
Romance inscrutable as music.
Out of the ground, in New Jersey, my mother's
Voice, toneless, wailing--beseeching?
Crying out nothing? A winter vapor,
Out of the urn, rising in the yellow
Air, an ashy smear on the page.
The quiet room floats on the waters,
Buoyed up gently on the daylight;
The branch I can see stirs a little;
Nothing to think about; writing
Is a way of being happy.
What's going to be in this place?
A person entering a room?
Saying something? Signaling?
Writing a formula on a blackboard.
Something not to be understood.
It is always among sleepers we walk.
We walk in their dreams. None of us
Knows what he is as he walks
In the dream of another. Tell me my name
Your tongue is blurred, honeyed with error,
Your sleep's truth murmurs its secret.
Tell me your name. Out at the edge,
Out in the cold, out in the cold
That came into the house in your clothes
The wind's hands hold onto nothing,
Moaning, over the edge of the cliff
The wind babble unintelligible.
By the last few times we saw her it was clear
That things were different. When you tried to help her
Get out of the car or get from the car to the door
Or across the apartment house hall to the elevator
There was a new sense of heaviness
Or of inertia in the body. It wasn't
That she was less willing to be helped to walk
But that the walking itself had become less willing.
Maybe the stupid demogorgon blind
Recalcitrance of body, resentful of the laws
Of mind and spirit, was getting its own back now,
Or maybe a new and subtle, alien,
Intelligence of body was obedient now
To other laws: "Weight is the measure of
The force with which a body is drawn downward
To the center of the earth"; "Inertia is
The tendency of a body to resist
Proceeding to its fate in any way
Other than that determined for itself."
That evening, at the Bromells' apartment, after
She had been carried up through the rational structure
By articulate stages, floor after flashing floor,
And after we helped her get across the hall,
And get across the room to a chair, somehow
We got her seated in a chair that was placed
A little too far away from the nearest table,
At the edge of the abyss, and there she sat,
Exposed, her body the object of our attention--
The heaviness of it, the helpless graceless leg,
The thick stocking, the leg brace, the medical shoe.
. . .
Her smiling made her look as if she had
Just then tasted something delicious, the charm
Her courtesy attributed to her friends.
This decent elegant fellow human being
Was seated in virtue, character, disability,
Behind her the order of the ranged bookshelves,
The windows monitored by Venetian blinds--
"These can be raised or lowered; numerous slats,
Horizontally arranged, and parallel,
Which can be tilted so as to admit
Precisely the desired light or air."
. . .
The books there on the bookshelves told their stories,
Line after line, all of them evenly spaced,
And spaces between the words. You could fall through the spaces.
In one of the books Dr. Johnson told the story:
"In the scale of being, wherever it begins,
Or ends, there are chasms infinitely deep;
Infinite vacuities . . . For surely,
Nothing can so disturb the passions, or
Perplex the intellects of man so much,
As the disruption of this union with
Visible nature, separation from all
That has delighted or engaged him, a change
Not only of the place but of the manner
Of his being, an entrance into a state
Not simply which he knows not, but perhaps
A state he has not faculties to know."
The dinner was delicious, fresh greens, and reds,
And yellows, produce of the season due,
And fish from the nearby sea; and there were also
Ashes to be eaten, and dirt to drink.
Don't be too eager to ask
What the gods have in mind for us,
What will become of you,
What will become of me,
What you can read in the cards,
Or spell out on the Ouija board.
It's better not to know.
Either Jupiter says
This coming winter is not
After all going to be
The last winter you have,
Or else Jupiter says
This winter that's coming soon,
Eating away the cliffs
Along the Tyrrhenian Sea,
Is going to be the final
Winter of all. Be mindful.
Take good care of your household.
The time we have is short.
Cut short your hopes for longer.
Now as I say these words,
Time has already fled
Hold on to the day.
The chair left out in the garden night all winter
Sits waiting for the summer day all night.
The insides of the metal arms are frozen.
Over the house the night sky wheels and turns
All winter long even behind the day.
"I don't want to stay here. I want to stop it."
Was "here" the nursing home? Was it the chair?
The condition she was in? Her life? Life? The body?
. . .
..."Life" seems melodramatic,
Too large and general to fit the case.
But "the chair" seems too small. And "the nursing home"
Too obviously the right answer to be so.
In my reason and health I was outside this world,
Translating her words with a too easy confidence.
But Mary was there, imprisoned in it, sovereign.
The scene changed in the way I experienced it.
It was as if I wasn't in the room
But in the empty lobby of some building.
Mary was in an open elevator,
Old-fashioned, ornate, and beautiful.
The elevator kept moving up and down,
Kept going down to the hell below--when I
Leaned over and looked down then I could see
The suffering and also I could hear
Sounds of the suffering too--then up again
To the hellish heaven above--peering up there
Through the elevator shaft I saw and heard
The transcendental hilarious suffering there.
I heard voices as if there was singing or quarreling.
The Otis elevator never stopped at all.
Mary's body and spirit kept passing back and forth
Before my eyes, vivid, free of the conditions
In terms of which her sympathetic friend,
Standing in the deserted hallway, saw her
Carried up and down in the elevator.
Over and over I saw her going past,
Clinging to the bars, gesticulating,
Frantic, confusingly like a figure of joy.
In the heat of the room on the summer day
Mary, standing now, began to unzip her dress,
With a slowness and persistence that suggested
An indecent purpose, a naked revelation
Of body or soul, embarrassing to a visitor
There at the nursing home on a kind errand.
Perhaps she only wanted to unzip the dress
A little way, because of the summer heat.
But something about it seemed to refuse the suggestion.
There was a concentration and seriousness,
Oblivious of the visitor and his thoughts,
As when she looked so earnestly at the bouquet.
We were in the same room and not in the same room.
I was in the same room. She was in a shirt of fire.
She was out on a plain crossed by steppewinds.
Of No Country I Know: New and Selected Poems and Translations represents a life's work in poetry. The component volumes did not meet with fanfare, yet the work is brilliant with the certainty that comes with contemplation. David Ferry's poems are defined as remarkably by the virtues of theme as by those of style. Plainness grows eloquent as it moves across the subjects of true feeling, from an un-self-pitying awareness that is perhaps more Greek than Roman to a generosity of mind that works in parallel with that awareness. As often as Ferry indulges in classical equability and reserve, this poet of open eye and heart will revert to character sketches full of pathos: These are the moving profiles of unresting souls that haunt Ferry's poetry--aged relatives in homes, the street wanderers in his community and the long-since-changed figures caught with the light draining through them in the sort of old photograph "which, somehow,/Perhaps because of the blankness of the sky,//Looks Russian, foreign, of no country I know." It is not far from any of these subjects to the abyss of non-being: "From this far off you can't hear what they are saying," he writes of one family group, suggesting that the still photo has a sort of speech, hard to catch, and close to that of the demented solitaires who walk his world.
Almost all the guests are under some
kind of enchantment:
Of being poor day after day in the same
Of being witness still to some obscene
Of listening all the time to somebody's
Whispering in the ear things divine or
In the quotidian of unending torment.
("The Guest Ellen at the Supper
for Street People")
Ferry welcomes into his poems a homespun style of deliberation reminiscent of Robert Frost and Randall Jarrell (but more intense than either) as he ponders the layers that mask us from one another. Of the photograph of an aunt subjected to decades of silent distress in an uncouth marriage, the late-born nephew writes that his distance helped him see "Some things she didn't know about yet, or was only/Part way through knowing about, in all the story//Of that future." For aunt and nephew alike, truth needed time to grow; and experience, room to be suffered. One of Ferry's hallmarks is the ample and unblinking attention to pain and to the way we approach and veer off from the nearest hard truth in order to save the precarious self. Photographic illusion is a frequent trope for this work of fragmentation, which the poet explores with a compassionate yet grieving demeanor.
Ferry's diction is so transparent and accurate that we do not balk when great symbols flare out. A boy riding his bike to the drugstore becomes regal, "All-conquering," "his bare//Chest flashing like a shield in the summer air." As a father and son take a placid Sunday walk, a loose page from a newspaper--"a leaf/Fallen from a terrible tree,//The tree of anger,/
Tears, fearfulness"--threatens a world of harm. Nor are we surprised that in the service of livid premonition Ferry requires a syntax almost propositional in its precision: "It wasn't/That she was less willing to be helped to walk/But that the walking itself had become less willing." Minute adjustments in diction have in Ferry an arresting, then reverberating effect: "The scene changed in the way I experienced it." Sliding tissues of meaning create new dimensions, occasionally, from the deft yet non-semantic parting of the lines:
He is without mercy
As he is without the imagination that he is
It is as if every percept were the product of a rigorous tightening of definition just to the side of flat truth. A child in a photograph advancing with her people toward the camera lens seems to come
Streaming out of some hideyhole or
Into the way that that was how I saw
The trees of the kind that grew there establish the place.
We know that way the story of what it was.
("Little Vietnam Futurist Poem")
In presenting anew the war photograph of Vietnamese refugees running toward us, led seemingly by the half-clothed, delicate child who quickens her own plane of existence far to the foreground, "screaming something or other//As if her little mouth was fervently singing," Ferry's gulps of circularity suggest waves of reality resuffered, discarded, then reconfirmed. The poem marks out a terrain of brooding that is only beginning once we reach the last line. "We know that way the story of what it was," says Ferry, as if to insist that we re-establish our old connection to this narrative only as we might find our place in a book that cannot now be closed.
When the poet conjures up an amorphous sylvan scene, to see whether there was a secret he might have missed, all at once the pretty place amid the trees is accompanied by "Death dappling in the flowing water," and a toneless wail belonging to his mother rises up out of the ground like both a burning and a writing--it is
A winter vapor,
Out of the urn, rising in the yellow
Air, an ashy smear on the page.
("Rereading Old Writing")
If, almost as soon as he staggers under horrors, Ferry's speaker moves on, and the frame of being cheers up, and life delights again, reflexively, in itself, still the mildness is shot through with revulsion at the nearness of dread (never very far in Ferry from simplicity, tact, self-knowledge and the selflessness of candor). In another poem he writes of a few flowers near each other in the yard, some of bizarre shape when looked at closely, others ordinary but for being of identical species and variety, yet sporting different intensity of green in the leaf, or white in the blossom:
There is something springlike and free about the littleness,
Oddness, and lightness of this combination of things,
Observed here at the very tag end of summer,
In my good fortune.
Indeed, the phrase with which this verse paragraph ends practically has the feeling of a coolly calm translation from a complex idiom--"in my good fortune"--is this a callow "In my period of surprising luck and health"? Or rather a more grateful, "In my happiness so paradoxical at the very end of summer when the strength in things is giving out"? What's to come, he asks, of all this "Ill-informed staring at little flowers"? And in this suspended state, questions hanging in the air in a state of wistful well-being as they take their places in life, it was as if everything in the garden,
these trees and bushes, the white ash, the sugar-
Maple, the deutzia, the young unflowering pear tree,
Had all suddenly had the same idea,
Of motion and quiet sound and the changing light,
A subtle, brilliant, and a shadowy idea.
("In the Garden")
The poem ends there. Why is it satisfying? What moves it beyond idle listing? Acknowledgment of mortality. And more than this: a chronically surprised and impassioned comprehension of the randomness of rarity as well as risk. I believe that in all of his work, even when the original is in another language, as in his version of Horace's carpe diem ode (which Ferry shows us need not mean seize the day but the more fragile hold on to the day), the poet peers behind a scrim. He sees through veils (like the tongues he translates from and the unpromising, low-frequency prose of dictionary definitions) to uncover the shadow of nonexistence, which makes the living world--the world of moments--tender and valuable.
There is also an eerie sense that Ferry has created his own precursors, so that he helps us read Montale and Horace and the Gilgamesh epic and even the prose of Samuel Johnson as if, all along, a mineral seam of Ferry's had run glinting through them, on an elegiac current. It is often early autumn or late summer in Ferry's work, "The shade full of light" (as he writes in "Courtesy") "without any thickness at all," but about to slip downward to a place where "Stillness and dust are on the door and door bolt," as in the dream of Gilgamesh's friend Enkidu. The perceptual world is often about to speak about its fading--but then, it fades:
The shadows of wings
Print and unprint erratically on the little
Porch roof that I look out on from my window,
As if to keep taking back what has just been said.
("An Autumn Afternoon")
One recognizes the tact of the poet in not saying too much, remaining composed before the experience that is part celebration, part sorrow, part distraction and part rage. In his oeuvre, so perfectly attuned to an unearthly simple witnessing of hardness by goodness, the trace of annihilation is profoundly caustic, as he describes it in the great new poem "That Evening at Dinner":
The dinner was delicious, fresh greens, and reds,
And yellows, produce of the season due,
And fish from the nearby sea; and there were also
Ashes to be eaten, and dirt to drink.
Every fiercely quiet and strangely heroic poem David Ferry has given us casts the light of insight into the valley of this shadow.
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